Sunday, Oct. 4 is National Taco Day, but Americans seem to celebrate it year round. We’ll eat about 4.5 billion tacos this year.
While a number of taco chains are offering National Taco Day deals, here’s our list of 37 great tacos around the state — the best individual tacos to be found in New Jersey. Listed in no particular order, you’ll find these delicious offerings in taquerias that range from swanky to spare. Enjoy, and don’t forget to grab some extra napkins and salsa verde or salsa roja.
Note: This is an updated version of a list that appeared last year.
I liked this place when the hostess brought me a glass of refreshing mint tea as I was waiting outside for a takeout order. I liked it even more when I dug into my tacos back in the hotel room. They’re a handful — big and bulging. Tacos include carne asada (steak), chicken, pork, vegetarian, octopus and shrimp. There are also burritos, quesadillas and bottled Mexican sodas. There are picnic tables outside.
The colorful, lime green-trimmed Taquitos Buenaventura is located around the corner from a McDonald’s. I love the enchilada/spicy pork tacos. There are also oreja (pork ear) tacos if you’re feeling adventurous.
Orale loves to bend the taco “rules” — the chicken taco is topped with serrano chiles and a yellow tomato pico de gallo, and the tuna taco doesn’t even come in a tortilla. My favorite is the machin — roasted bone marrow topped with crispy pork belly and shredded cabbage.
Costa Chica was once a Volkswagen dealership. I should know; I bought my second car there. Al pastor, the traditional pineapple-marinated pork taco, is packed with flavor and attitude.
San Pedro Tierra Mexican is a funky little taco joint with cheap, tasty tacos. The chorizo tacos feature homemade sausage, but the stars here are the salsa verde and salsa rojo, mildly spicy and majorly addictive.
Depending on whom you talk to, barbacoa can mean steamed and smoked meat, or meat that is slow cooked. One thing that is not up for dispute: The barbacoa tacos at Picante are the standouts at this under-the-radar restaurant.
Not much to look at outside or inside, Guate Rico can be packed at lunchtime, which is all you need to know. Inexpensive, satisfying tacos — three for $6.50. If seating is not available, eat them in your car, as I did the last time I stopped. Love the salsa verde here.
I’ve had way too many greasy or fatty carne asada tacos, so when you come across a good one — like the one at La Esperanza — you remember. Hefty, tender chunks of meat make all the difference.
There are dozens of taquerias in Passaic. Taqueria Brenda Lee is probably the smallest and plainest. But the pineapple-topped pork on the spit says you’ve come to the right place.
I love Panchos, a no-frills taqueria next door to the fabled White House Subs. The tacos al pastor, on homemade tortillas, may be the best I’ve had anywhere in New Jersey.
Can’t get into Taqueria Downtown? Head to the smaller, quieter Taqueria Viva Mexico, tucked into the city’s Paulus Hook neighborhood. There are a dozen taco choices. Try the chorizo and nopal (cactus). Excellent hot sauce, too.
MOGO started as a shipping container-turned food stand on the Asbury Park boardwalk. The stand is still there, while the Cookman Avenue storefront is one of the town’s most popular eateries. The pork tacos get the slight edge over the others: chicken, beef, shrimp, fish and tofu.
Villalobos is the swankiest spot on this list — it reminds me of an airport business-class lounge, albeit one decorated with Day of the Dead artwork. The tacos, not surprisingly, are far from formulaic. The carnitas taco packs cola-braised pork belly, corn, cojita (cheese) and morita (a kind of chipotle) into a tasty mouthful.
Smartphones have made food ordering so much easier this lockdown summer. I was enjoying a brew or two at Carney’s in Cape May when I walked to the end of the block, placed an order at Taco Caballito Cape May, and received a text when it was ready. What was I doing in Cape May to begin with? Finishing up my epic Shore walk. The tacos go beyond basic meat and salsa: The carne asada includes citrus marinated steak, cilantro, onion, avocado, queso fresco and chipotle aioli. The chicken tinga combines shredded chicken, queso fresco and pickled onions. There is another location in Logan Township.
Benji’s provides abundant eye candy (inspirational messages and Lucha Libre wrestling posters) and excellent food. There are 10 kinds of tacos. My favorite is the campechanos, a mix of pastor and carnitas.
A food truck with serious wanderlust, the Mexi-Flip truck worked Jersey City, West Orange, New Brunswick, Tuckerton, New Egypt and Sewell (Gloucester County) several summers ago. Good tacos, especially the steak, pork and mango chicken varieties. You can find the truck on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark.
A food truck with a fixed location, Tacos Al Carbon can be found on Peach Street in Hammonton. The tacos are good and cheap — I tried the al pastor, carnitas and bistec asada. Also recommended: The tortas, the size of Delaware and tasty besides, jammed with meat, tomatoes and avocados.
Dover is taqueria central, and Taqueria Pancho Villa is my favorite — a spare, small place as “authentic” as that word gets. Many people shudder at the thought of goat on their plate. Get over it. The goat taco and the salsa roja here make for a great combo.
One of the new kids on the food truck block, Tacos y Alitas (Tacos and Wings) opened in May on a lot between the CVS and UPS Store on North County Line Road in Jackson. The tacos (3 for $7) are nicely done, with quality meat. While you’re there, try the wings, cooked sous vide (vacuum-sealed in a bag). They’re plump and tender, with assertive seasoning. The mango habanero sauce is a must: fruity, spicy, distinctive.
An often-overlooked key to great tacos are the sauces: not all salsa verdes are created equal. The hot sauce at El Matador takes no prisoners. Toss some on the carnitas tacos — or just about anything on the menu.
It’s easy to miss Los Cholitos, a small eatery set off Route 22 in Lebanon. It’s located next to the Stewart’s, which you can’t miss. The tacos boast a simple, honest flavor, like they were made in the kitchen by somebody’s mom. Try the adobada tacos, marinated in adobo sauce.
The kitschy, playful atmosphere and ’60s soundtrack at Taqueria Downtown will brighten the dreariest of days. I love pretty much all the tacos here. If I had to pick one: the buche (pork belly). If I had to pick two more: suadero (slow cooked beef flank marinated in lime) and bistec (steak with onions and cilantro).
Parilla la Nueva Fogata (new wood-fired grill) has some of the coolest chairs of any Mexican restaurant in New Jersey (bright suns peeking over the roofs of churches, villager scenes) and an unassuming, friendly atmosphere. Don’t forget to try their fruit drinks — watermelon, tamarind, mango and melon.
Half of the 10 tacos at Fat Fish Taco are seafood-related, from the Baja (battered cod, cabbage, lime cilantro sauce, pico de gallo) and the Grilled Mahi to the Spicy Shrimp and Buffalo Tempura Shrimp. The best of the bunch is the Blackened Fish Taco, with blackened sole, cabbage, crema, chipotle aioli and pico de gallo in a flour tortilla.
A Taco Affair dares to be different, a self-described “upscale fast casual restaurant” whose tacos are well out of the usual comfort zone. There are 14 kinds in all, from smoked brisket, horseradish flank steak and Korean BBQ pork to crab fritters, New England lobster and pork belly huevos rancheros. Fried chicken in a taco? It works well here.
The cookie-cutter storefront at Tacos el Tio doesn’t prepare you for the riot of colors inside, with murals setting the atmospheric stage. Recommended: The camarones tacos, with grilled shrimp, pickled habanero and red onion. Save room for the homemade desserts, including flan and tres leches, made with three kinds of milk, plus coconut rum.
“Shake the monotony – goodbye boring food” is the motto at Chanos Latin Kitchen. The menu is a heady combination of Mexican tacos, burritos and nachos; Caribbean rice, beans and tostones; and South American soups, empanadas and coffee. The Baja fish tacos are a mouthwatering meld of crispy beer-battered cod, cabbage salad, creamy chipotle and sliced Mexican avocado. There are 12 kinds of salsas. The jalapeño lime salsa goes well with the fish taco.
Colorful little El Pueblo Taqueria — sunshine-yellow walls, murals — is in a strip mall across the street from a giant Wawa, so you can’t miss it. There are 11 kinds of tacos, from chicken, steak and pork to tongue, Mexican-style shrimp and spicy chopped tofu. The best part: an order of four is just $7.50. Tortas are in the $7-$10 range, and the guacamole is made fresh to order.
Taqueria Los Gueros is a popular taqueria chain, with a dozen locations in North and Central Jersey. I give the al pastor tacos a slight edge over the steak or chicken. There are Gringo Tacos, with mozzarella, but you don’t want to go there.
“Stay Calm, Drink Tequila” reads a sign at retro wonderland Red Cadillac. Works for me! Tacos come in five varieties — fish, beef, pork, veggie and lobster. Go with the tasty pico-topped beef; they’re the Jaguar — or Cadillac — of tacos.
A small, spare taqueria in the state’s best small town, Tacos Cancun offers food big on flavor and value. There are 10 kinds of tacos. Start with the lengua — yes, tongue.
Taco choices abound at the Tortilla Press Cantina. Sure, you can get chicken, beef, pork and steak tacos, but why not walk on the wild side with the BBQ Pulled Jackfruit and Peanut tacos, or the spicy shredded seitan (a meat substitute made with wheat gluten) tacos? The mahi-mahi tacos, though, are the standout, enlivened with zesty slaw and avocado lime sauce.
You’ve got to love a place that promises “no frozen crap” and divides its tacos into “authentic” (corn tortilla with onion, cilantro, lime) and “gringo” varieties (flour tortilla, sour cream and cheese). You won’t find genre-bending tacos at Taqueria Maria’s — seven kinds are available — but you will find good, honest food.
Los Primos is a subterranean taco joint with a steer head and photos of Pancho Villa on the wall. Cecina is salted beef. The salsa verde, distinctive and spicy, is one of my two or three favorites in the state.
The tacos at Santeria Taqueria aren’t your grandma’s tacos (counterclockwise from bottom left, carne asada; banh mi — cola-braised pork belly, pickled watermelon rind, radish, cilantro; The Leftover — fried avocado, black beans, cojita, chili crema, cilantro; and al pastor). The taqueria is on the side of the Seaside Heights boardwalk, just south of Lucky Leo’s.
Taqueria El Mariachi is squeezed into an unremarkable, if not dreary, stretch of South Olden Avenue in Trenton, but inside it’s homey and friendly, with good food and first-rate salsas. Three hefty, tasty al pastor tacos are $7, and there are five kinds of pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese and other fillings). The pork rind pupusas are a must-try.
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected]