I never thought I would have to type a sentence like this:
I’m sick of tacos.
It’s a problem I’ve only just confronted as I explored Louisville’s burgeoning taco scene. Casual restaurants in the area have embraced and celebrated the taco so much that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options available. But what a wonderful problem for a city to have.
Tacos—more of the Mexican street food variety than fourth-meal fare—had formerly been the gift of authentic Mexican restaurants sprinkled throughout Louisville. My first Louisville taco experience took place about three years ago at Santa Fe Mexican Grill (3000 S. Third Street, Louisville) near Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
There, you could get several handheld tacos for just a few bucks. Then, tacos got mobile as food trucks burst onto the streets and still make the rounds at office buildings, festivals and other events, slinging out baskets of hot tacos from the trucks’ side windows. Holy Molé Taco Truck just got a mention in the May issue of Food Network Magazine for its soft-shell crab taco, and the Traveling Kitchen serves Asian fusion taco dishes like Korean beef tacos. Fast forward to today, when entire restaurants center on the taco as its main attraction, such as Taco Punk in NuLu or El Taco Luchador in the Highlands.
The components of a taco sound simple enough—a tortilla, some meat, a few veggies, a sauce, and a wedge of lime on the side. But the best tacos in the city are thoughtfully crafted by chefs willing to explore flavor combinations that call on tradition yet seem refreshing and new. The tortilla should be soft, warm, made of corn and sturdy. The meat is best when it’s marinated and slow cooked, as evidenced by tender strips that fall apart as you chew your way through. The veggies should be crisp and handled with a light hand to not overwhelm aforementioned tortilla. And the sauce can make or break this little handheld dish—too much, and it’s sloppy and overbearing, too little, and the dish is dry. And don’t forget to squeeze that lime, for it adds a final citrusy pop to make the tastes come alive.
Each restaurant offers its own take on tacos and atmosphere that make it easy to choose a favorite. El Camino, a new addition at 1314 Bardstown Road from the same folks behind The Silver Dollar, has an impressive lineup of cocktails, a great patio area and a lively, beachy atmosphere that can turn any dinner into a party. Taco Punk has had its troubles, but this East Market establishment has seemed to buoy itself on its focus on local ingredients and its fashionable location at 736 E. Market Street. Wild Rita’s at 445 E. Market Street is perfect for the after-work downtown crowd with its large dining area. Out of all the restaurants I tried, Wild Rita’s carnitas taco reign supreme for the pork’s juiciness and its smoky, rich flavor.
A couple of places stood out on my journey to taco enlightenment. Manny & Merle at 122 W. Main Street in downtown Louisville has the best happy hour I’ve come across in the city. From 4 to 7 p.m., tacos are $1 off their normal $3-5 price, and Mannyritas, the restaurant’s take on a margarita, are only $3, half off their normal price. This is a happy hour great enough to enjoy solo at the bar, with a plate of green chili pork tacos topped with a heap of tangy green chili jam and a glass jar of margarita. The crispy fish taco, fried in PBR batter and accompanied by a creamy sauce, is also worth trying.
El Taco Luchador Taqueria is located in what is arguably an unlucky spot in the Highlands at 938 Baxter Ave. Previous tenants at this location include Lil Cheezers, which has now reverted back to its truck-only model, and Jamie’s 14K Cupcakes. I hope the magic that is happening behind the register will be enough to keep this place open for a long time. The restaurant has more than luck on its side with owners Fernando, Christina and Yaniel Martinez behind the scene, who also own the fantastic Mussel & Burger Bar and Guaca Mole. The prices are good, with each taco topping out at $3.25, and the flavors are even better. Each taco is a new experience. The chicken mole taco is covered in a sauce that packs a warm spice that lingers on your tongue even after you walk out the door. The veggie taco throws together everything that didn’t have a face onto a soft tortilla and somehow makes a cohesive dish. As a confirmed meat eater, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the veggie offering.
One common thread in taco-eating, no matter where you go, is the communal nature of the dish. I find that the best way to enjoy a meal of tacos is with a group so you can compare notes on the variety of tacos you order. You should, indeed, order as many different types as you can for a full experience, hence the necessity for bringing along friends.