A person could eat tacos daily for years and not make a dent in the infinite abundance of Mexican food in Orange County.
Unfortunately, my schedule prohibits me from consuming an all-tacos, all-the-time diet, so I end up eating Mexican food merely once or twice a week. Sometimes I return to an old standby, but mostly I set out each week to discover something new, or at least new to me.
Readers frequently send me notes about tacos they think I should try, many of which I follow up on, and some of which end up on this list. Others don’t pan out, but I’m happy to scratch them off my list.
Tacos are highly subjective and personal, and one person’s ideal is always grounds for debate. Nothing brings out the Internet trolls faster and more furiously than not recommending their favorite.
My quest for the ultimate taco continues. This year I’m not including any trucks or places that otherwise don’t provide a comfortable place to sit – at a proper table, with at the very least a covered awning – where I can enjoy the tacos while they’re still hot. This list will forever be a work in progress, but for now, these are the tacos I crave the most.
I don’t know that any other restaurant will ever produce better carnitas than Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange.
You can smell the pork slowly simmering in its own fat the moment you enter this small restaurant on Tustin Street.
If you come at the height of lunchtime, you will most certainly have to wait your turn for a table, but it’ll be worth it.
If I had to pick a favorite category of tacos, I would probably choose al pastor, which is spicy barbecued pork that is best, I believe, when sliced from a slowly rotating spit and then finished on the flattop grill, the way it’s done at Taqueria Tapatia #2 in Santa Ana or at Tacos Sinaloa II in Orange.
But there are different camps when it comes to al pastor. Some people prefer the chop-and-marinate method, which results in a wetter, sloppier but sometimes equally satisfying barbecue, such as the tacos at Taqueria el Zamorano in Santa Ana.
And of course there’s that eternal debate about pineapple. Tapatia and Sinaloa say no while Zamorano says yes, emphatically. It’s hard to argue with either, as long as the pork itself is spicy and tender and caramelized to a slight crunch around the edges.
BARBACOA DE RES
When it comes to slow-roasted, sultry, heady and intensely fragrant beef barbacoa, I don’t think it gets any better than Roman’s Taqueria in Costa Mesa. The meat is cooked for hours in chili sauce and spices until it turns almost black, smoky and ethereally tender.
Taqueria Zamora in Santa Ana makes a chicken diablo taco that is already so spicy there’s no need for additional heat.
But then again, as long as you’re ordering the spiciest taco on the menu, you probably don’t have anything against chilies. And in that case, their green habanero salsa is incredible.
You’ll need a bucket of beer to cool things down.
Although easily the most popular of all taco fillings, I think carne asada is also the hardest one to get right. More often than not, the beef is either tough and chewy or just downright bland. But when it’s good, it’s really good, such as the richly seasoned meat at El Campeon in San Juan Capistrano, which also happens to be a butcher shop, or at Tacos y Birria El Güero in Santa Ana, which is home to an incredible salsa negra.
Beef tongue can be tricky. If it’s undercooked, it feels like I’m chewing on my own tongue. If it’s overcooked, the muscle becomes overly soft and mushy, like baby food. But when you find that perfect balance that results in velvety, tender meat with rich beefy flavor, it can easily trump carne asada. Buena Vista Market in Dana Point does lengua right every time.
Admittedly, seafood isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I’m craving a taco, but when I’m standing in line at Taqueria el Zamorano in Santa Ana, and I see everyone else’s shrimp tacos piling up in the window, I almost always change my mind and split my order into half carnitas, half shrimp. The shrimp are big and plump and deep-fried in a light, crisp beer batter then topped with shredded cabbage and drizzled with a sauce that reminds me of Thousand Island dressing.
Meanwhile, a lot of people swear by the fish tacos at Los Cotijas Taco Shop, but what I like even better at their Garden Grove location are the ceviche tostadas, which are always fresh and refreshing. Just make sure to ask for a bottle of that special arbol salsa they keep hidden in the kitchen fridge and provide only upon request.
I’ve noticed a few more taquerias getting into steamed tacos lately, but there is still no one doing this style of Mexico City taco better than Tito’s La Especial (I prefer the Harbor Boulevard location). I hear the vegetarian tacos are great, but it’s their shredded beef that keeps me coming back. The slow-cooked meat is succulent and tender and deeply soulful and would be excellent served as a regular taco.
But take it a step further and steam the whole concoction until the tortillas have absorbed the meat’s savory juices, then top it with shredded lettuce and jalapeños to get one of the best tacos you will ever eat.
Best tacos 2015
Carnitas Los Reyes
273 S. Tustin St., Orange
Buena Vista Market
34065 La Plaza, Dana Point
31921 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Los Cotijas Taco Shop
11951 Euclid St., Garden Grove
2400 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa
Tito’s La Especial
701 N. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana
Tacos y Birria el Güero
2330 W. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana
Tacos Sinaloa II
331 N. Tustin St., Orange
Taqueria Tapatia #2
1118 W. First St., Santa Ana
3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana
Taqueria el Zamorano
925 W. Warner Ave., Santa Ana
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.