If the perfect taco does exist, it’s not here in the Queen City.
That’s because the unsurpassable version must contain three essential ingredients: fresh, handmade tortillas; flawlessly seasoned and cooked meat; and truly superlative salsa. No single restaurant in Charlotte can lay claim to being the best at making all three.
That’s according to Zhenia Martinez, whose family founded the iconic Las Delicias bakery. There’s no denying that our city is home to some solid Mexican eateries but I wanted to know more about the nuances that distinguish a good taco from a great one. So Martinez took me on a taco tour of her favorite spots and educated me.
The first stop was Tacos el Nevado, a small storefront on Central Avenue. It’s a bright room with colorful décor but that’s not really important. Here it’s all about the fresh corn tortillas, warm and pliable, that are made when you place your order. “It should always be soft,” Martinez said. This can seem unusual to those of us accustomed to shelf-stable tortillas, either flabby wheat ones or cardboard-y corn ones. “People in Mexico don’t buy tortillas in packages at the grocery store. We get them at the tortilleria.”
With one red and two green squeeze bottles of sauce on the table it was hard to tell the level of potential heat, so Martinez showed me a clever way to taste each one: She made a fist, placed a dot of each sauce near her thumb, and licked it. Sometimes a green bottle holds a mild, avocado blend. Sometimes it’s a fiery Serrano sauce that’s hotter than jalapeños. We had one of each.
There’s no wrong way to order and I’d already sampled the tacos al pastor, made from grilled pork, on a prior visit. But what I’d missed was a charred onion and lime wedges I assumed were just a garnish. Martinez showed me how to sprinkle salt on the onion, add a squeeze of lime, and devour it. On a weekday afternoon it was easy to linger and chat, but at busier times there are long lines.
Across town on E. W.T. Harris Blvd., Tacos el Regio prepares meat on a vertical spit known as a trompo. Tradition dictates grilling pineapple and a large onion along with the meat, adding spices such as achiote that impart a reddish hue, and slicing it thinly. The method itself actually harkens back to immigrants who came to Mexico from the Middle East and introduced the style of cooking that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys shawarma or gyros. Tacos el Regio also operates a food truck and Martinez stresses that these aren’t pale imitations of brick-and-mortar restaurants; the offerings are just as carefully prepared. As a mom of two school-aged kids, she also notes that a food truck can solve the problems that arise when everyone wants something different to eat.
Our last stop was Three Amigos Mexican Grill and Cantina on Central Avenue. Here the tacos al pastor arrived flat instead of folded. Piled high with smoky meat, fresh onions and greens, they were impossible to fold and eat neatly, which was the only criticism I could muster.
Here Martinez went off-script a bit. She wanted me to taste the variety of sauces that make this restaurant a favorite, so she also ordered enchiladas that took a bit of negotiating to design exactly as she wanted them. The jalisciense version with a crumbly queso fresco cheese sauce was mild and heavenly. The one with rich mole sauce, so deeply brown it was almost black, was so stunning that at this point my voice recorder captured nothing but my mumbling. I sounded as intoxicated as if I’d downed a bunch of tequila drinks, which I strategically did not.
With our appetites sated, I asked Martinez what we get wrong about tacos and Mexican food overall, here in the U.S. “That it’s all rice and beans. In Mexico when your mom cooks a meal at home, you have tortillas on the side. But tacos are like a fast food. You get them at a taqueria,” she explained.
Fast and yet made fresh.
“Is there anything that doesn’t belong in a taco?” I asked.
Martinez replied, “I don’t think so and that’s the beauty of it, and more or less how the taco got started. It’s an easy, portable way to eat your food. A filling here, a taco or tortilla here – put them together and eat away.”
Mexico is the tenth most populated country in the world. It would be foolish to think that a few hours in one New South city – even guided by an expert – could do anything more than give a curious eater a quick glimpse into an incredibly diverse culinary culture. But I’ll order more thoughtfully and a little more confidently in the future, whether or not the meal itself turns out to be measurably faultless. Because in the search for perfection, maybe it’s the journey and not the destination that matters most.
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.