Halifax Taco Quest: “Authentic” Edition
The term “authentic” is problematic, as the world of food is not a static world; cultures have always mixed, cooks have always adapted, and tastes are always changing. The question of “what is an authentic taco?” will likely depend on region and generation. The “spirit” of the taco is also challenged by the availability of ingredients and local tastes.
The point of this blog post is not that of gatekeeping the so-called “authentic taco” as some sort of embodiment of a true Platonic form, or the deluded nostalgia of some food snob from 20 years ago at some obscure vendor in Mexico. I’m just trying to group restaurants in a fair manner, in terms of what they are offering. This week’s quest is a grouping of small, Latin American-owned restaurants.
I couldn’t have picked a more motley team for a quest concerning “authentic tacos”. We’ve got The Side Dish, a cilantro-hater, Cailin O’Neil, hater of soft corn tortillas, Jacqui, a Saint Lucian who discovered her love of tacos in Canada, and our redemptress, Stephanie, a born and bred Texan.
Verano Food Purveyors
1871 Hollis Street
Options that day:
$4 each, or 3 for $9.50
Verano caters to the downtown lunch crowd, and it’s not immediately apparent that they are Latin American-owned unless you look at the specials board. Tacos were originally a Tuesday special, but they proved popular enough to keep on the daily. We were told that while the tacos vary somewhat, the vegan and chicken are always available.
The Vegan Taco is the “chef’s favourite”. It is a simple taco of oven-smoked onions, chopped onions, spinach, avocado, cilantro, and salsa macha. Not everyone was sold on such a simple preparation, but I would gladly throw back a lot of these if given the chance.
The Carne Asada was a nice medium rare, but a little chewy, while the Braised Beef was nice and tender, if not heavily spiced. Both tacos contained an adequate amount of meat and complimentary flavours from the sauces. Notice how every plate of tacos comes with plenty of lime. This is important, folks!
The crowd favourite of the day was definitely the chicken, which was moist and tender, and just permeated with spice and flavour! Draped with paper thin red onions, drizzled with sour cream and sprinkled with cilantro, all that is needed is that squeeze of lime – BOOM!
I have never been so excited about a chicken taco!
“Every taco was seasoned well, but all tasted significantly different. The sauces were rich and flavourful” – Jacqui.
“That chicken was spot on and the carne asada made me do the happy dance. Fresh and balanced flavours” – The Side Dish.
The house-made tortillas are thick and sturdy, but not particularly flavourful. Stephanie says that while “the tortillas are a little lacking in flavour, this helped bring out the fillings”.
These tacos are a great deal at less than $10 for three, and they are substantial enough to be a meal.
Cafe Aroma Latino
5780 North Street
Mexican Taco: $4.75
Guatemalan Taco: $2.15
Fish Tacos: $9.85 (2 in an order)
Cafe Aroma Latino has an eclectic menu composed of foods from across Latin America. For our purposes, there was a “Mexican Taco”, a “Guatemalan Taco” and fish tacos.
The Mexican Taco was …. strange. It was like they built the taco and grilled it like a grilled cheese, so that the sour cream was all hot and runny, making the tortilla soggy. The Side Dish compared it to beef stroganoff in taco form. She also complained about the “tough, chewy, old-tasting beef”. Stephanie described it as “gamey”, leading her to wonder if it was beef at all…
The Guatemalan Taco wasn’t really a taco at all, in the common sense of the word. A Guatemalan taco is a deep fried corn tortilla stuffed with meat and covered in sauce. I found the interface mushy and mealy and didn’t enjoy the taste of the meat. Two misses…
The Fish Tacos fared better. The tortillas had a nice texture, almost crispy from the grill and the tilapia was kicked up with the freshness of crunchy cabbage and aromatic herbs.
“Would have loved it the fish portion was a bit larger, there was not much meat but the flavour was good”- Jacqui
El Gallo Mexican Cuisine
2760 Robie Street
Options that Day:
Al Pastor – 3 for $10.50
Chorizo w/ Cheese – 3 for $11.99
El Gallo is a fixture at several farmer’s markets, but now they also have permanent digs in a shared space with Foxhill Cheese, which also serves as a grocery where you can buy salsas, tortillas and other fare.
The Chorizo Tacos came on white corn tortillas with onions and cilantro, accompanied by cups of red and green salsa. There was a cute fruit and pea shoot garnish, but nary a lime to be found.
“The chorizo was bland,” wrote Stephanie, “…but I can deal with the simplistic concept (though it would be easier to make at home).” I agreed – this tasted like an easy home taco. The Side Dish called them “Taco Bell crossover tacos”. Ouch.
The Al Pastor Tacos were similarly bland and dry, with a single note of cinnamon occasionally harmonizing with muted pineapple. These were served on double yellow corn tortillas, a method that I enjoy for its structural integrity and taco-building options. Unfortunately, the tortillas were kind of dry, and definitely from a package.
We were very confused as to why El Gallo makes their own tortillas to sell in the grocery, but uses packaged tortillas for their tacos. Wouldn’t you want the best of your wares to be showcased in your prepared food?
The mild salsas and absence of lime left us unequipped to deal with the lack of flavour, and this was furthered by the dry tortillas and meats.
“Overall I did not enjoy the flavour of anything I was given,” lamented Jacqui.
5-3248 Isleville Street
$4.50 each (except fish and lamb – $5)
Available that day:
Tako Loko is the new kid in the north end, boldly proclaiming that it serves “authentic tacos” made by Mexicans, as counterpoised to the other taco joints in the city.
As tacos are the specialty, there is quite a variety and very little else on the menu. Between the group, we managed to try everything other than the veggie.
My favourite was the Al Pastor. Nice juicy chunks of fresh pineapple brightened up the pulled pork. While still not a true al pastor, (which is a relative of the donair), it was a breath of fresh air compared to our previous encounter.
When Stephanie bit into her Chorizo Taco she started making a lot of passionate noises: “Now THAT’S chorizo!” she exclaimed. It brought back memories of home for her, nostalgia from 20 years ago in Texas. It was somewhat spicy, with a rich, primal, smokiness. It was a flavour that seemed otherworldly to me, and a flavour that Stephanie hadn’t experienced in all her years living up north.
I ordered so many tacos that it was hard to keep them straight. The Suadero, which we were told was brisket, but which the internet says is closer to a hanger steak, closely resembled the Carne Asada, which was not the expected grilled steak but instead a pulled beef.
Most of the tacos here feature “pulled meat” and there was a lack of distinctiveness, especially between the two beef tacos which were both topped identically with diced onion and cilantro. One of them, probably the “suadero”, had a fattier consistency, which I liked.
The Side Dish actively hated these tacos, writing: “The oil coated my mouth. Meat was dry and tasteless. The onion overpowered any smidge of flavour that may have existed.” There were pools of a clear oil under some of our tacos, indicating, she thought, an overuse of commercial oil rather than meaty grease.
There were some bites I didn’t enjoy, while others complained that the carnitas and tinga were either too dry or too skimpy.
I was very surprised by the Tofu Tinga, which we all thought was a combination of meat and tofu, but that the staff insisted was solely tofu. It was less oily, more dry – but in a way that suits tofu. It was almost crispy like a carnitas taco. It was actually one of my favourites of the day.
The table salsas were excellent, but lime was not provided until requested. Also, the tortillas were rather dry, and possibly packaged. While there was a decent amount of fillings, we still thought it was a bit pricey.
The lack of definition between the tacos detracted from the meal. Whether chicken, pork or beef – it was basically pulled meat cooked in different braising lotions. The stand outs were the Al Pastor, Chorizo, Fish and Tofu.
The Winner –> Verano!
Verano knocked this one out of the park, with their dazzling flavours, house tortillas, and careful construction. When it comes to “authentic tacos”, I don’t know if these guys are the most reflective of the streets of Mexico… but they are the most delicious. Everything I’ve had from Verano, from a basic sandwich to their Burger Week 2019 offering, has demonstrated the chef’s commitment to balanced and complimentary elements, with an aptitude for flavours and an attention to detail. Verano also somehow manages to offer the best value of the bunch. I am utterly impressed.
Runner-Up: Tako Loko
Next up: Fancy Tacos! The final Taco Quest will cover El Chino Snack Bar, Antojo, and Taco Lina’s as I quest for the best tacos in Halifax.