Ever since I was 12 years old and a Taco Bell first opened in the not-even-all-that-small Virginia town where I lived, I’ve been kind of obsessed with tacos. Since my introduction was through the absolute lowest common denominator mainstream version, I’ve never been a snob about them at all–I ate any taco, anywhere I could encounter one, and generally loved them all. But recently, with the opening of a bunch of high-profile, somewhat trendy taco joints around the more hip urban districts of RVA, I started wondering which local restaurant makes the best taco.
Ever since I was 12 years old and a Taco Bell first opened in the not-even-all-that-small Virginia town where I lived, I’ve been kind of obsessed with tacos. Since my introduction was through the absolute lowest common denominator mainstream version, I’ve never been a snob about them at all–I ate any taco, anywhere I could encounter one, and generally loved them all. But recently, with the opening of a bunch of high-profile, somewhat trendy taco joints around the more hip urban districts of RVA, I started wondering which local restaurant makes the best taco. Unofficial polling amongst friends soon made clear that there are damn near as many answers to this question as there are people living and eating in this city. The only way to find an answer that would satisfy me would be to give up my fast food ways and start trying all the different taco spots around RVA for myself. Make no mistake, folks–that’s a very deep rabbit hole. I have a list of something like 40 different places, and it’s going to take quite a few episodes of this particular visionquest before I have anything resembling an answer. But really, isn’t it the journey, not the destination, that’s most important in these kinds of things? (Greg Anderson said that–though not the Greg Anderson from Sunn O))), which is a shame because that would have been way cooler.)
I decided to start my journey with the trendy taco joints that started this whole thought process in the first place. And just to provide some sort of assessment of each taco place I hit up, I’ll be comparing all of them to metal bands (which may or may not make any sense, but I’ll try not to get too ridiculous with it). Here goes…
Don’t Look Back
(2929 W. Cary St)
The Tacos: This place has a strange name that certainly does not say “tacos sold here” to me–I at least hope it’s referencing Bob Dylan and not Boston. Considering this is the new home of legendary former RVA lunch cart Nate’s Taco Truck, though, there’s a certain standard of quality that anyone in the know will expect. And you won’t be disappointed, that’s for sure. With an incredible variety of fillings available, from every kind of meat you can think of to several different vegetarian choices (beans, TVP, etc), Don’t Look Back has something for everyone. I’ve found the beef to be the best, but it’s all been delicious, really. I’m not the type to demand perfect traditional authenticity from a taco, but if you are the sort of person who thinks a taco topped with anything other than onions, lime, and cilantro is an abomination, Don’t Look Back will hook you up. Meanwhile, they also have “gringo-style” tacos for people like me. It’s cool, I’ll admit to being a white boy if it allows there to be cheese and sour cream on my tacos. Don’t Look Back mostly close their kitchen at 10 PM, but they keep the tacos going all night, so next time it’s midnight and you’re ready to kill somebody for a taco, don’t settle for the Taco Bell drive thru–go to Don’t Look Back. You won’t regret it.
The Metal: I’m going to say that Don’t Look Back is the Motorhead of RVA taco joints. They’ve done a lot of stuff, but you always know what you’re going to get from them, and it’s always really, really good. (Does this make Nate Gutierrez the Lemmy Kilmister of RVA tacos? I’m probably overthinking it.)
En Su Boca
(1001 N. Boulevard)
The Tacos: I get the feeling a lot of people are leery of this place because it’s in a building that used to house a porn store. Let me just say right now–that is silly. I have been there and I promise there are no peep show booths left. The dining room is really nice and the staff is friendly. As for the tacos, the mission seems to be combining the traditional lime/cilantro/onion taco style with a more experimental gourmet palate. I can respect that, and for the most part it turns out well. I had three different taco styles at this place; fish, carnitas, and carne asada. The carnitas and carne asada tacos were both thoroughly delicious–exactly the sort of taco that would please the do-or-die traditionalists, but tasty enough that I didn’t find myself missing the cheese and sour cream I usually look for on a taco. The fish taco lost me a little bit–it had a chipotle sauce on it that just didn’t combine with the taste of the fish in a way that worked for me. If anything, it felt like they were getting a bit too fancy with it, and would be better off sticking with a more standard taco sauce. But hey, what do I know? Maybe this gourmet stuff is just over my head. On the whole, there is no legitimate reason not to hit up En Su Boca for some tacos sometime soon. If you’re not feeling adventurous, stick with the carnitas, and you will be totally satisfied.
The Metal: En Su Boca reminds me of Iron Maiden; when they get too fancy with things (i.e. bringing in keyboards) they sometimes lose their way, but no one can deny that classic albums like Piece Of Mind or Number Of The Beast are perfect just the way they are.
(3123 W. Cary St.)
The Tacos: If you’re like me and grew up on Taco Bell, the thing you’ll think when you see a Weezie’s taco is “OMG a gordita!” These tacos are, as Jonathan Swift would say, brobdingnagian. I had a tuna taco from this place. Yes, one. And normally, if you told me I only needed to order one taco from a place, I would scoff heartily at you. But Weezie’s tacos are enough for a full meal. Not only are they two to three times the size of normal tacos, they come on a thick shell that I can’t compare to anything but Taco Bell gorditas. Maybe there’s a better, more “in the know” thing to call such shells–if so, I apologize for being too uncultured to know it. But the ingredients inside the taco are quite tasty (and I don’t even usually like tuna). They satisfy my gringo sensibilities by providing plenty of cheese, sour cream, and tomatoes, and they ensure the taco won’t fall apart before you start eating it by holding it together with toothpicks. OK, that part was weird, but once I took the toothpicks out and made sure to hold the taco with both hands while I was eating it, everything went quite well. Weezie’s is not the place to order tacos if you’re a traditionalist, but if you’re into enjoying the full spectrum of taco varieties, you’ll dig it.
The Metal: Weezie’s reminds me of the controversial metal band of the moment, Deafheaven. While I think Deafheaven are pushing the boundaries of black metal to explore new ways of making awesome heavy music, a lot of the metal purists I know don’t even think they count as a metal band. But purists are boring, so whatever.
(2202 Jefferson Ave.)
The Tacos: I wasn’t even thinking of Alamo as a place that served tacos, though I’m intimately familiar with their delicious barbecue preparations. And yet, it turns out they do make tacos, though how different those tacos are from their regular barbecue is up for debate. I had a beef taco and a pork taco from Alamo, and both were very similar to sandwiches I’d had in the past–basically, the meat from the sandwich on a taco shell, with coleslaw, corn, and black beans added on top. They were neither traditional nor “gringo style” tacos, but something else entirely. But hey, what the hell? They tasted great. Alamo BBQ is a can’t-miss spot to order barbecue from, so what could possibly be wrong with getting that barbecue on a flour tortilla? We could hash out existential questions of whether what you end up eating constitutes a proper taco or not, but I’ll leave that to the philosophers. Instead, I say next time you’re at Alamo, maybe order some tacos for a change of pace. It’s not like you’ll be disappointed. And by the way, order a side of the jalapeno mac n’ cheese too. Holy fuck that stuff is good.
The Metal: Alamo is Van Halen, in that you can debate over whether they’re truly metal or just a rock band with a blazing guitarist. But you can’t debate over whether or not they rule. OBVIOUSLY they rule. (PS–in this case, we are talking about “good Van Halen,” i.e. the David Lee Roth era.)
So, we have reached the end of the beginning of my taco visionquest. Next time, I will attempt to navigate the maze of dollar taco nights that dot the RVA food landscape (at least on weeknights). Am I totally wrong about any of the tacos discussed above? Do you have suggestions for locations I should visit in the future? Let me know in the comments!