Celebrating Cinco de Mayo by gobbling authentic — and cheap! — tacos in Columbus is remarkably delicious and easy these days. Yeah, we’ve come a long way since hamburger meat lining a sad Doritos-type “shell” squirted with “salsa” from a foil packet constituted Mexican food in this town.
Here are some wonderful traditional tacos — meaning warm, soft corn tortillas pocketing Mexican-style meats garnished with cilantro and onion and served with lime and sliced radish — available from all sorts of places all over Columbus. Note: Unless specified, tacos are a laughable $1.50 apiece.
Fifth and Highland avenues (Dairy Family parking lot), Victorian Village
Privileged with a pretty Victorian Village location easily accessed by Short Northers and Campus denizens, friendly and reliable ol’ Junior’s provides a lot of Columbusites with their first bites of our thriving taco truck scene. Go with the asada (chopped steaky meat), and, while sitting at a picnic table in the little park across the street, eat ’em drizzled with both Junior’s mild-ish tomatillo and considerably hotter orange salsas.
Fat tacos and skinny jeans
El Camino Inn
238 S. Fourth St., Downtown
If you like your traditional-style tacos sauced with retro ’70s fun and slathered in modern hipness, you can get that fix at this Downtown brother to Little Palace. Try the zesty chicken tinga ($2; misnamed “tenga” on the menu) — chipotle-kissed strands of stewed and pulled chicken, which, unlike a lot of poultry tacos out there, star moist and tender meat.
Found in translation
2200 E. Dublin Granville Rd. (Lev’s Pawn Shop parking lot), North Side
It smells like the streets of Mexico City outside of Taco Nazo. Those aromas of toasted corn dough weaving through searing meats, chilies and the ever-present sizzling onions are spellbinding. Though I speak decent Spanish, I don’t know what Nazo means (the internet wouldn’t help) — but based on this operation, I’d guess it’s “master all the little things so everything tastes outstanding.” That includes tacos with carnitas, asada, campechana (beef with chorizo) plus try-it-here tripe.
Cuco’s Taqueria and Grill
2162 W. Henderson Rd., Upper Arlington
Evolving from a specialty grocer sporting a taco counter into everyone’s favorite user-friendly Mexican restaurant, Cuco’s success says a lot about Columbus. And its Baja-style fish tacos ($2.50 per) answer the cravings of myriad diners. Big, spicily battered clumps of deep-fried tilapia cradled in corn tortillas are garnished with a rich and sweet-ish thousand island-ish dressing, cabbage and tomatoes. Add a squirt of lime, eat and retreat to a beachy part of your mind.
461 Commerce Sq. (Club LaBoom parking lot), North Side
The king of Columbus taco trucks occupies a shiny metal throne. Actually “taco truck” is too puny to describe the gigantic, counter-with-a-dozen-stools vehicle on which Los Guachos rules — maybe “taco semi” works better. But it’s not just the big professional set-up, which attracted so many customers that a brick-and-mortar Los Guachos opened up on Bethel Road too, it’s LG’s famous and awesome tacos al pastor. Made with juice-dripping, subtly spiced, sliced-like-a-gyro pork, they’re easy-to-love; ditto for the pillowy-soft and steaky lengua.
Get your goat
2175 Morse Rd., North Side
The setting is humble, but the flavors are rich at this link of a biggish chain of authentic Mexican grocery stores-con-restaurantes. Their terrific tacos feature stand-out meats like hard-to-find barbacoa — stewy, juicy tender and haunting goat. Pig-diggers (like me) should note that the sear-crisped flavor-bomb carnitas (sorta confited pork) will also make you wanna hug your server.
The daily grind
La Plaza Tapatia
4233 Shoppers Lane, West Side
LPT is another decidedly un-fancy but authentic eatery tucked inside a Mexican supermarket. Minus the drop ceiling, its nearly gringo-free confines pay tribute to a plaza in a smaller Mexican city. While its big-time flavors come honestly — from its own groceries — the restaurant grinds a special blend of only-here chorizo that’s a tacos must. Not overly greasy, it boldly explodes with deep pork, chili and paprika flavors carefully scented with cumin.
Mano a mano
Casa Hacienda Grill
1264 E. Dublin Granville Rd., North Side
The handmade tortillas at this wildly decorated full-service restaurant rock. Their fresh flavors and supple textures pop in corn and wheat flour forms, the latter being revelatory and resembling Indian roti bread. CHG doesn’t specialize in a la carte tacos, so splurge on the hulking and delicious Tacos Mexicanos ($12) dinner platter. Along with good rice and beans comes a trio of tender steak chunk tacos dressed with tongue-tickling cooked salsa, guacamole and pico de gallo.