On the heels of the highly successful Philadelphia Pizza Crawl of December 2012, it was time to plan another food crawl. Cheesesteaks and pizza were already done. The next target: tacos.
The taco scene in Philly is diverse and spread out. Some of the best known Mexican establishments in town are the Stephen Starr and Jose Garces restaurants in Center City and University City, but many of the true gems are the “authentic” South Philly spots that are, regrettably, largely unknown to the average Philadelphian. In fact, there are fantastic taquerias to be found all throughout the city. The Philadelphia Taco Crawl of July 2013 sought to sample some of the best taco spots in different neighborhoods.
- Basics – Sample six of the best Philadelphia taquerias on a Saturday in July.
- Objective – Follow up on the Pizza Crawl and experience the great tacos the city has to offer.
- Specific stops – Honest Tom’s Taco Shop, Cantina Los Caballitos, Taqueria Los Taquitos de Puebla, Restaurant Taqueria El Jarocho, La Calaca Feliz, Taco Riendo. All have received recognition as being among the best places in town to get tacos. They also provide a good mix of “Americanized” and “authentic,” casual and more formal, BYO and bar establishments. Bonus points for “unusual” offerings. Not making the cut but meriting consideration were spots such as El Vez, Distrito, Loco Pez, Taqueria La Veracruzana and Taco Loco.
- Logistics – With Crawl stops in University City, South Philadelphia, Fairmount and Olde Kensington, walking would be impractical. Originally, we considered renting a bus or trolley. Instead, we went by bike, car and even bus between long distances, while walking between stops two through four. Just like the Pizza Crawl, we also collected $20 up front for the cost of tacos and some drinks, while everyone was responsible for their own alcohol and additional orders. Calls were placed in advance to each location to ensure they were open and able to accommodate large groups. At each stop, we’d order enough for at least one taco per person, and we’d sample unique or specialty offerings where possible.
First Stop – Honest Tom’s Taco Shop, 261 S. 44th St., 11:45 a.m. Starting before noon, the Crawl might as well start with tacos appropriate for the early hour. Honest Tom’s originated as a food truck before setting up shop in University City. While it is known for its fish tacos and other quality offerings, Honest Tom’s exclusively serves up breakfast tacos before 1 p.m. on Saturdays. That option was fine for the nine folks at the start of the crawl. These breakfast tacos featured egg, salsa, home fries, guacamole and were served with or without bacon. They were jam-packed with the ingredients and tasty. It was a good, solid start to the day.
Second Stop – Cantina Los Caballitos, 1651 E. Passyunk Ave., 12:45 p.m. The Crawl added a tenth person at Cantina, which was the first stop serving alcohol. Cantina falls into the category of “Americanized” Mexican food. Regardless, Cantina makes some amazing tacos to pair with good beers and outstanding margaritas. We sampled chicken, carnitas and steak tacos, which were all served with tasty corn tortillas. The tacos, each topped with onions and cilantro, were quite enjoyable, particularly the steak. The chicken was also well-seasoned, while the pork had ample flavor on its own without the added seasoning.
Third Stop – Taqueria Los Taquitos de Puebla, 1149 S. 9th St., 1:55 p.m. The website for Los Taquitos claims it is the best Mexican restaurant in the city. While that claim may or may not be true, Los Taquitos certainly serves some of the more unusual offerings (even the awning says “Bizarre Tacos”). Perusing the menu, you’ll find tacos from the sea, tacos al pastor and then tacos “from beef head meat.” We found out the array of beef head meat includes beef tongue, beef eye, beef mouth and beef cheek. We ordered beef cheek in addition to al pastor, chorizo and bistec (steak) tacos for the thirteen now in attendance. The tacos, which came three to a plate, had slightly smaller corn tortillas for all the dishes except the bistec, which were served on larger tortillas. The steak came out plain looking (without anything noticeable in the corn tortillas), but the heaping portion of meat more than made up for it. Meanwhile, everyone who tasted the beef cheek though it was amazing. Added bonus ambience: there was a terrific Mexican variety show on the television.
Fourth Stop – Restaurant Taqueria El Jarocho, 1138 S. 13th St., 2:45 p.m. Located only a few blocks away from Los Taquitos, El Jarocho’s small space belied the enormous menu. In addition to its renowned tacos, El Jarocho features a variety of burritos, Mexican sandwiches, tostadas and other entrees. Several in the growing Crawl party of sixteen sampled El Jarocho’s Mexican Coke, Mexican Pepsi and horchata. Among the tacos we ordered were the specialty lamb barbacoa and al pastor. The corn tortillas (which were delicious) were all noticeably larger than the ones at Los Taquitos and amply filled with meat. The lamb was a welcome change of pace from the chicken and pork we had been having. The al pastor tacos were somewhat messy, but that was a small drawback. More importantly, we were able to continue our viewing of the same Mexican variety show, which was also being played on the restaurant television. Also, this was the stage in any food crawl when the servers start showing their displeasure at serving a large party in the middle of the afternoon, during what otherwise would be a quiet time.
Fifth Stop – La Calaca Feliz, 2321 Fairmount Ave., 4:10 p.m. For the fifth stop, we journeyed to Fairmount to the classiest and fanciest establishment on our list. Ironically, La Calaca Feliz was by far the most welcoming and enthusiastic of our Crawl. The enormous space in the rear of the restaurant had fascinating décor, including a unique mural and animal skeletal heads. As the servers eagerly served us tequila flights and other mixed drinks, we ordered a wide variety of tacos: carnitas, chorizo, cauliflower, mushroom and chicken. The corn tortillas were on the smaller side, yet they held up the filling well without falling apart. All the choices were delicious, and the cauliflower was surprisingly really good. Who knew? At this stop, we also hit the high watermark of twenty Crawl attendees.
Final Stop – Taco Riendo, 1301 N. 5th St., 6:15 p.m. The Crawl reached its final destination at Taco Riendo in Olde Kensington. There were still sixteen strong at the end, including one latecomer who could only make the final stop. Attendees who resided in nearby Fishtown and Northern Liberties had raved about how Taco Riendo was quite authentic and worth a spot on our list. Most of the items at Taco Riendo are served in individual portion, which enabled us to order a whole slew of tacos. There were fish, enchilada, beef and chorizo tacos, but the special serving to taste was the chicken with onions, avocado and cactus. Hey, how often can you taste cactus? It was fresh and definitely a different flavor. As with the end of just about any food crawl, there were even a couple of leftover tacos that a hearty soul or two had to finish.
Summary – Twenty-one participants, approximately 95 tacos consumed. Everyone who stayed through at least the last four stops was full. We sampled some great flavors and a wide variety of tacos. Some favorites included Honest Tom’s breakfast, Los Taquitos’ beef cheek, El Jarocho’s lamb barbacoa, and La Calaca Feliz’s cauliflower tacos. It was a good time, and we decided all the spots were definitely worthy of return trips.