Food & Drink
The Gringo's Guide to Tacos
Charm City's taco scene comes into its own.
Written by Lauren Cohen, Richard Gorelick, Jane Marion, Jess Mayhugh, Any Mulvihill & Lydia Woolever Photography by Scott Suchman Lettering by Tobias Saul
Austin. Los Angeles. Fort Worth. Baltimore? Watch out big boys, Charm City’s Taco scene comes into its own.
ove over, Austin and L.A.! From Highlandtown to Parkville to Pikesville, Charm City is beginning to rival the taco titans. Yes, Baltimore is better known for its Bergers and Bohs, but with growing Hispanic and Latino communities—that more than doubled from 2005 to 2015, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics—we’re also a boomtown for all manner of this street food believed to have been invented by Mexican silver miners. Whether we’re talking tacos de lengua (tongue) at Clavel in Remington or tacos al pastor (slow-braised pork) at Cocina Luchadoras in Upper Fells, it’s hard to swing a churro without hitting a taco in Baltimore. In fact, almost every menu in town—even fine-dining spots—has some type of taco. And it’s not just us. Tacos have become so ubiquitous in America, in fact, that U.S retail sales of tacos are about $2.5 billion according to Rockland-based Packaged Facts. Lately, Mexico has been on everyone’s mind (ahem), but the beauty of tacos is that they’re a bipartisan issue. It’s the sheer versatility and the mix-and-match potential of this fare that makes it something we can all agree on. “It breaks down barriers when you’re not using utensils,” says Carlos Raba, co-owner and chef at Clavel. “Tacos are comfort food, and anything you eat with your hands is fun.” So, whether you like yours gringo-style (hard shell, ground beef, shredded lettuce and cheddar, sour cream) or favor the real deal (house-made tortillas, plus every part of a pig), you’ll have no trouble finding something that appeals on these pages. Welcome to Taco Town, hon!
[Editor's Note: Since publication, El Pollo Real, El Gringo, No Way Jose, and Pop Taco's have closed.]
KEY: Whether they’re gringo or authentico, tacos in any form are always tasty. That said, our authenticity scale will help you know whether you’re far from the border, close to the border, or across the border.
Gringo: Packaged tortillas, Cheez Whiz on nachos, sombreros on the walls.
Trendy Gringo: See "gringo," but more hip.
Getting Warmer: House-made salsa with high heat, but menu is in English and margaritas might come from a mix.
Authentico: Handmade tortillas, Jarritos Mexican soda, basically the whole enchilada. (Or, in this case, taco.) Bienvenido a México, señors y señoritas!
Elote with sliced radishes, an assortment of tacos with rice at Amano Tacos.
301 W. 29th St. | 443-681-1902
The small-but-mighty menu at this R. House stall features five tacos—and every one of ’em is worth ordering. Carnivores will opt for the spicy chorizo with arbol chili salsa or the pork topped with pickled onion and a fiery jalapeño salsa. Pescatarians will enjoy the Camarones Morita, a refreshing combo of shrimp, corn, pickled cabbage, and a dollop of lime-cilantro aioli. And, for the veggie-minded, the Rajas, featuring charred poblano peppers and onions, plus corn, is a no-brainer. Each taco is served street-style, on doubled corn tortillas, and add-ons, such as chunky guac, elote, and real Mexican Coke, reinforce a sense of authenticity. But we’d expect nothing less from an eatery whose kitchen is helmed by Claudia Santillan, a nurse-turned-chef who uses her own family recipes.
1629 Thames St. | 410-563-8800
With Top 40 music playing, margaritas on tap, and a menu that’s “Mexican-inspired” (i.e. not exactly what you’d get in Guadalajara), this spot offers a strictly American take on tacos, but, in this case, that’s a good thing. Where else can you find a “cheeseburger taco” stuffed with beef, smoked cheddar, tomato, pickled shallot, chipotle mayo, and mango “catsup,” or a “spring roll” version with fried tofu, snow peas, pickled onions, and ginger plum sauce? In addition to the creative-as-they-come tacos, the waterfront views can’t be beat. Watch the sun fade over the Inner Harbor and contemplate the epic tequila list. Salud!
A trio of tacos with rice and black beans at Blue Agave.
1032 Light St. | 410-576-3938
Open since 2000, this colorful cantina has earned neighborhood-landmark status. But despite its venerability, it remains vibrant, thanks to an ownership change and menu overhaul a few years back. Starting with the drink menu, the attention to detail is evident. With 10 or so types of margaritas on offer—including a hot- pink prickly pear concoction—and more than 130 tequilas in stock, there’s something to whet every whistle. The food menu is similarly encyclopedic, encompassing tacos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, and the like, all dressed with house-made salsas, moles, and sauces. Try a trio of tacos (your choice of chicken, beef, fish, shrimp, portobello mushroom, or fried avocado), all topped with pico de gallo and jack cheese. For dessert, order the fried tequila shots—pound cake squares soaked in tequila, flash-fried, and served with ice cream.
520 Park Ave. | 443-869-3683
We’ve always loved the diversity inside Mount Vernon Marketplace and so we couldn’t have been happier when Cholitas owner (and Los Angeles native) Deanna Rapanakis set up shop in March. The modest stall, with fewer than a dozen bar stools, makes it all—from tortillas to salsas—from scratch. Be warned: They don’t skimp on heat, as many ingredients are made with serrano and jalapeño peppers (though they’ll gladly go mild upon request). We tried the rockfish, shrimp, and carnitas tacos, which were all excellent. The slightly grilled tortillas, bright red cabbage slaw, and stewed onions were the highlights of our taco experience.
CINCO DE MAYO II RESTAURANT
1718 Eastern Ave. | 410-537-5042
It’s hard to know which Cinco De Mayo to choose from—the three Eastern Avenue eateries run from Little Italy to Highlandtown—but we recommend the one on the edge of Upper Fells. Don’t let the simple setting of this Mexican restaurant fool you—the tacos are anything but. Split a pitcher of watermelon agua fresca amongst your friends and do like we did: Order one of each. Out of 12 options, we found the carne enchilada to be one of the best in the city, with juicy bits of pork swaddled in a sweet-spicy chili-allspice marinade, served on a single warm tortilla with a refreshing side of sliced cucumber. The lengua was another star, with fat chunks of grilled tongue that were far meatier than other versions we’ve eaten. Just beware: The house-made hot sauces will have your tastebuds feeling the burn.
an array of tacos at Clavel.
225 W. 23rd St. | 443-900-8983
Every detail at Clavel (think hand-pressed tortillas, strung lights, and interior succulents) is meant to mimic an outdoor courtyard in owner Lane Harlan’s beloved Sinaloa, Mexico. Sinaloa-born chef/co-owner Carlos Raba incorporates the bold flavors of his home country into the taco menu, which highlights everything from barbacoa to beef tongue. The chicken-thigh tacos smothered in mole verde and the “El Luchador” (battered cod, pickled cabbage, and creamy habanero sauce) had us dreaming of the desert long after paying the check.
1407 Forest Dr., Annapolis | 410-212-3634
If you’re looking for fancy tacos, this Annapolis hole-in-the-wall is not for you. If you’re looking for the homemade version, filled with smoky grilled meats, and topped with few frills beyond a sprinkling of cilantro and onion, then grab a Jarritos and settle in at this shoebox-size dive. These street-style tacos are the simple real deal, with 11 options, ranging from safe picks like savory pollo and spicy chorizo to authentic adventures like tongue, tripe, and cabeza (aka head meat). We chose the pick-two combo, served with Spanish rice and black beans sprinkled with Cotija cheese. The carnitas are a classic comfort, with flakes of fried pork, and the carne asada comes with a surprise treat of sweet grilled spring onions. On Tuesdays, the already-cheap tacos are a steal at $1.50, but buyers beware: The heat index on the salsa verde is through the roof.
EL POLLO REAL
1101 Light St. | 443-759-4193
Good things come in small packages, like El Pollo Real, which is tucked into an unassuming storefront in Federal Hill. This family-run restaurant specializes in Peruvian rotisserie chicken, but also offers a selection of Latin American cuisine, including tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. Obviously, order something stuffed with chicken, which is carved right off the spit into your envelope of choice. The tacos—three per order—are served simply, sprinkled with cheese and accompanied by rice, beans, and the standard green garlic-chili sauce that comes with Peruvian chicken. It’s a combo between two countries that really works.
Inside the mobile kitchen and lunch hour at El Gringo taco truck.
Earlier this year, chef Steve Carey left his post at Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point to hit the road on this new taco truck—which frequents Sinai Hospital, The Johns Hopkins University, and The Rotunda in Hampden. As his slogan (“Tacos, Hon!”) indicates, Carey is all about sourcing produce and tortillas from local purveyors. The gluten-free menu lists eats such as crab cake arepas and street corn smothered in Old Bay butter. But the real stars of the show are the (quite literally) chef-driven tacos, filled with everything from honey-chipotle pork to teriyaki Spam. During one recent lunch, an order of steak tortillas hit the spot—melding the flavors of queso fresco, chimichurri, and some of the most peppery arugula we’ve ever tasted.
EL TAQUITO MEXICANO
1744 Eastern Ave. | 410-563-7840
This long, narrow taqueria on the unofficial restaurant row of Fells Point taco joints is often overshadowed by the better-known Tortilleria Sinaloa and Cinco De Mayo—but don’t overlook El Taquito. Bring a party of 10 for its giant front table and let the friendly staff convince you to order some mugs of tepache, a fermented pineapple drink with warming spices that’s like apple cider kombucha with a spicy rim. From there, go for the street-style tacos, with adventurous offerings, like tripe and tongue, and less obvious options. We had our introduction to both suadero (savory flank-like steak) and cecina (thinly sliced, salted, and dried beef), served with radish and lime, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Test your tolerance for heat with the complimentary chili sauce.
8304 Philadelphia Rd., Rosedale | 410-686-0134
There’s very little English spoken at this low-key Rosedale spot. But that is the allure of Fiesta Mexicana and its menu based on the traditions of Mexico City. The restaurant’s ethos is described on the menu: “We want you to be part of our culture, part of our family.” Though all of the tacos are served in the same, traditional way (meat, cilantro, diced raw onion, and lime), the chorizo and tinga de pollo were stellar. The slightly grilled, substantial tortillas were the proper vessels for these saucy, flavorful meats. The tinga sauce, in particular, was a standout with its sweet-smoky chipotle chilis.
908 W. 36th St. | 410-235-2326
It nearly broke our salsa-loving hearts when we heard news of the fire that badly damaged this Hampden hangout last summer. After 20 years, Holy Frijoles had become a Taco Tuesday tradition——and Margarita Monday mainstay for its potent pomegranate drinks. But after months of renovations, the old haunt is now back with updated digs, an expanded kitchen, and the same-old Tex-Mex fare we’ve come to count on. While we’ll take our tacos at a dollar a piece on Tuesdays, we’ll rally any night of the week for beer-battered cod on flour tortillas with shredded cabbage, adobe cream sauce, and lime for a mere three bucks. Vegetarians can indulge, too, with meatless options like refried beans or black beans and corn with house-made salsas. Just don’t forget the pinball games in the back.
LA PALAPA GRILL & CANTINA
8307 Main St., Ellicott City | 410-465-0070
Like most businesses along Ellicott City’s historic Main Street, La Palapa sustained damage from last year’s flooding. Also, like many Main Street businesses, La Palapa bounced back fairly quickly. On our recent visit, the bar was hopping, and no doubt the street-front patio would have been, too, but for the rainy weather. We settled inside, on the mezzanine level, near the adobe fireplace, and dug into our complementary basket of chips and salsa while we perused the miles-long drink menu. Ultimately, we settled for a slightly watery standard margarita. Next time, we’ll know to try something a little more adventurous, like the spicy cucumber margarita. No problemo, though—the al pastor tacos—three soft corn tortillas filled with steak, onion, cilantro, and a spicy avocado sauce—made us forget about our disappointing drink.
The Patterson Park area is a hub for tacos. We took to its streets to see what was cookin’.
By Richard Gorelick
If you wanted to, you could get your heart’s desire of some of Baltimore’s best tacos in one fell swoop over the course of a long, leisurely afternoon. A good variety of taco opportunities awaits on the streets radiating out from Patterson Park—they’re at taquerias, tortillerias, food trucks, counter joints, and full-service restaurants, all within a city mile of each other. Think of it as our town’s Little Mexico. Use the park as a home base for picnicking, or pull up a stool (or chair) at each place. Whatever your game plan, we suggest one or two tacos per spot.
Tijuana Tacos 3 (3001 E. Baltimore St., 410-545-0667) looks like the definition of a “find.” If you brought out-of-town visitors to dine at the counter of this corner spot, they’d think you lived in the coolest city on Earth. Tijuana Tacos might be better known for its delivery service—their nachos have a following—but the generously portioned tacos are worth a visit. The gratis chips and salsa make this a cheap-dining dream.
Make a point of visiting Taqueria El Sabor Latino Del Parque (2901 Eastern Ave., 410-558-0747), an unheralded parkside restaurant that has the biggest and most unusual selection of taco fillings of any place we know. The 20-plus choices include tripe, head meat, pork ears, and pork lips. Sabor also has the most intensely hot salsas, so proceed with caution.
Along the way, stop at one of the neighborhood’s two (unnamed, as far as we could tell) taco trucks. A small truck can be found on the corner of Broadway and Lombard. But the longer-serving truck is the one that has taken up semi-permanent residency in front of the Iglesia Católica de San Patricio church on the 300 block of South Broadway. The taco selection is small—just four kinds—and each one sells for $2.50. This truck was my introduction to the wonders of tongue meat, which is nicely browned on the truck’s grill.
The staff at Cocina Luchadoras and lunch is served and agua fresca at Cocina Luchadoras.
Just a short scramble from the park, the newcomer to the eastside taco scene is the abundantly adorable Cocina Luchadoras (253 S. Broadway, 410-732-4000), a family-run joint with an exhaustive menu of daily specials. The tacos are impressive, too, and surpassingly fresh. On a recent visit, we tried “El Blue Demon,” a double-size blue-corn tortilla topped with delicious carne asada, chorizo, and chicharonnes, those crackling bits of fried pork. (Yes, those are their gorgeous tacos on our cover!)
tacos and the décor at Tortilleria Sinaloa.
A perfect finishing stop is Tortilleria Sinaloa, (1716 Eastern Ave., 410-276-3741), the 15-year-old joint that arguably introduced more Baltimoreans to the flavors and format of real Mexican tacos than any other restaurant. The taco list remains small, just seven kinds, including chorizo and lengua. We like this as a last stop, because, as its name suggests, Sinaloa began as a store selling home-made tortilla shells. On your way out, pick up a kilo or two of tortillas. Sinaloa also sells its meat fillings by the pound, in case you want to continue your stroll to your own kitchen.
The kitchen and taco time at Mari Luna Mexican Grill in Pikesville.
1325 Key Hwy. | 410-837-9903
Though known more for its mojitos and Cubans than its margaritas and tacos, this Federal Hill mainstay succeeds at it all. There are three varieties of tacos on the menu and our favorites ended up being the carne and vegetarian options. A single corn tortilla filled with well-seasoned medium flank steak, the carne tacos were topped with red onion, cilantro, and aromatic avocado cream salsa. But the veggie tacos were an unexpected surprise—generously filled with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, peppers, and onions with crumbles of queso fresco and a drizzle of the mole-like guajillo pepper salsa. If it weren’t for the giant Castro portrait in the corner, we would have sworn we had stumbled across the Mexican border.
MARI LUNA MEXICAN GRILL
102 Reisterstown Rd., Pikesville | 410-486-9910
Long before authentic Mexican cuisine was available in the northwestern ’burbs, chef Jaime Luna, who was raised in Mexicali on the Baja Coast of California, was turning out terrific tacos and other South of the Border fare. Tacos come in all varieties—slow-braised tongue, lamb simmered in red-wine sauce—and sizes here. Order just one or get the platter with rice, beans, sour cream, and pico de gallo on the side. The taco de papa, a fried corn tortilla stuffed with potatoes and cheese, is special. And as is the rule with any reputable taqueria, order it in the house-made tortilla. (In this case, a cakey white flour disc that’s worthy of eating all on its own.) Also worth noting, this former BYOB spot now sells beer and wine to tamp down the hot sauce.
MEXICAN ON THE RUN
Keep your eyes peeled for this green machine, which landed on the local food truck scene last summer. Inspired by chef and co-owner Jimmy Longoria’s roots in San Luis Potosí—a city in Central Mexico—the tacos come filled with a variety of six different meats, authentically garnished with radishes, cucumbers, lime, onion, and cilantro. We tracked down the truck, decorated with colorful sombreros and chili peppers, on a recent rainy afternoon to chow down on al pastor, chorizo, and carnitas tacos, which all had just the right amount of flavor thanks to two tiny tubs of scratch-made verde and spicy roja salsas. Despite the dreary weather, the tasty tacos were a surefire way to put us in a fiesta mood.
MEZCAL RESTAURANT & BAR
9958 Reisterstown Rd., Owings Mills | 410-205-7150
At this strip-mall spot in Owings Mills, servers buzz in and out of the kitchen’s swinging saloon-style doors carrying steaming trays of familiar favorites. The décor fuses funky and festive, with glowing lanterns, sombreros on display, and a hand-painted mariachi band mural on the back wall. Orders of three tacos—fittingly garnished with mini Mexican flag toothpicks—arrive filled to the brim with everything from chicken and steak to chorizo and shrimp. We particularly liked the al pastor with huge chunks of braised pork and pineapple, served alongside a requisite platter of rice, beans, and all of the fixings.
THE Patterson Park AREA is a hub for tacos. we took to ITS streetS to see what was cookin’.
Noehmi | CLAVEL In the kitchen at Clavel, Noehmi is the taqueria’s tortilla-maker-in-chief. Noehmi readies for the busy weekend ahead with a batch of corn tortillas, turning out 100 every three hours. Using a mix of Maseca corn flour and warm water, she pats dough into her palm, places it on the press, then lowers the lever to make a perfectly formed round, before moving the raw tortilla to a baking sheet. For co-owner Carlos Raba, it brings back memories of his own family making this heirloom recipe. “My great-grandmother taught my grandmother, who taught my aunts,” says Raba, “so it’s four generations back—and that is the recipe we use.” Making flour tortillas, in which flour, lard, sugar, salt, and eggs are combined, is equally time-consuming. Noehmi forms golf-ball-sized mounds of dough with her hands, then presses them on a floured surface to hand-roll them. While corn tortillas, dating back to the Aztecs, are from the south, Raba says that “the flour tortillas, tortillas de harina, which are more expensive to make, are more commonly found in the north.” In all, the Clavel team presses between 1,500 and 2,000 corn and 500 flour tortillas per week. While Noehmi uses her hands, the process comes from her heart. Asked if her hands hurt from the kneading, she smiles warmly. “She’s used to it,” Raba translates. “You need a good tortilla to make a good taco.”
Tools of the trade: Mexican corn, molino, and tortillia press.
Rosalyn Vera | Cocina Luchadoras Rosalyn Vera’s mother, Margarita, stands in the compact kitchen at Cocina Luchadoras and makes the masa mix for corn tortillas. It’s a simple recipe handed down through four generations of Pueblan and Oaxacan women, brought to Baltimore at this sweet spot where Margarita, her husband Lucas, and their daughters, Rosalyn and Shelly, run their taqueria. “Making tortillas by hand is an art form,” says Rosalyn. “You can really taste the hard work of my mom’s hands. As a child, I’d say, ‘Mama, this tastes so good, what did you put in this?’ She’d look at me and say, ‘Love.’” The labor-intensive process begins when Rosalyn’s aunt, Ines, ships ingredients, including dried corn and an alkaline powder called cal, from Mexico. The ingredients get boiled, then soaked overnight. The masa mix then runs through a grinder to form a paste. “I chose the luchadoras [female fighters] as our logo, because we are hardworking,” says Rosalyn. “We have to go through a lot to raise a family.” From there, the paste is shaped into patties that go on the griddle. “We have a sign on our wall that says ‘El maize es nuestra rais.’ Corn is our root,” she says. Margarita concurs. “Es la vida,” she says. “Corn is life,” repeats Rosalyn.
2101 N. Charles St. | 410-837-6033
This Latin American restaurant is little more than a few two-top tables and a mounted TV on the wall, but the fare is anything but standard. While the menu features some 90 food items, ranging from Mexican to Salvadorean to Honduran cuisine, start off simple with a few orders of tacos (of which there are still some seven options). Sorry, vegetarians, meat is king at Comalito. The crispy carnitas were some of the best we've ever had, with three to an order stuffed with succulent fried pork, diced onion, and cilantro. Here, your medley of meats arrives in thick, pupusa-like patties, served warm. During your visit, don’t miss the secret upstairs bar, with a pool table and cheap beer until 10 p.m.
7556 Ritchie Hwy., Glen Burnie | 410-590-1616
Uniformed servers gave us a warm welcome at this Glen Burnie gem, which features a festive dining room embellished with adobe roof archways, Talavera-tiled tables, and Aztec-printed furniture. We started off with a tart margarita and basket of warm tortilla chips accompanied by house salsa poured from a mini carafe. The multi-page menu lists tacos topped with carne asada, tilapia, and braised pork. We opted for a hefty portion of grilled chicken and tender shrimp with marinated veggies in soft flour tortillas, and were pleasantly surprised by the speedy service. Talk about short and sweet.
2907 O’Donnell St. | 410-675-0898
It’s no surprise this Mexican mainstay has lasted as long as it has (23 years). Filled with local memorabilia, velvet Elvis paintings, and the hallowed hubcap margarita, it’s as quintessentially quirky as old-school Baltimore. Sure, the food is more North American than South, but after a First Thursday concert or Canton Square bar crawl, its “truck tacos” are the perfect way to soak up the suds at the end of the night. Order the chorizo sausage to get just enough grease to curb that hangover. It’s served with a flutter of mixed greens to make yourself believe you weren’t that bad. We’d order it just for the comforting sides of spicy refried beans and herbaceous green rice. Just avoid the waterfall of queso dip at all cost or you’ll hate yourself in the morning.
NO WAY JOSE
38 E. Cross St. | 410-752-2837
A party hangout in Federal Hill, No Way Jose does have some cheesy sombrero logos and frequent day-drunk revelers. But the food tells a different tale. There are plenty of options for tacos including the standard grilled chicken, steak, or fish. But we opted for the more authentic al pastor with two corn tortillas, pineapple, chili-marinated pork, onion, cilantro, and radish. The side of avocado salsa was flavorful, but not necessary, as just a squeeze of lime did the trick. On the other end of the spectrum are Jose’s “original tacos”—hard-shell tortillas with ground beef, tomato, lettuce, and shredded cheese. Just like the at-home Old El Paso meals of our youth but with way better seasoning. (Sorry, Ma.)