Just hours before the Astros clinched game seven to secure a spot in the World Series on Saturday, approximately 2,500 Houstonians were engaged in another very important past-time: eating tacos. Yep, the Houston Press's 3rd Annual Tacolandia was in full swing at Buffalo Bayou Water Works from 3 to 7 p.m. that afternoon, with live mariachi entertainment, El Jimador tequila samplings, a giant blow-up Tabasco Sauce bottle and selfie wall, and of course, tacos for days.
More than 25 restaurants participated in the taco fest this year, serving up everything from tacos al pastor to sizzling beef fajita tacos. Those who arrived a little bit late, or who were slow to make the rounds would find themselves out of luck for the most popular tacos of the afternoon.
I found out the hard way: While I took my time feasting on tacos by Hugo’s and Peli Peli underneath the VIP tent, marveling at how yummy half a fresh avocado tasted with a drizzle of Tabasco sauce on top, chatting with chefs like Bryan Caswell and Ruben Ortega, and standing in line for margaritas, I managed to miss out on EVO Taco's very popular banh mi tacos, which won the People’s Choice vote. That’s not to say that I left hungry, however. On the contrary, I got my fill of tacos and then some at Tacolandia (it would have been impossible not to), leaving positively stuffed and already looking forward to next year.
Here are the standouts among the many tacos I tried:
5. Chicken Tinga Taco by Esther Castaneda of Luna y Sol
Last year’s winner for best traditional taco was back in full force this year with three tacos: chicken tinga, pork carnitas and chicken pastor. They’d run out of chicken pastor by the time I arrived, which gave me the chance to sample their chicken tinga and pork carnitas tacos. Now, I’m a fan of pork carnitas in general, but in this instance, it was the chicken tinga that really made an impression. Moist, juicy, and mildly spiced, I wasn’t the only one who recognized the superiority of this creation. Made with sauce of tomatoes, onions and adobo with Tabasco Chipotle Sauce, it scored the people’s choice prize for “Best Tabasco Taco,” which came with a cool cash award of $1,000.
4. Tacos al Pastor and Beef Fajita Tacos by Taqueria del Sol
There’s nothing quite like eating a taco filled with meat fresh off the grill. Arriving at the Taqueria del Sol stand, the delicious aromas wafted up to greet me well before I took my first bite. Topped with diced white onion and cilantro, which I finished off with a squeeze of lime and some tomatillo salsa, these were a fine example of the street tacos you might find all over Mexico City, and I loved them.
3. Spicy Pork Taco by Luis Morales of Caliente
I was holding a really mouthwatering-looking taco in my hand when I overheard Caliente owner Justin Cardenas tell someone how he had run out of the 2,500 portions of tacos he’d brought to the event by 4:45 p.m. With more than two hours left in the event, what could he do? “I had the restaurant make another batch, then called Uber Eats to pick it up and bring it here,” he said. The spicy pork taco was filled with large chunks of pork which had been stewed in a deep red sauce made with roasted chile de arbol, chile guajillo, paprika and chile powder. This was topped with queso fresco, cilantro and pickled watermelon. The judges awarded Caliente with “Best Pork Taco.”
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2. Crispy Pork Belly Taco by Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s
It was only available in the VIP area, so you if you didn’t hold a VIP ticket, you would've missed out on James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southwest’s amazing crispy belly pork taco. To make it, pork belly was roasted until the skin had crisped up like chicharron. A generous slice was placed in the taco, followed by some black bean sauce, slivers of radish, an albañil sauce (tomatillo and guacamole) and micro green cilantro. If there hadn’t been so many other tacos to try, I would have been happy to feast on these alone — they were that good.
1. Grilled Shrimp Taco by Bryan Caswell of El Real Tex-Mex
Even before I took a bite of Bryan Caswell’s grilled shrimp taco, I had an inkling that it was gonna be a good one. “I think this is best taco here, man,” one of the attendees said as he unashamedly grabbed two tacos to-go right in front of me. One bite in, and I knew what he was talking about. Among a sea of tacos made mostly with meat (the most popular of which was pork), the shrimp tacos had a fun, tropical twist that made you feel like you could be vacationing in Mexico, margarita in hand. Pineapple coleslaw gave the Baja-style taco a sweet, tart crunch, while a generous helping of pico de gallo made with three types of Tabasco sauce —regular pepper, chipotle pepper, and green pepper — tied all the flavors together with a dose of subtle heat.