Ten of us began our quest in the heart of one of the oldest Latino neighborhoods in the Twin Cities: St. Paul’s West Side. Our mission: to test the tacos nominated by TC Daily Planet readers, friends, family and other assorted taco fans as “top tacos in the Twin Cities.” Most of the taste testers had enjoyed tacos in Mexico and the United States, and one had eaten tacos on five continents during military service. Our first expedition visited two restaurants in St. Paul — more to come later!
El Burrito Mercado 175 Cesar Chavez Street, St. Paul ph: 651-227-2192,
Hours: Mon-Thurs 7am-8pm, Fri-Sat 7am-9pm, Sun 7am-7pm
Tacos are assembled to order at the counter (photo, below), with your choice of spice. The fillings are guisados (stewed meats and vegetables), which are an essential part of Mexican cuisine. Spicy beef and spicy chicken tacos got good reviews, moist and leaving a satisfying “after burn” taste in the mouths of the meat eaters in the group. The vegetarians were pleased with their tacos too, describing the mixture of veggies (sautéed greens, mushrooms, and corn) as “unique.” The barbacoa got a less favorable review: “It was dripping wet, but the beef was dry — like the sun was shining but it was raining.” Tacos were a bit pricier here than at some other venues, at $2.50 each. The variety of salsas available at the fresh salsa bar was a hit. As a bonus, the café is adjacent to a well-stocked Mexican grocery store where you can procure your own ingredients to whip up some tacos at home.
Boca Chica Taco House 407 Wabasha Street South, St. Paul, MN 55107 ph: 651-222-8226
Hours: Mon-Thurs 10:30am–9pm, Fri 10:30am–9:30pm, Sat 11am–9:30pm, Sun 11am–8pm
A few blocks away, across the street from Boca Chica’s famous restaurant, their more recently opened Taco House bustled with activity. The building resembles a fast food taco restaurant, with a red tile roof reminiscent of Taco Bell. We left our orders at the front counter and they were brought out to us as they were prepared. As we tasted the tacos, there were more and more reminders of Taco Bell: ground beef instead of shredded meat, a lack of spice, a “salsa bar with eight containers of salsa that all taste the same.” One of the group, speculating about the building’s possible history as a former Taco Bell restaurant, quipped, “They must have just left the recipes behind.” Most of us, aficionados of Mexican-style tacos, were disappointed. Not so our veteran transglobal taco taster, who declared he’d “never had as good a fried taco as here.” Other than fried taco fans, we decided we would recommend this place “if you want the Taco Bell experience but on the West Side,” or if you are looking for cheap tacos, as these were $1.19. The absence of Latino customers reinforced our conclusion that this venue offers American style tacos.
We couldn’t get to all of the St. Paul nominees in one night — so feel free to add your own reviews and nominations. Other St. Paul nominees from our readers:
Los Arcos, 360 Bernard Street, West Saint Paul, MN 55118, (651) 455-4250
Taqueria Los Paisanos, 825 7th Street East, Saint Paul, MN 55106, (651) 778-8062
Rusty Taco, 508 Lexington Pkwy S St. Paul, MN 55105, United States (651) 699-1833
We hope you’ll try them and tell us about your experiences, and about your own favorite St. Paul taco places.
What is an “authentic” taco?
The controversy over Taco Bell tacos versus “authentic” tacos may be unfounded according to Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food and Where Did the Taco Come From? At an October 12 book talk at Saint Thomas University, Pilcher explained that there are clearly two categories of tacos: one made with more typical American ingredients, and the other made with more typical Mexican ingredients. However, Pilcher said, “The taco is as much a modern thing in Mexico as it is in the U.S.”
The first taco appeared in a document from 1893 which described tortillas wrapped around potatoes, then kept in a basket to preserve heat. Mexican miners took these tacos in their lunch boxes. The name “taco” may come from the mining industry, as “tacos” were also pieces of paper wrapped around gunpowder used to excavate. The taco later evolved into street food fare during the industrialization of Mexico. American tourists began to enjoy them during their travels to Mexico at the end of the 19th century, and shortly thereafter American companies began to sell tacos. For the sake of convenience, the American version featured blander ingredients more readily found in the supermarket: a hard taco shell, ground beef, iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, and mild salsa. Pilcher explained that these tacos seem to have evolved as “Yankee ingenuity transforming this Mexican peasant cuisine.”
Pilcher credited surfers and military personnel for the globalization of tacos, stating that they can now be found in Alaska, Outer Mongolia, Ethiopia, Australia, and even in outer space as NASA sends soft tacos into orbit. Tacos now lend form to other cuisines; Chinese Americans now sell foods in “taco” form to Americanize it. According to Pilcher, they represent a convergence of cultures, yet the American version appears to be disappearing in the United States in favor of the Mexican taco as Mexican immigrants have brought more ingredients from their homelands.
Thanks to Jeffrey Pilcher for the photos below, previously published in his HuffPost blog, of tacos around the world:
Coming soon: Northeast Minneapolis tacos, Lake Street tacos
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Taquerias Sabrosas: Andale in Richfield and Maya Cuisine on Central Avenue Northeast in Minneapolis.