Tacos have come a long way since American fast food popularized those hard-shelled corn tortillas filled with fried ground meat, some salsa, shredded cheese and a handful of iceberg lettuce. Traditional Mexican street tacos are little bites made for people on the go—soft corn tortillas purchased from a street cart and filled with an amazing variety of flavors.
Today, the taco scene across Arizona is a trend all its own, with chefs taking the traditional Mexican street taco and redefining it. Throw away any ideas you have about what a taco might be or should be and explore the fusion of flavors wrapped up inside the new world of tacos.
According to David Tyda, co-founder of the annual Arizona Taco Festival (Oct. 12-13, 2019, with about 50 restaurants serving $3 tacos), one of the best tacos in the Valley of the Sun is the Spanish Octopus with charred tomato sauce, served at Tarbell’s Tavern in Phoenix. The octopus is cooked tender and served in a corn tortilla on a bed of shredded cabbage. The charred tomato sauce has a rich cumin spice, giving it that little bit of kick you don’t find in other taco dishes.
Although not a traditional Mexican spot, Tarbell’s still has a fun little list of unique tacos, which Tyda raves about. While he’s a fan of the Spanish Octopus, he also feels the chef’s take on al pastor “is amazing.”
“It doesn’t come off the traditional trompo, but it’s the very definition of mouthwatering,” he said.
Taco al pastor is a dish developed in Central Mexico in which the meat, usually pork, is marinated with dried chilies, spices and pineapple. It is then slowly cooked on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo, thinly sliced with a large knife, and served on tortillas with onion, coriander, pineapple and other ingredients. At Tarbell’s Tavern, the slow-roasted Pork al Pastor is served with charred pineapple and guajillo chiles, giving a more traditional dish a bit of a modern flair.
One of the Valley’s more creative taco settings is Taco Guild in Central Phoenix. Located in a historic old church built in 1893 as Smith’s Chapel for the princely sum of $30, it later became the Bethel Methodist Church. A few years ago, it became the home to some pretty amazing tacos. Taco Guild uses culinary artisans to mix Old World and New World tastes to create amazing flavors from farm-fresh ingredients.
Try the Molida Lamb with Creole aioli and blue cheese, which is topped with thin sweet potato straws, or the Pato Asado beer and chile braised duck taco with tomato corn relish, avocado and cotija cheese.
At SOL Cocina, diners rave about the Taco Vampiro—a mix of Jack and Oaxacan cheeses, Serrano chilies and scallions melted between two corn tortillas, giving it crunch and soft, oozy goodness at the same time. That is then stuffed with soy-marinated carne asada, guacamole and pico de gallo, and topped with cotija cheese, chipotle aioli and cilantro.
If you prefer something totally offbeat and/or vegetarian, opt for SOL Cocina’s Spice-Roasted Butternut Squash Tacos. These little veggie delights feature roasted butternut squash on a corn tortilla with melted cheese, green chile salsa, smoky red pepper salsa and crispy fried onions.
North Scottsdale’s The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa’s restaurant deseo features Nuevo Latino cuisine, which blends traditional Latin American ingredients with a contemporary culinary style. The Millionaire Tacos feature lobster and hamachi marinated in Japanese mayo, yuzu and a Japanese chile called togarashi. They’re then finished with lemon oil-marinated ahi tuna and served on taro root shaped like traditional taco shells and garnished with picked jalapeños.