Tuesday is a special day of the week for me. I grew up in a city in Southern California named Santa Ana. It is a city rich in Mexican culture, and Tuesdays always meant authentic, delicious tacos for only a buck. Taco Tuesday is perhaps one of the easiest promotions a Mexican restaurant can run, and most people have at least a dollar to shell out for tacos (get it?).
Unlike my last post, which was a straight review, I will be comparing the different Mexican restaurants in town
For me, good Mexican tacos have a few traits:
Firstly, the meat needs to be grilled, tender, and spiced. Traditional Mexican meat is spiced in the preparation stage, and should be able to stand on its own with a distinctive, rich taste.
The next category is flavor. Mexican food is renowned for its wide variety of spices and sauces. Galic, cilantro, onions, jalapeños and other chiles are prominent in Mexican cooking.
My final category is consistency. Many taco joints can’t seem to get this last one right, but it is vital to the perfect taco. Greasy meat, extremely watery salsa, and flour tortillas that disintegrate on touch are common mistakes made at taco joints across the country. A diner should also be able to distinguish between each main ingredient, sometimes one gets the impression they are eating Mexican mush instead of a taco.
I compared five Mexicans hotspots in San Luis Obispo: Chilie Peppers, Taco Roco, Chinos Rock and Tacos, Taco de Mexico and Tacos de Acapulco
I ordered what I consider to be the quintessential Mexican taco. One soft-shell flour tortilla carne asada taco, with everything. What “everything” is I left up to the restaurant
If the restaurant didn’t serve carne asada, I ordered shredded beef.
For a second opinion, I went taco tasting with my roomate and good friend, Jono.
- For those who are visual learners, I’ve added a scientifically-developed Taco Rating Index based on Meat, Flavor, and Consistency. Maximum 5 tacos per category.
Runner-up for best Mexican food in SLO county, Chilie Peppers enjoys a wide following with Cal Poly students partially because of one of the restaurant’s location right off Foothill and Santa Rosa. The other location is on Broad and South street, and is, in my opinion, clearly the better of the two. It’s cleaner, offers great outdoor patio seating, and the cooks are much friendlier.
The taco had:
- Carne Asada
- Sour Cream
- Shredded queso blanco
- Red salsa
This taco was wonderful. The meat was especially good, and definitely had a rich, spicy-yet-herbal character that comes with time-tested techniques and practice. The taco had a great, spicy kick in the beginning, and finishes off very smoothly. There was not too much of the spicy sauce, and I could really taste the different flavors and textures of the taco. One part about this taco I didn’t like was the fact that I didn’t get enough meat. I ended up eating a lot more veggies and tortilla than meat, which was disappointing. My partner had the same problem with his taco, though we both agreed the meat we did get was succulent and flavorful. These $1 south of the border tastes are totally worth it.
Personally, I usually go to Taco Roco to get their al pastor meat, which is heavily marinated pork slowly roasted on a spit. But in the spirit of the challenge, and due to their lack of carne asada, I ordered the shredded beef taco for $1. This place was absolutely packed when I went in, a sure sign of success I hoped.
This taco had:
- Shredded Beef
- Shredded cheddar and white cheese (Monterrey jack?)
- Light green lettuce
The first bite of this taco flooded my mouth with its hot liquid. Ok, wait… let’s rephrase that. The shredded beef was extremely juicy and tender, but didn’t really have much in the way of independent flavor. The rest of this taco was deplorable. Which means pretty damn bad. This taco tasted even worse than Taco Bell’s dogmeat concoctions, and that is saying something. The tortilla was undercooked and crumbly, the lettuce added absolutely nothing to this taco but a lot of tasteless green stuff to chew. The cheese blend did nothing for this taco. From Jono, “I was not satisfied whatsoever. The taco falls apart, and it leaves this weird, grotesque taste in my mouth.” Ew, this thing was bad. Sorry Taco Roco, you must be Mucho Loco if you think this is acceptable.
I also wanted to note that we stopped to pick up a drink here, and two times in a row the styrofoam cups had tiny holes that leaked everywhere. One is understandable but two in a row? Disappointing.
Chino’s Rock & Tacos
When we showed up at Chino’s, the line was out the door. This is the only place on my stop I had never tried before, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. The place definitely had the cleanest and most professional feel out of any of my stops on this trip. Extremely clean and decorated with a unique combination of rock and roll memorabilia, Mexican cultural trinkets and Spanish language signs (The name makes sense now), the owner of Chino’s definitely has a good aesthetic sense. $1 tacos and $2 beers can’t go wrong for most students either, but let’s get to the important bits.
The taco had:
- Shredded Beef
- Shredded yellow/white cheese blend
- Dark green lettuce – the same type they serve at the Chipotle chain
Compared to Taco Roco, the Chino’s taco, which had pretty much the same ingredients, was a whole different world. It’s like talking to the older brother that has a great career, gave up drinking and drugs, and can tell you some great stories. Maybe that isn’t the best analogy, but I think you can get the idea. This taco was pretty average, which made it better in every way shape and form than its counterpart at Taco Roco. The lettuce offered a nice crunch without overdoing it, the shredded beef was spiced and had a good taste and texture to it. But again, the cheese blend was something the taco could do without. Putting cheese on tacos is a strictly American tradition, one that I prefer not to perpetuate. Different cheeses, specifically the crumbly white queso panela can be good on tacos, but again, that’s not very authentic. Alexa, another diner, offered her insight on Taco Tuesdays at Chino’s. “I like coming here because of the atmosphere and the deals are good. This isn’t the best taco I’ve ever had, but for the value and location in the heart of downtown, it makes Chino’s worth it for us.
I had nothing bad to really say about the Chino’s taco, but nothing that stood out to me as particularly well done. Free chips and salsa with the meal is nice. Decent on all fronts.
Taco de Mexico
Taco de Mexico is the only place where I saw actual Mexican people eating, which is always a good sign. Ethnic restaurants that attract people of the same heritage are usually dialed-in on the culture and often have authentic recipes that have been passed down through generations. Taco de Mexico definitely feels like a mom-and-pop Mexican diner, though I will say this place always seems to be close to empty. Such was the case when I walked in that night. The lighting is a little dark, and the restaurant suffers from feeling cramped, in a way I can’t really describe. But the staff was extremely friendly, and even let me snap a few photos of the cooking process, which I really appreciated.
The taco had:
- Carne Asada
- A red sauce with some jalapeno seeds
This is a taco I am more used to. The meat was excellently spiced, but had a slightly chewy texture which signified a bit of overcooking. The flavors in the red sauce were perhaps the best I have tasted in this city. It combined spicy with tangy, while letting the fresh cilantro boldly tie the two together. I personally prefer the jalapeño seeds, though not all do as they can be a bit too spicy. However, the insides of the taco were let down by the outside. The flour tortilla, like Taco Roco’s, had that crumbly, I’m-gonna-break-in-half-if-you-even-dare-to-bend-me texture, something that unfortunately detracted from the otherwise great meal. Maybe that is because they are using precooked tortillas reheated on a grill, though I seem to recall Chilie Peppers doing the same thing without issue.
José, a San Luis Obispo local for three years, gave me his opinion on Taco de Mexico. “I like it here, almost everything is good. But in this city the food is not as authentic. Real Mexican food has more spices in the food and spiciness in the meat.” I was happy that he also agreed with my cheese issue, no real Mexican tacos have cheese. Luckily, Taco de Mexico was using traditional recipes that passed up cheesy tacos, something we can be grateful for.
I have to mention that Taco de Mexico does not actually run a Taco Tuesday promotion, and I paid full price, $2.15 for single taco.
Tacos de Acapulco
Tacos de Acapulco was next to empty when I walked in, and though they had three people working the kitchen, nobody seemed to be paying attention to the front end, which had two dirty tables and some trash on the floor as well. I’ve only been here once, and to be honest it was terrible. Many Mexican eateries in the Central Coast tend to drape on guacamole, sour cream, and red sauce on top of already-prepared burritos or tacos, and Taco de Acapulco is one place that sticks out in my mind for doing this. But I ordered the same as all the others. One carne asada taco with everything.
The taco had:
- Carne Asada
- Red Sauce
There was one thing that stuck out above all other factors when I first took a bite of this taco and the was the grease. My partner-in-crime Jono couldn’t have put it better when he said the taco “was scooped out of grease.” The meat actually had a decent flavor to it but it was completely overshadowed by the fact that I felt like I was sinking my teeth into a ball of solid animal fat. A pleasant image, I know, but to be honest I can’t think of how else to describe it. We journeyed on, hoping the taco would be better in the middle, but the grease only thickened. It covered every part of this taco, which was particularly large. The spices on it were decent but the texture and meat were ruined by the fatty fiesta in my mouth. I didn’t expect much from Taco de Acapulco in the first place, but this was ridiculous. The fact that this place doesn’t offer a Taco Tuesday promotion only makes me more certain that I will never want to endure this restaurant again. For what I got, I should be paying 50 cens, not $2.25 a taco. Ridiculous!
Ninety minutes and five tacos later, I think I can say I got a pretty decent taste of the basic Mexican cuisine of San Luis Obispo. I have to say, while this city doesn’t quite match the authenticity, selection and taste that Santa Ana can, students who are craving decent tacos can satisfy themselves locally. Taco de Mexico is great but not amazing, though, and with a few adjustments they could be contenders for the best Mex in town. Chino’s is good if students are looking to mingle with their peers in the middle of downtown. From personal experience, I know Taco Roco has some food that can actually hold its ground against other eateries, specifically their al pastor meat and most of their burritos, but stay away if you are looking for value for your dollar on Taco Tuesday. Don’t even bother with Tacos de Acapulco, I have a feeling they won’t be in business much longer.
For the best Taco Tuesday deal, Chilie Peppers on Broad Street is my clear favorite. The overall quality and value of their tacos is a step-ahead of anything else I found in SLO, and the workers are always friendly. This was my second time in the restaurant, and both times the cooks have offered me something special they are making for themselves that isn’t on the menu. This time it was this shrimpy-dip thing that, while I had no idea what was in it, was pretty delicious. And for free, you can’t go wrong.
For the best Taco Tuesday deal, Chilie Peppers on Broad Street is my clear favorite. The overall quality and value of their tacos is a step-ahead of anything else I found in SLO, and the workers are always friendly.
Two other notable San Luis Obispo restaurants, Tonitas and Pepe Delgados, were left out of this comparison due to budget and time restrictions.