There are two things that keep Nashville from being the perfect city for me. The first is mountains. Can’t do much there. The second is a really good Mexican restaurant.
Most of our best attempts are operated by fellow frustrated gringos or have been southernized to fit our velveeta-loving appetites. Sure they’ll do in a pinch, but like a drunken 3 AM hook-up, they often leave you a little disappointed or put you in an awkward situation the next morning.
With that in mind, the idea for the Jubilee Taco Truck Tour was born.
Split into three teams, we met at 12 South Taproom for a Jubilee and an explanation of the rules. Fellow culinary idiot Jeff Dotts brought along a description of the different meat choices, ranging from carne asada (steak) to lengua (beef tongue).
We were to be judging on carne asada and al pastor, a spicy pork that when done right will take you to a happy place. We also had a wild card slot, allowing each team to experiment with birria, barbacoa, lengua or plain ole pollo (chicken).
Earlier this year, in a grueling afternoon battle of taste buds versus stomach capacity, Jeff and I sampled tacos from all 11 trucks from Harding to Old Hickory…44 tacos in all. We came up with three trucks that were far and away superior and a fourth that was worth trying again. In order of address they were: Taqueria Express #1, El Tapatio, Mexico Lindo and Lopez.
While travelling south down Nolensville Road, a roadside pony-ride tent marks your entrance into taco truck paradise. Yes, I said pony ride tent. It’s the funniest/saddest thing you’ve ever seen, as 6 ponies and one small horse spend all day going round and round a poll in a strip mall parking lot. I think ponies are just plain funny, and I can’t really explain why. Others in our car were relatively appalled at the scene-for good reason.
The first taco truck you come to is Taqueria Express #1, which is located next to the C&R World Market. This truck was not built for tall people, as anyone over 5’10” has to duck to order and there is a usually a line of folks waiting.
Tacos from these trucks all come out the same. A delicious mixture of meat, cilantro and onions on top of two warm flour tortillas. The tortillas are silver dollar pancake size, and we usually split each between two or three people. A couple of salsas/sauces are usually available on the side of the truck.
Express #1 ranked high for most, but it did have a couple of low scores caused by some fatty meat, a risk you run when you’re eating at these trucks.
While I was happily eating an al pastor taco, Laurin, a nurse at a neurology clinic, told a story of how one of their patients recently came to them with parasites in his brain that were caused by eating pork from a taco stand.
I paused for a second as the worm-in-the-ear scene from Star Trek II, Wrath of Khan, flashed through my head, but in the end the deliciously spicy pork goodness won out over the risk of brain hemorrhage.
When done right, there’s nothing better than this style of taco. The meat is tender and well flavored, and the mix of cilantro and onions is the perfect compliment. The warm tortilla soaks up the residual juice from the meat and ties the whole thing together nicely. It’s simple and delicious.
When done poorly, it’s really, really bad. Tough, unflavored steak or pork meets dry tortilla. Gross.
I’m a huge fan of cheese, so when I was first exposed to this style of taco in Phoenix, I felt like something was missing. After a few late night experiences that bordered on orgasmic, I changed my tune.
Our second stop, El Tapatio, was by far and away the biggest disappointment. These folks are obviously doing something right, as evidenced by the indoor seating and the second full-service restaurant just down the road. But they sure weren’t doing it for our groups, as we all walked away underwhelmed.
Mexico Lindo turned out to be closed…they were open the night before when I was scouting, but apparently it’s more of a late-night stand. After a quick conference call, Jeff and I decided to add Taqueria Mexico Tennessee to the mix.
Mexico Tennessee is a curious truck in that it has a tented dining area, a drive through that doesn’t actually drive through and a single stand alone toilet with actual plumbing. It’s a wonderful mix of curiosities. This led our group to turn into a pack of 22 year old girls out for a big night…at one point four of the five of us had phones out, taking pics and texting our friends “like OMG, can you believe this?” I imagine the owners had to fight back their urge to come and kick us in the nuts.
Mexico Tennessee was the favorite in the carne asada division (though it was third on my list behind Express #1 and Lopez). The highlight for me was the introduction of the lengua/tongue taco. More to the point, it was tricking Mark Hardison into eating it under the guise of carne asada.
Mark’s initial reaction was “this is really good”, however when I revealed that it was actually tongue, things took a turn for the worse. He took another bite, but this time was acutely aware of the texture of tongue. Complete gamechanger. Stomach pains soon ensued.
The final stop, Lopez, won the al pastor category and and the best all around. They also had great pollo (pronounced “poy-O”). There are a couple branches of Lopez throughout Nashville and they consistently put out some good fare. The popularity of the taco truck led to the creation of a dine-in option, complete with indoor plumbing- a rarity on the tour.
Our bellies full and our hearts content (except for Mark, who was in pre-vomit warning stage one- burps with a little mouth watering), we headed back past the ponies to 12 South Taproom to declare a winner.
And with as little personal bias as possible, I am pleased to announce the winners:
2. Express #1
3. Mexico Tennessee
4. El Tapatio
1. Mexico (cough…horsesh&t…cough) Tennessee
3. Express #1
4. El Tapatio
2. Mexico Tennessee
4. El Tapatio
I encourage you not to take our word for which taco trucks are best…grab a group of friends and head out for yourself. My only advice is to order boldly and make sure you get outside of your comfort zone. Oh, and avoid words like “ranking”, “judging” or “evaluating” when talking with taco stand owners. Trust me on that one.
PS: Anyone with a pic of you or your son/daughter on the pony ride gets a free 6-pack and a t-shirt.