Tacos de Mayo!: Traditional tacos you must try

By Columbus Alive
From the May 2, 2013 edition

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.

Senor Junior

Junior’s Tacos

Fifth and Highland avenues (Dairy Family parking lot), Victorian Village

614-743-7603

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

614-220-8877

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

Taco Nazo

2200 E. Dublin Granville Rd. (Lev’s Pawn Shop parking lot), North Side

614-390-6346

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.

Go fish

Cuco’s Taqueria and Grill

2162 W. Henderson Rd., Upper Arlington

614-538-8701

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.

Taco trucKING

Los Guachos

461 Commerce Sq. (Club LaBoom parking lot), North Side

614-638-8806

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

La Michoacana

2175 Morse Rd., North Side

614-471-4500

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

614-276-0333

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

614-396-7083

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.