We decided we wanted to eat a bunch of tacos and judge them harshly as one of our final features for Synthesis, sort of a legacy of judgement and self indulgence. The best kind are carnitas, so that’s what we ate. The following are our opinions.
Amy Sandoval: Self proclaimed Taco Expert and temporary Managing Editor of Synthesis. I began my career experimenting as a child with White People Tacos—crunchy shelled ground beef salads with black olives and cheddar cheese. At 16 I had my first full-on Mexican taco, and so began my life as a know-it-all taco slut, munching all over town like it was going out of style, and lecturing people about how what they like is actually garbage.
Arielle Mullen: Mid-level Taco Enthusiast and Carnitas Novice. Ambivalent owner of a mild cheese allergy. Started my taco journey with the ones prepared by my health-conscious mother. Main fillings included tofu, spinach, and almond cheese (which doesn’t melt so much as sweat). I love tacos, but I don’t really have any strong opinions about what carnitas should be.
Autumn Sullender: Twenty-nine SWF who recently decided to give the vegetarian life the bird in search of the best carnitas tacos in town. Carnitas knowledge level: non-existent. Didn’t know what to expect.
Dain Sandoval: I grew up in San Diego and my last name is Sandoval.
Tanner Ulsh: Late-blooming Mexican food convert—carnitas and soft taco champion. No toppings or you’ve got no dignity.
Amigos de Acapulco (aka Taco Island) – 820 Oroville Ave (across from Winchester Goose)
Amy: Very crispy carnitas with both grilled and fresh white onions, cilantro, and a dollop of red hot sauce. Served with a wedge of lime, and a lovely, bright orange habanero sauce (if you ask for it). This taco is relatively mild before adding the habanero, the flavors are rich and bright, and the textures are very pronounced. The inclusion of grilled onions adds nice dimension.
Dain: El patrón oro of carnitas tacos. IF you do it my way. Order thusly: Carnitas tacos, no onion, side of habanero. “But I like onion” I know I know, go ahead and get one regular and one my way—just for comparison. Their carnitas tacos come with a two-onion arrangement: grilled with the meat and chopped white on top and it stomps on the pork flavors a bit too much. So while its not a dealbreaker to get with the onion, just try it without to really let the pork shine. I also enjoy what I call the “pork flight” which is one carnitas, one puerco verde, one al pastor.
Arielle: It’s been explained to me that this is what carnitas “should” taste like. Partially crispy, fried and flavorful. Served with onions, cilantro and hot sauce. After eating there was a grease puddle on the plate, which was apparently a good thing. I feel I’m learning a lot about tacos in general and carnitas in particular. In the beauty pageant of carnitas tacos, these would be Miss California. Very predictably good, and everything how (and where) it should be. Wink.
Tanner: Notably crispy, noticeable but not unreasonable level of spice. Well-sized serving of meat, you’re not getting ripped off here. First impression is a ⅘.
Autumn: Hearty portion for a street taco. The carnitas were pretty crunchy, large fried chunks that were very chewy. Chewing meat is still odd and new to me. Good flavor, even with the simple ingredients. I would definitely recommend the habanero sauce for a nice spicy kick.
Tacos Tijuana – 1441 Park Ave
SIze: 4” (also have a 6” taco for $1.99)
Amy: They’re so cute! In many ways these are the opposite of the ones from Taco Island: the carnitas aren’t crispy at all, instead they’re tender with a roasted flavor, and rather than the bright, crunchy onion, cilantro and hot sauce combination, these have a soft, chunky salsa. Oddly, they’re just as good—very rich and almost smoky. Served with a wedge of lime, and free chips and salsa. The lady who owns this place is the nicest lady in the whole world.
Dain: I have loved this place for years and the family that runs it are the sweetest people on the planet. Their enchiladas and other platillos are amazing—but I never used to hold their carnitas tacos in high regard. Their (juicy not crispy) carnitas recipe is better suited for platters—perhaps an egg cracked on top with warm tortillas on the side. However, during our test night, I was really feeling them. Small, juicy and very satisfying with a commanding and earthy pork-forward flavor.
Arielle: This place was my favorite of the day. The pork has a really strong flavor, and even though it doesn’t have the crispiness of Amigos, I still liked this place better. Served with lime, salsa, and onions, these are the Miss South Carolina of the carnitas game. A real sneaker-upper.
Tanner: These tacos tasted very “pork” as opposed to “carnitas” (though not in a bad way). The sauce on them was smoky and flavorful without being overpowering and overbearing. The tortillas on mine were almost a little bit soggy, which didn’t pair well with the soft and crisp-less pork. First impression 3-½ / 5.
Autumn: Size: three bites. Three delicious bites. The carnitas were so soft and covered in a tasty tango sauce, they basically melted in your mouth like a sweet, sweet, delicious treat. You will want to eat at least 100 of these little suckers.
Crazy Taco – 1205 Park Ave (window at Dukes Liquor) & 1385 Longfellow Ave (window at Tony’s Market)
Price: $1.25 on Park, $1.00 on Longfellow
Amy: The carnitas are pretty good, half crispy half soft, but because it’s a window and you don’t get salt, their full flavor isn’t there. The lime helps. The hot sauce is slightly sweet, not very spicy. Fresh white onions and cilantro. Overall a fine taco, if a bit on the greasy side. The tortillas got a little steamed from the foil covering, even though it was only on there for a minute. I’d recommend letting the steam vent right away, then salting liberally when you get it home, it makes a huge difference. Or just get the nachos, their carnitas nachos are the best.
Dain: (@Dukes on 12th) Longtime favorite. Carnitas tacos are solid- I usually eat about 6. My favorite here though are the Burritos. “Carnitas super crazy burrito no arroz no lechuga no cebolla.” $5 Carnitas nachos are also wonderous. No matter your order, it will benefit from a healthy dose of salt.
A great place to people-watch and mutter under your breath “There but for the grace of God go I,” and then wonder how long it’s been since I’ve been to an AA meeting. I COULD step inside Duke’s and throw it all away with a bottle of MadDog or WhiteWolf while I wait for my AHH JESUS IS THAT YOUR DICK? Ohh hey payphones. Awesome. Nah man I don’t have a quarter.
(@Tony’s on Longfellow) I hit this place up only when the adjacent truck El Tapatio Express is shut for the night. The truck has $1 tacos and their Al Pastor and Asada are the shining stars. They sometimes have carnitas, and it’s solid. As for Crazy Taco—pretty much the same as with the Duke’s location but with less hobo penis.
Arielle: Bland. Really bland. Maybe it’s just how colorful the surrounding area is by comparison, but these tacos were reeeeally bland. Kind of soggy too. These are, hands down, the Miss New Jersey of the carnitas world. Do not recommend.
Tanner: A usual favorite for me, but these tacos are dealt a huge disservice being eaten with a standard order. The onion is a little too bright and there’s just something that isn’t quite right about the salsa. Definitely needed salt, which isn’t supplied because of the location. Despite the lower scoring, these tacos are worth getting, but get them with no toppings, and give a healthy addition of salt and lime before eating. The real standout here is the atmosphere. If you’ve ever wanted to be harassed for change to make a payphone drug deal, oh boy have I got the place for you.
Autumn: These are the usual street taco size. Carnitas were shredded and fried with a subtle old grease taste. A little bland. Sorry Dukes, you had a tough act to follow.
La Cocina Economica – 905 Wall St
Amy: Um, why is there Jack cheese on this? And red onions. OK, I’ll get past that. The carnitas are actually pretty good, partly browned and tender, though we didn’t get any lime so there’s a missing element. The cheese sort of nullifies the flavors of the onion and cilantro. I got the spicy sauce, which is medium-hot. I wasn’t thrilled, but it was fine.
Dain: Fuck this place. Seriously. I’ll say it. What. The paper’s over. La “Cochina” sucks. Who uses red onions on anything (and everything)? Especially in Mexican food. And ohh shredded cheese—really? Crema sure, cotija, go right ahead and get fancy. But shredded jack cheese? I guess if you’re Mr or Mrs Whitefolks America and enjoy bland mediocrity, this is your jam.
Arielle: I guess I was spoiled by all the places before La Cocina who didn’t add cheese to their tacos. So, upon receiving their cheese (and some carnitas, I think?), I was disappointed. The actual flavor of the carnitas was pretty good, although they were definitely much less traditional tasting than the others. Regardless of the strong feelings of Sir Sandoval, I’ll definitely keep coming here. But no more cheese please. No. More. Cheese.
El Rey Mexican Grill – 465 E 20th St
Amy: The carnitas had a good flavor and were partly browned, but not quite as greasy as I’d like (a little dry, even), and were topped with a mild salsa fresca; a hotter sauce came on the side (they also offer a really spicy sauce if you ask for it). Served with lime and free chips and salsa. Overall it was a fine taco, but there just wasn’t a lot going on with it to make it special. I highly, HIGHLY recommend their carnitas omelette, however. It’s amazing. And the Sonoran hot dog. I feel bad for not liking the taco more, I come here a lot and love it.
Dain: Don’t go here for tacos. Same reason you don’t go to the steakhouse and order fish; El Rey has perfected so many other things that to order tacos is just, well, idiotic. The Carnitas Omelette is the only thing you ever need to know about this place. Well, and the spicy Sonoran Hot Dog. I will assume the Chiles Rellenos are epic as well. But for fuck’s sake—Carnitas Omelettes. Every. Damn. Day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Arielle: The flavor was good, but they’d be much better with more salsa or hot sauce. The main issue though? These tacos are super dry. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from media over the years, it’s that no one likes a dry taco.
Gordo Burrito – 1295 E 8th St
Amy: These were made with soft carnitas that had a nice flavor, topped with onion, cilantro, cheese, and a spicy hot sauce. I liked it, but wasn’t wowed. Cheese just doesn’t belong on this kind of taco for me, I want to taste the meat and the brightness of the other toppings more. I think part of that underwhelm was that it didn’t come with lime, and carnitas need the acid. Plus I’m getting really tired of eating tacos.
Tanner: Everything is tacos. Have I ever had a life without tacos? What was my first taco like? Will I ever not have a taco again? I got a sandwich today, was that really just a bread taco if nothing else? Is there anything that isn’t tacos?
Captain’s log, March 13. It’s only Amy and I now. We lost the rest of the tasting crew to exhaustion and taco madness. All I can think about right now is a better time, when I still loved tacos. The taste of pork won’t leave my mouth no matter what I do. I awoke from a nightmare of being suffocated by cilantro. I see another taco on the way. If there is any fairness in this world, god will see us through to the end of this taco expedition.