In this week's RFT cover story "One Nation, Under Tacos," writer Gustavo Arellano shares the evolution of Mexican food in the U.S., chartering its history from the American Southwest and the California coast to the Midwest and everywhere in between. With temperatures cresting 80 degrees in St. Louis and access to abundant, affordable and damn appetizing Mexican food all over the city, there's no reason not to enjoy tacos al pastor al fresco pretty much every night of the spring and summer. Though we enjoy the gourmet grub at high-end eateries like Milagro Modern Mexican (20 Allen Avenue; 314-962-4300), sometimes Gut Check just wants to grab a taco on the go from a take-away taqueria or food truck. Here's our list of the ten best places to grab a quick and tasty taco in St. Louis.
Seoul Taco (@SeoulTaco; 314-517-8916): The Korean-Mexican fusion of food truck Seoul Taco makes for an inventive menu that offers kimchi slaw and gogi bowls alongside quesadillas and spicy pork tacos. While plenty of St. Louis food trucks and carts cater to Mexican-minded palates, only Seoul Taco takes on such creative multicultural cuisine. You can't go wrong with any of the tacos here -- chicken, spicy pork, tofu, bulgogi (steak) -- but Gut Check is especially enamored with the spicy pork tacos, served with Korean salad mix, green onion, Seoul sauce, crushed sesame seeds and a wedge of lime.
La Tejana Taqueria (3149 North Lindbergh Boulevard; 314-291-8500): This year's best taqueria is also a liquor store and a place to pick up a new pair of cowboy boots. What more could you want? How about authentic carnitas (usually available on the weekends), incredible tacos de cabeza and a taco with both carne asada and chorizo? La Tejana is 2011's Best Taqueria.
Cha Cha Chow: (@whereschacha; 314-239-2832) One of St. Louis' first Mexican-centric food trucks, Cha Cha Chow's menu is almost entirely dedicated to tacos, with "super fresh tacos" and "taco platters" receiving their own menu categories. Highlights of the food truck's creative takes on tacos include the beef short rib taco with red cabbage lime slaw and Cha Cha Sauce wrapped in a flour tortilla; the Yucatan pulled pork with grilled onion, poblano pepper and salsa verde wrapped in a white corn tortilla and the curried sweet potato packed with curry, ginger, onion, garlic and salsa verde teeming inside a fluffly flour tortilla.
La Vallesana (2801 Cherokee Street; 314-776-4223): At last we come to Cherokee Street. For much of the past year, La Vallesana operated out of its nearby ice cream parlor while the owners rebuilt the taqueria from the ground up. The new La Vallesana might have lost the original's ramshackle charm, but the food remains terrific. Few St. Louis dishes are as close to my heart as the tacos al pastor here: seasoned pork, pineapple, cilantro and onion, these are the taqueria gateway drug.
Tacomovil (@TacoTruckSTL; 314-518-3352): It's in the name: Tacomovil delivers tasty tacos from its roving food truck window. Though burritos, tortas and quesadillas are also on the menu, if you're in need of a taco fix, the choices at Tacomovil will satisfy. Choose from chicken, steak or pork tacos served with cilantro and onions, wrapped in a soft tortilla shell and served with a side of hot sauce. Tacomovil might not have as much flash or frill as other food trucks, but it's big in what matters: quality food, fast and on-the-go.
Taqueria Durango (10238 Page Avenue; 314-429-1113): Another Overland gem, Taqueria Durango is one of the very few places in St. Louis where you can score a torta ahogada. Literally a "drowned" torta, this sandwich of carnitas and onions is covered with a smoky chile sauce. Yes, you need a knife and fork to eat it. Want something a little easier to handle? The tacos are terrific, especially the tacos al pastor -- though some of the adventurous might sample buche (esophagus).
Tortillaria (8 1/2 South Euclid Avenue; 314-361-4443): Tucked in the Central West End, Tortillaria serves a fresh, flavorful selection of south-of-the-border specialties, including its two varieties of fish tacos, which are Gut Check favorites. The original fish tacos, made with XX Amber Ale battered tilapia, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo and queso fresco, all bathed in chipotle baja sauce and wrapped in corn tortilla, is an indulgent, crispy feast of a taco. The slightly healthier baja fish tacos come with grilled tilapia, avocado, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo and queso fresco doused with the same chipotle baja sauce, housed in chewy flour tortillas.
Taqueria la Pasadita (2336 Woodson Road; 314-428-3832): Maybe the best in-joke in the St. Louis restaurant scene: This top-notch taqueria is located in a former Taco Bell in Overland. Ever since I first dined here three years ago, I've thought about the tacos filled with chicharrón -- crunchy-crisp exterior, tender interior -- yet when I return I always order the pork tamales, the best in town, a beautiful balance of pork, the sweetness of masa and the heat of chiles
Taqueria la Monarca: (8531 Olive Boulevard; 314-814-5864): A butterfly is an apt metaphor for this University City joint. The space -- one side a restaurant, the other a grocery -- is humble, but you emerged transformed. Or, your hunger is transformed into, um, the opposite of hunger. (We're better at eating tacos than extending a metaphor.) The tacos are excellent, heaped with so much meat that you might need a third corn tortilla to hold it all together, but don't overlook the sopes, fried masa disks topped with refried beans, meat, cheese and crema.
Hot Aztec (@hotaztec; 314-540-2949): The latest mobile Mexican eatery in hit the St. Louis food scene, Hot Aztec serves an impressive variety of tortas (chicken mole, chori queso, albondigas), soups, sides and even Oaxacan hot dogs, but its inspired taco menu is its standout success. Its cochinita pibil combines shoulder of pork wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted in anchiote and fresh orange juice and its al pastor tacos -- a Gut Check favorite -- come with grilled pork marinated in anchiote and chipotles served with fresh grilled pineapple and onions. There's even an option for vegetarians and vegans; the roasted vegetable taco is piled high with grilled zucchini, yellow squash and roasted red peppers bathed in a light herb sauce.