Tacothon – The Quest for Fayetteville’s Best Taco

Tacos. What comes to mind when you hear that delicious word? Crispy shell? Soft shell? Corn tortilla? Flour tortilla? Chicken? Beef? Shrimp? It’s one of those things on which everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a favorite.

I wanted to conduct an experiment. My idea went something like this: gather a panel of judges, visit ten of Fayetteville’s Mexican restaurants, eat one taco each, judge the taco, and move on to the next restaurant. A few simple rules were laid out: 1) no national chains, 2) it must be an established Fayetteville restaurant, 3) no build-your-own (a la Flying Burrito), and 4) the selection is limited to crunchy beef tacos and crunchy chicken tacos to keep the judging as fair as possible. Each judge was given a scorecard for each restaurant with the categories “crunchiness”, “meat quality”, “topping quality” and “overall flavor”, to judge on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being gross and 5 being delish). The judges were also provided an “additional comments” section, where they could comment freely on anything they wanted – from the salsa to the atmosphere to the staff, or to go into more detail about their taco.

Simple enough, right? So I compiled a list of restaurants based on searching for “Mexican restaurant” on local540.com and taking the first ten restaurants that fit the requirements. I rounded up our own Fayetteville Flyer’s founding fathers – and their wives – to help bring my idea to fruition. We divided into two teams, Team Beef and Team Chicken, and visited 10 Mexican restaurants on Saturday’s snowy afternoon in search of Fayetteville’s best taco. Ten tacos and six hours later, we all considered ourselves well-versed in the realm of Fayetteville’s taco options. These are the results, from worst to best. Enjoy!

#10: Jose’s324 W. Dickson St.
One judge summed it up well: “(N)olé for Jose’s”. Back in the day, Jose’s was the spot for some good, local Tex-Mex. However, the years have not been kind to this Fayetteville staple; the food preparation looks rushed and careless, the quality of the food seems to have diminished. Some judges’ comments included, “egads, canned chicken!”, “tastes like cake” (I’m assuming this is a bad thing?), and “smells like kitty food.” In Jose’s defense, we will add that the margaritas are arguably the best in town, and the staff was prompt and friendly. Or as another judge searching for kind words put it, “Good alcohol. Has a bathroom.”

#9: Marlo’s Taco Shack1192 N. Garland Ave.
Oh, Marlo. Your little shack is so cute. But your tacos? Not so much. While the beef tacos scored notably higher than the chicken tacos, this taco shack across from the Harps on Garland Avenue failed to meet our taco standards. After ordering at the window (there is no table service), our panel sat in small booths with amusing prose carved into the tabletops. No plates were provided, so we ate our tacos off napkins. One judge remarked, “this tastes like TV dinner chicken.” Other comments included, “smallest, lightest and driest taco”, “lame – I could make better at home” and, “I wish Shaq were here at the Shack.” To Marlo’s credit, some judges were pleasantly surprised: “Not great, but not as bad as I was expecting.” Meh. Next!

#8: Acambaro2605 N. College Ave.
Remember when Acambaro was Ruffino’s? Remember that rumor around town that Ruffino’s was run by the mob? Yeah, me too… Anyway, we don’t think Acambaro is run by the mob. But we do think their tacos could use a little help. The first thing all the judges noticed was that the taco shells were stale. This category was what brought Acambaro’s score way, way down. Other remarks included, “nothing special”, “runny taco”, and “too much oregano in the chicken”. One judge even found something besides meat in his fare: “Weird plastic thing in my taco. Lame.” The atmosphere was another downer for the group. With fluorescent lights and no music, the restaurant gave off an “eat and get out” vibe. However, we will say that Acambaro seems to have escaped Fayetteville’s restaurant plague, which closes even the most unsuspecting of restaurants, so it must have a devout crowd out there somewhere.

#7: Oseguera’s1466 N. College Ave.
This was a shocker for all of us. As the favorite Mexican restaurant of most everyone on the judges’ panel, Oseguera’s low score came as quite a surprise. As with Acambaro, the number one score killer was a stale taco shell, followed by lukewarm meat. While several of the judges remarked on the “de-freaking-lish” flavor of the shredded beef and the “yummy meltiness” of the cheese, others remarked on the overpowering smell of industrial cleaner, which made the dining experience less pleasant. Overall, Oseguera’s is still one of our favorite places to eat good Mexican food, but not a place to get crunchy tacos. Don’t be mad, Oseguera’s. We still love you.

#6: La Hacienda2901 E. Zion Rd.
This was our first stop on the Tacothon. With a ravenous appetite and a sunny outlook on the day ahead, these tacos tasted pretty good, but not quite good enough. One judge commented that she “could have made this at home”, while another found her meat to be “lukewarm and drippy”. Other judges added that their tacos were “average”, but that “this place would definitely win if this were an enchilada contest.” Some liked the ample amount of cheese on the tacos, while others thought the “fresh iceberg overwhelmed the taco”. The friendliness and attentiveness of the staff was a definite perk – our polite server and the chatty manager went out of their way to make us feel welcome. But overall, it was an average taco in a restaurant that serves better-than-average Mexican food.

#5: La Huerta2356 N. College Ave.
“La Hurt’cha!”, “La Kill’ya!” We’ve all heard the nicknames that diners have bestowed upon this longtime Fayetteville icon. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t have our hopes set too high for this one – which made it hard to believe when we bit into one freakin’ tasty taco! It should be said that the chicken tacos scored significantly higher than the beef tacos. With bits of bell pepper, onion and tomato in the chicken, the flavor was “yummy!” and “surprisingly delicious!” We inquired as to the secret behind La Huerta’s delicious chicken – it’s boiled! Another winner at the La Huerta stop was the “awesome fried shell”, a corn tortilla that was fried to a golden brown, probably mere minutes before the tacos landed on our table. There were a few drawbacks, though. Some judges were unimpressed by the sparse toppings: “why no tomato?”, while others thought the place smelled of “B.O. and industrial cleaner.” If they had offered us a vat of their infamous cheese dip to bathe in, they may just have reached the #1 spot.

#4: Elenita’s1120 N. Lindell Ave.
After changing locations a handful of times, Elenita’s has finally established its roots just off of North Street, next to Mr. Burger. We rolled into an empty restaurant on Saturday afternoon, ready for a stiff drink after our experience at Marlo’s Taco Shack – only to be told that the owner has let the liquor license lapse – therefore, no booze! This was a big blow to Elenita’s overall score, but the delicious tacos were enough to bring it back up. The beef tacos scored higher than the chicken tacos at this stop, but no one had any major gripes other than, “wet plates!” and “generic taco shells”. Several members of Team Beef commented on the good flavor of the ground beef, and Team Chicken was also impressed with the “moist, flavorful meat”, which was a mixture of white and dark. The toppings were well proportioned, and the cheese plentiful. Well done, Elenita’s, well done.

#3: Mariachi’s25 E. Center St.
“…Where?”, you may be asking yourself. Mariachi’s has been flying under the radar since its opening in the summer of 2007. Located in the old Café Santa Fe building on Center Street, Mariachi’s – although often empty and rarely mentioned – has been able to keep afloat in a town full of Mexican joints. And after a few bites of their tacos, we found out why. Several members of Team Beef commented on the good flavor but small quantity of meat on their taco, while members of Team Chicken all commented on the quality and flavor of their meat: “one of the best of the day!”, “Very similar to La Huerta! Yummm!” Another plus was the lettuce was not iceberg, but rather finely chopped green leaf lettuce – a nice change of pace for some of us, while others still preferred iceberg. Besides the food, Mariachi’s was able to woo us by providing us the remote to their flat screen TV, and as one judge mused, “Good bathroom mirror – makes me look really tan.”

#2: Colombia Mex2155 W. 6th St. (MLK Jr. Blvd)
Columbia Mex was the sleeper hit of the day. A small deli/grocery store/taqueria located in a shopping center on 6th Street, Colombia Mex wowed us all with their “dang-that’s-good” tacos. However, unbeknownst to us, Columbia Mex didn’t have the kind of tacos we were judging, which threw off the point tallying. But after one bite of their “best and freshest by far” tacos, we quickly ignored our point system and dove into some of the best tacos of the day. The toppings were simple – cilantro and chopped onion – and although one judge isn’t a fan of onions, he still gave the taco high marks for meat quality and overall flavor. The flavor was “amazingly fresh, very simple, but the best yet”, and could be heightened even more by the addition of delicious red or green salsas. The friendly and informative owner, who cooked our tacos right before our eyes, even gave us a sample of beef tongue (yes, tongue!) to share among the judges. Our experience at Colombia Mex was an energizing one, even after 8 tacos. And as one judge put it simply, the tacos were “holy crap delicious”.

(Drum roll, please!)

#1: El Camino Real815 S. School Ave.
El Camino Real was not only the last stop of the day, it was the best stop of the day – and to still taste delicious after 9 other tacos is a difficult feat. We were greeted warmly by our server (and part-owner?), who “wears an adorable apron!”, and were provided the cheapest beers of the day. As one judge was surprised to find, “Miller Lite even comes with a lime!” While waiting for our food, our sweet server even showed us other dishes we could have ordered instead, like the bruscetta and the chimichanga. Our tacos arrived and the first thing we noticed – as we seem to have done all day – was the shell. The SHELL! It was a fried flour corn tortilla, with a delicious, flaky crunch and subtle flavor. The delicious shell scored a 5 for crunchiness across the board. “THE BEST fried flour tortilla, ever”, one judge raved. Both the chicken and the beef got some of the highest scores of the day for quality, and one judge enjoyed the “mixture of cheeses” as a topping. Several judges noted the “best salsa” of the day, as well, and the availability of the “hot and smoky” hot salsa. The food was great, the tacos were unbeatable, and the staff was some of the warmest and friendliest of the day. Congratulations, El Camino. Your tacos are number one!

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