AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SUMMER, I tasked myself to explore Portland's taco trucks and hunt down the city's best tacos. I set out with little direction and no itinerary, wending my way through the summer streets and stopping every time I saw hand-lettered signage pronouncing, "Tacos, Tortas, Burritos."
The exploration lasted the entire season, and I found three outstanding tacos. However, I'm only one food editor in a beautiful, sprawling tacoville. In order to provide the broadest view possible, I've asked some of my taco-loving colleagues in the Portland food-writing community to give their own perspective. The result is the 2009 Portland Mercury Tacoville Awards. Let's start with my picks:
Birria (Taco y Tortas Morelia, SE 52nd & Foster)
I haven't been able to stop talking about this taco all summer. Morelia's goat meat is oh-so-slightly fatty, juicy without being too messy, and very tender. Paired with bright, fresh onions and cilantro, the birria taco is excellent, but when it's topped with Morelia's dark, peppery, cacao-hued sauce it becomes an object of desire.
Chorizo con Huevos (Elena's, NE 82nd & Hassalo)
I don't think Elena's receives a lot business from gringos, and the gringos are missing out. The chorizo sausage at Elena's has a more deeply herbal quality than most I've tasted in town. Its light texture becomes nearly creamy when combined with a fried egg. Topped with a killer tomatillo green sauce, this taco has an insistent heat that's just about perfect.
Lengua (Torres de Morelos, SE 31st Pl & Powell)
I'm a big proponent of using as much of the animal as possible, so I'm particularly happy when I see a truck offering a variety of innards. Of those innards, lengua (tongue) is my favorite. And of all the lengua tacos I've had, the fatty, roast beef-flavored goodies being passed through the window at Torres de Morelos are my favorite by far. PATRICK ALAN COLEMAN
NICK ZUKIN (AKA "Extramsg," the man behind portlandfood.org and extramsg.com) is a taco-eating machine. His ability to eat is legendary, and his foodie forum offers an invaluable taco truck directory that covers the Willamette Valley from the hilly western 'burbs to the dark edges of the bordering eastern counties.
Taco de Buche (La Catrina, 9694 SE 82nd)
While the torta cubana here can feed half a dozen for $10, the taco de buche is my favorite rendition in Portland. The meltingly luscious pork guts are well seasoned and crisped.
Panucho de Cochinita Pibil (Antojitos Yucateco, 12920 SE Stark)
Antojitos Yucateco's panucho starts with a hand-made tortilla that's stuffed with flavorful black beans, then lightly fried. Ask to top it with their marinated, slow-cooked pork, cochinita pibil. The pickled red onions counter the richness. The habanero salsa will melt your teeth.
Taco de Barbacoa (Guelaguetza, 17345 SW Tualatin Valley Hwy, Beaverton)
Only available on weekends, the fat on these tender, slow-roasted beef cheeks liquefies on the palate, dispersing deliciousness. The unctuous meat is enrobed in a complex red sauce. Make sure to get some of the rich consommé made from the drippings, too.
Web Exclusive: Three Best Taco Truck Items that Aren’t Tacos
Torta Cubana (La Catrina, 9684 SE 82nd)
14 inches of pure pleasure for $10. You won’t turn up a better trick on 82nd. The ginormous grilled sandwich contains hot dog, headcheese, milanesa, two types of cheese, ham, lettuce, tomato, avocado, sour cream, salsa, and fried egg. Its deliciously messy.
Huarache (El Nutri, 8438 SE Woodstock Blvd)
The huarache here, a sandal-shaped tortilla topped with earthy black beans, your choice of meat, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and tart nopales (cactus paddle), can even be made vegan—and isnt any less tasty that way.
Camarones Ahogados (Cora y Huichol, SE 82nd & Holgate)
Shell-on raw shrimp smothered in a melt-your-teeth spicy chile-lime-cucumber dressing, served with red onions, cucumbers, avocado and tomatoes. Fresh enough to make you think you’re sitting under a palapa on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. NICK ZUKIN
LIZZY CASTON (AKA "Cuisine Bonne Femme") is the founder of foodcartsportland.com. In other words, she's spent a lot of time chasing down Portland's international mobile food options. Caston's extensive experience of eating on the street while standing up makes her perspective particularly sharp when it comes to taco trucks.
La Jarochita (SW 5th between Oak & Stark)
In a downtown sea of tacos dumbed down for gringo tastes, La Jarochita provides more regional treats such as billowy corn "pancake" sopes, large and crispy-tender huaraches, and tamales wrapped with banana leaves, Veracruz style.
Los Gorditos (SE 50th & Division)
Los Gorditos offers nicely done traditional taco truck fare, but are still savvy enough to cater to Southeast Portland's large vegan community. I love eating next to Gorditos' large psychedelic mural. It makes me feel like I'm in a 1960s acid-western flick starring Peter Fonda.
Cora y Huichol (SE 82nd & Holgate)
Located off gritty SE 82nd, in the workingman's land of Lents, Cora y Huichol is the perfect egalitarian taco truck serving haute foodies, Hispanic families, and local laborers alike. They specialize in seafood, such as camarones ahogados (whole grilled shrimp), ceviches, and fish tacos. LIZZY CASTON
RON DOLLETE is the mastermind behind Portland's newest up-and-coming food forum, pdxplate.com. When it comes to tacos, he does enjoy the occasional truck, but he also offered the Mercury his two favorite taquerias, perfect for keeping dry during the rainy season.
Web Exclusive: Dollete’s Extended La Catrina review
La Catrina (9694 SE 82nd)
La Catrina's food cart shares a space with a no-name gas station in front of the Home Depot on SE 82nd and Johnson Creek, just past the Clackamas County line. The cabeza tacos here are a standout, offering the same characteristics as "braised beef," with an intense beefy flavor to go along with a velvety texture. A dollop of green salsa gives a great kick of spice and acidity to cut through all that richness.
The specialties at La Catrina, however, are their tortas gigantes—big, football-sized sandwiches filled with your choice of meat. Essentially the neat three-bite tortilla is replaced with a much larger, much more substantial bolillo roll.
La Catrina even features the Mexican rendition of a kitchen sink sandwich, called a Torta Cubana. It bears no relation to the more famous Cuban pulled pork sandwiches, but rather combines a slice of milanesa steak, scrambled egg, two kinds of cheese (white and yellow), and includes pork headcheese. But they’re still not done: There's ham, salchica hot dogs split in half, avocado, and jalapeno. La Catrina is basically the taco joint that Dagwood would run. A piece of advice: They're not kidding with the gigantes. The small $6 sandwich is more than enough for even a normal amount of hunger.
Sanchez Taqueria (13050 SW Pacific Hwy, Tigard)
My favorite taco spot is a small shop in Tigard. Sanchez Taqueria features excellent tortillas, and one really can't go wrong with choosing any of the fillings, including one of the better grilled fish tacos in town. A standout taco here, in addition to the fish, is the lengua, cooked to a level of tenderness that can only be described as otherworldly.
La Superior (2727 N Lombard)
St. Johns is a neighborhood where places like La Superior fly under the radar. They're very proud of their mole, but the true standout here is the chorizo, differing from many other taco shops in that the sausage gets a firmer cure. While it's open late, La Superior also does a pretty good breakfast, featuring not only breakfast burritos, but also chilaquiles, using strips of tortillas, steak, and a couple of eggs. RON DOLLETE