Two men with vastly different culinary heritage scour the city on a quest for the perfect taco.
By: Steven Hayward & Cesar Cervantes – Springs Magazine March 17, 2017
The idea was simple enough. Search the Springs; find our favorite tacos. There should be some definitive ruling on the subject—or at least an article in which a couple of guys eat a lot of tacos and pick the top three places they visited. Completely unscientific. Purely subjective. Magically delicious.
This is that article.
When it comes to tacos, we’re positioned on opposite ends of the spectrum. Of Mexican descent and from El Paso, Texas, Cesar Cervantes is a veritable taco encyclopedia—not to mention, a stand-up comic and co-producer of Happy Hour Stand-up at the Fine Arts Center. His family eats tacos three meals a day without a second thought. The Canadian Steven Hayward—novelist and editor at large of this magazine—had never purchased a taco outside of Taco Bell.
Some historical taco education started us on our path.
According to Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena, authors of the encyclopedic Tacopedia, the taco “was invented between 1,000 and 500 B.C. as a kind of edible spoon.” It all started with the tortilla when the Aztecs and Mayans began boiling maize in lime water (as in limestone, not the fruit). That made it easier to grind the resulting nixtamal into powder that was mixed into dough, or masa, and cooked into tamales or early tortilla-like cakes. The process of making tortillas is mostly the same today, preserving a link to the cuisine of ancient Mexico no matter what kind of taco it turns out to be.
A good taco is simplicity itself, consisting of three basic elements: corn tortilla, filling and salsa. This is how we would judge a taco’s authenticity and excellence—there would be no fried taco shells, no flour tortillas, no whole-wheat hybrids. Purity mattered. So did the quality of the salsa and what was on the inside.
As we went to a dozen places, we developed a rating system that took into account both taste and tradition and landed on Monica’s Taco Shop on Fillmore Street as our top pick. From the outside, Monica’s looks like a converted doughnut shop; on the inside, it still looks like a converted doughnut shop. Don’t be deceived. As Cervantes put it: “People come for the food, not the color scheme.”
At Monica’s we tried a selection of tacos: cabeza (also known as barbacoa), al pastor (pork), adobada (spicy pork) and carne asada. To drink it was pineapple aqua fresca. While waiting for the appearance of our tacos, Hayward turned the discussion toward the perennial question of red or green salsa.
“It depends on the taco you’re putting it on,” Cervantes said. “The real question is which of the two is most spicy. Be careful with the one the people who work there think is spicy.”
Monica’s tacos were amazing, but the standout was the adobada, which is sometimes called a “shepherd taco.” Spicy without being overpowering, balanced perfectly, just the right amount of cilantro.
“For a guy who hates cilantro,” said Cervantes, “you love cilantro.”
Our second favorite is El Poblano Mobile, the finest of the Colorado Springs taco trucks, located on North Chelton Road near the Citadel Mall. It’s actually not a truck—it’s a bus. The bus serves as both a kitchen and a dining room, and our recommendation is to try one of the tacos that seem like a bad idea: tripas (intestines), lengua (tongue), barbacoa and buche, a taco made from pig stomach.
Hayward’s initial idea was to order the El Poblano tacos to go. When he proposed this, Cervantes gave him a look. It was the same look Obi Wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker when Luke presumes that he controls the force, rather than the other way around.
“Freshness is the taco essence,” Cervantes said, sounding a little too much like Yoda. “At Taco Bell we are not. One might not always order tacos, but when you do, it’s not to go.”
Hence the second part of our second recommendation. Eat the tacos on the bus. It’s better than it sounds. Do not get the tacos to go.
In third position is T-Byrd’s Tacos and Tequila, which is a sort of downtown hipster bar on Kiowa Street that serves tacos. With an orange and black decor that veers unintentionally toward both Halloween and Día de los Muertos at the same time, it sports a well-stocked, well-lighted bar and table service.
There we ordered a couple of traditional street tacos (barbacoa, carnitas) and some we hadn’t seen before, including a Fire Belly (green chili braised pork belly with peach salsa), aguacate frito or fried avocado, and pescado frito, deep-fried Colorado trout and avocado sour cream.
“The trout is a surprise,” Hayward said.
“Anything fits in a tortilla,” said Cervantes.
The tacos were presented impeccably, and the ingredients vividly fresh. If they felt a little safe after the taco bus, there was also a clear virtue to having nothing on the menu that would make you think twice halfway through the first bite if your estate planning was entirely in place.
We were also impressed by T-Byrd’s awesomely weird happy hour schedule: 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, but also Monday through Thursday 10 to 11 p.m. It’s a place to go on a date, but also a place to close out a night with a last cocktail and a taco.
Tied for third is Tlaquepaque (pronounced “tla-kay-pa-kay”) on Murray Road—if it’s a bit out of the way, it’s worth it. Everything is great in this welcoming, brightly lit place where there is always a Mexican soccer game or soap opera on the big-screen TV. Expect to order at the counter and have your food served at your table. For tacos, try the steak or the dorados de birria. This may be the most underrated place in the Springs.
“But this is only the surface,” Cervantes said. “There are so many other places.”
“This is not the surface,” said Hayward. “It is the surface of the surface.”
“Less than that,” Cervantes said. “Not even the surface of the surface.”
And so it went for hours. It’s a matter that we’ll tastily continue with no foreseeable end—and plenty more taco trails to explore around town.