There was a time when tacos in America meant your mom bought some ground beef and that yellow box.
Today, we live in a better world. We might not have taco trucks on every corner quite yet, but we can get tacos everywhere, filled with everything. Tacos are practically a food group now. Some people dedicate a whole day to them every Tuesday.
Tacos can cover a lot of ground: There are traditional tacos, Tex-Mex tacos, Asian fusion tacos and vegetarian tacos.
I set out on an epic journey through the world of Charlotte tacos, stretching from just south of the N.C. border in Fort Mill up to the far reaches of North Charlotte, considering tacos based on price, style of tortillas (corn vs. flour), toppings and variety of fillings.
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Here are my top seven, from south to north. With this list, you’ll never be too far from the perfect taco.
1. Tapas 51, 3415 S.C. 51, Fort Mill.
Note: It closed for lunch this summer, but will return to lunch and dinner in late September.
Style: Small tacos, about 4 inches in diameter, but more filling than they look.
Favorites: Pork belly with black beans and pickled onions, and coffee-rubbed beef brisket. But on a recent visit, I was blown away by a vegan taco with crunchy seitan “chorizo,” topped with red cabbage and parched corn. Price: $9 or $10 for three.
Don’t miss: 51st Street Corn, a big bowl of buttery, cheesy parched (that’s baked and dried) corn kernels.
2. Paco’s Tacos, 6402 Morrison Blvd. in SouthPark.
Style: Tex-Mex roadhouse, with a long list of possibilities.
Favorites: Stick with the Texas vibe with chicken-fried steak tacos, thin strips of steak in a peppery buttermilk batter in a puffy flour tortilla with buttermilk ranch dressing, and brisket, in this case shredded and a little sweet with barbecue sauce. Price: $11 for two tacos, rice and a choice of beans (go with the charros).
3. Tacos El Nevado, 4640 South Blvd. (also 4715 Central Ave.).
Style: Small and very traditional Mexican cafe where the griddle sizzles constantly with taco orders. Corn tortillas are small, but piled high, with meat dressed simply, basically onions and cilantro, with a whole jalapeno and cooked onion.
Favorites: Pastor (grilled pork) and campechano (beef and chorizo, here). Everything is diced small; rice and refried beans on the side are extra. Price: $2 each, so you can mix it up and try three or four.
4. RuRu’s Tacos & Tequila, 715 Providence Road.
Note: Finding it is a trick. Don’t look on Providence; go down Fenton Place and watch for the small sign on the right.
Style: Young and stylish, from the lively patio to the crazy movie-reference names for dishes (John Hughes is popular).
Favorites: Crispy fried oysters with pickled jalapenos and wasabi cream, and Long Duck Dong (aw, couldn’t it be duck?), Korean-style steak strips. Prices: $4 to $4.25 each, so it’s easy to get two.
Don’t miss: Creamy white beans, $2 as a side, in a citrus-tomato sauce so good, you’ll want to ask for a spoon to eat it like soup.
5. Sabor Latin Street Food, 415 Hawthorne Lane. (Also 3205 N. Davidson St. and 5945 Monroe-Weddington Road, Matthews).
Style: Busy, busy, busy, in the small space that used to be Spoon’s in Elizabeth. (One small complaint: The fillings are reheated in a griddle and never seem to be very hot, maybe because they’re moving so fast to keep up.)
Favorites: Tacos come in two styles. Autentico is fairly plain, just meat, cooked onion and cilantro; it’s a good choice if you’re going to load up at the salsa bar. Loco adds crumbled chorizo and pico de gallo to your meat, and it’s so full you can’t fold it without spilling. The chorizo is good and juicy, and comes with bits of pineapple.
6. Cabo Fish Taco, 3201 N. Davidson St.
Style: California surfer/Baja. It’s been a mainstay since NoDa started being called NoDa.
Favorite: No debate – go with “bbq mahi.” Puffy, flaky flour tortillas with real flavor, stuffed with chunks of mahi mahi with real Caribbean spice (is that a hint of nutmeg?), dressed with creamy dressing, slaw and tomatoes. Price: $11 for two large tacos and a side.
7. Lupita Tortilleria y Carniceria, 5210 N. Tryon St. (also 5316 South Blvd.)
Hint: If you’re headed north on Tryon, it’s in a small strip of shops just before Eastway.
Style: DIY tacos. This is a meat shop where they make juicy carnitas (shredded pork) and fresh corn tortillas on the spot. Grab a basket, order your meat and tortillas by the pound (a pound of meat and a half-pound of tortillas will generally serve two hungry people), then pay at the register. Don’t forget to ask for salsa at the register; it comes in several styles (tomatillo is a winner). Price: $7.99 a pound, plus $1 or $2 for tortillas.
Don’t miss: If you’re a fan of seltzers, grab a bottle of Topo-Chico mineral water to wash it down.