To all of you Chipotle diehards: You really need to get out more. There are plenty of other tacos around town too, and some are even better than that fast-food place poised to take over the universe. So while many local places can crank out basic tacos — that combination of lightly spiced ground beef (or possibly chicken or pork), a little cheese, some shredded lettuce, and maybe a sprinkle of diced tomatoes in a soft-or-crunchy, corn-or-flour tortilla — there are some standouts in our universe.
The Cut-Above Taco
At Bandito's, the pork and chicken are both pulled and lightly spiced, with cheese, lettuce and tomato on top. Best are the marinated steak tacos, though, with a special zing not found in the other versions. All come with a decent salsa and plenty of runny sour cream. These are the prototypical restaurant tacos and are a consistently safe bet for a Mexican dinner.
Bandito's Burrito Lounge
2905 Patterson Ave.
Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m.-2 a.m.
The Uneven Tacos
With three choices, one of which is uniformly excellent, it makes me wonder why the other two are so boring. The ground beef taco at Nacho Mama's is exuberantly spiced and bangs out the flavor, but both the chicken and the pulled pork tacos are bland and forgettable. The pork is better than the chicken and seems to have been in the general vicinity of the spicing process, but the poor, poor chicken must have been late that day and so received none at all.
3449 W. Cary St.
Monday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
The Tex-Mex Taco
Wonderful smells emanate from Chicken Fiesta, and it's difficult to order tacos when a brace of golden rotisserie chickens revolves slowly in front of you. I soldiered on, however, and was thrilled that I did. Here are tacos sparking with heat and more than a nodding acquaintance with cilantro. A squeeze of lime sharpens the flavor and a scatter of roasted yucca surprises, making the beef, chicken and pork choices all equally good. Extra credit: An excellent side of beans with chunks of pork bulking up the flavor. These beans don't know the meaning of refried.
7748 Midlothian Turnpike
Monday-Thursday: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
The Old Favorite Taco
It's a cumin extravaganza in a corn tortilla when you order the chicken taco at CafAc OlAc. The steak (exceptionally tender) and the beef (braised, not ground) with cheddar, tomato and chopped green lettuce are also good, but the chicken hits a 10 out of 10 on the taco scale. I didn't originally include fish tacos in any of my taste tests, but I tried one out here anyway — blackened spicy and sweet, with a healthy scatter of chopped lettuce and red cabbage — and scarfed it down, regret-free. They tell me the quesadillas are the best thing here but I can't imagine anything better for lunch than that taco.
2 N. Sixth St.
Monday-Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
The Asterisk Taco
Unfortunately, this taco was a special at ACaliente!, but one can only hope the managers consider putting it on their regular menu. I expected a jerk chicken taco to jar me, but it had a vinegary heat and the tender pulled chicken was unexpectedly delicious with its incongruous spices. What made it absolutely great, however, was the spicy-hot mango-pineapple salsa. I would take a pint home with me and eat it with a spoon and a big glass of water if only they would let me. I guess they're just saving me from myself.
2922 Park Ave.
Monday-Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-close; Saturday: 5 p.m.-close
The Too-Close-to-Call Taco
It's impossible to decide whether La Milpa on South Side serves the best taco or whether Nate and his taco truck at Virginia Commonwealth University (and the Forest Hill Farmer's Market on Saturdays) produces a better one. Nate's are all soft tacos and there are interesting differences between the chicken, beef and pork choices. The chicken has a more pronounced oregano flavor, and the beef is fuller flavored with more chili, but more subtle than the pork. The pork itself, the winner of its own menu-limited competition, is deeply, fragrantly spiced with chili and smoke, dripping lovely juices with every bite. Cheese, sour cream, salsa and chopped lettuce round out the perfect lunch.
Over at La Milpa, tacos are served open-faced with just a sprinkle of cilantro and raw onion. Six salsa choices are available at the little salsa bar, ranging from red to orange and dark to light green. The tacos de carne azada (grilled steak) are tender, mild chunks full of unadorned beefy flavor. The chicken is good too, but my favorite is the tacos al pastor (marinated pork). Slices from a huge, reddish pillar of pork, similar to what you might see in a gyro shop, are chopped and then fried from tender to crispy. Add a little of the smoky, deep-red salsa, and you have a taco worth driving from Mexico for. Aren't you glad you only have to cross a river?
6925 Hull Street Road
Monday-Saturday, open 24 hours.
Nate's Taco Truck
twitter.com/NatesTacoTruck (Twitter updates on locations and hours).