Entering Tacolandia on Saturday afternoon, I naively didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a taco fest. I knew there would be a lot of food. I had no idea how great a fest it would be or how much I would enjoy it, but it quickly became apparent that Tacolandia was in fact a kind of taco fantasy land, and that it was going to be epic, like the kind that inspires major FOMO epic.
The weather was perfect, the sun’s rays warm but not overly hot. Downtown Houston’s modern, shiny skyline could be seen in the horizon. A giant Tabasco bottle provided inspiration for endless selfies and photo ops. A lucha libre-masked shirtless muscle man was taking pictures with attendees at the El Jimador Tequila stand.
There was a mariachi band, free drinks from Topo Chico and Dry Sparkling, a cash bar for beer and cocktails (unlimited for VIP tickets), and, of course, tacos for days — unlimited all-you-can-eat tacos from approximately 30 local-area restaurants — enough to feed the 3,000-plus attendees.
Here were five of the best among the many I tried:
5. Tabasco and Garlic-Rubbed Suckling Pig Tacos by Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s
When a four-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef finalist and Mexican chef creates a taco, you know it's going to be good. And in the case of chef Hugo Ortega's Tabasco, mojo de ajo-rubbed, whole roasted suckling pig tacos, it was better than good: It was fantastic. To make it, the whole suckling pig was on display as servers made each taco by pulling the moist meat off the pig, creating each taco fresh. Traditional taco garnishments of onion, cilantro, Tabasco-spiced salsa de Albañil and a squeeze of lime were available for customization.
4. The Pork Belly Huguenot Taco by Paul Friedman of Peli Peli Kitchen
The newly opened Peli Peli Kitchen was a standout for its taco's bold flavors and textures. Tender, moist, thin-cut slabs of pork belly were topped with sweet raspberry chipotle sauce, sliced tart peppadew peppers, and crispy fried onions and bacon. It was all served on a thick flour tortilla, and the interplay of strong flavors, coupled with the crispy-crunch of the toppings, made for a formidable taco. It was awarded “Best New School Taco” by Tacolandia’s judging panel.
3. Peking Duck Chinese-Style Taco by Hoi Fung of Fung’s Kitchen
Fung’s Kitchen pulled out all the stops so it could give attendees a sample of its award-winning Peking duck (Houston Press Best Peking Duck Winner 2016). “We brought 30 ducks, so we can make 1,200 samples,” says Gilbert Fung, catering and events manager at Fung’s Kitchen. With his father and master Chinese chef Hoi Fung on hand to supervise, Fung’s went all out by bringing a steamer and fryer so that just-roasted Peking duck could be hand-carved table-side. The effort paid off, because the juicy, crispy, super-tasty, undeniably delicious bite tasted just as good as what you’d get at their restaurant. The Chinese-style "taco" stayed true to its Chinese roots, with Chinese thin pancakes in lieu of a tortilla, finishing with Peking duck sauce and scallions.
2. Smoked lengua tacos by Beto Gutierrez of Añejo
At one point, the line for Añejo stretched more than halfway across Buffalo Bayou Park, because the word was out among attendees: Chef Beto Gutierrez’s lengua tacos were among the best at the festival. Just looking at the complexity of the taco was enough to make your mouth water. Juicy mesquite-smoked lengua cubes were topped with queso fresco, charred jalapeño guacamole, squiggles of chile de arbol crema and finished off with colorful purple escabeche onions and a smattering of cilantro, resulting in a taco that just grabbed your palate immediately. It was awarded “Most Interesting Taco” by Tacolandia’s judges and was the People’s Choice for the afternoon.
1. Chicharrón Taco by Esther Castañeda of Luna Y Sol
“Do you want to try our Chicharrón taco?” said Ana Castañeda as she rapidly pointed to three or four different tacos that her family restaurant, Luna Y Sol, had on offer. They had beef fajita, chicken fajita, al pastor and chicharrón for patrons to sample, and as quickly as they were being put out, they were disappearing. One bite of the family-recipe chicharrón taco, an incredibly true-to-Mexico taco topped with pork belly and just a smattering of cilantro, and it was easy to see why. It was juicy and fatty (in a good way), and with a few dollops of jalapeño green salsa, it was so glorious, so perfect in capturing what an authentic Mexican street taco should taste like, that it was the only time I found myself taking advantage of the “unlimited taco” slogan at Tacolandia, eating not one but three. The judges agreed: It won the award for “Best Traditional Taco.”