The fair city of Louisville is plagued of with an absolutely dire dearth of accurate science on where to get delicious Mexican food. TripAdvisor’s top-ten list includes the honky-tonk-themed southern fare of Manny & Merle’s, which is not really a Mexican restaurant, and Señor Iguanas, which, if we’re being honest, is also not really a Mexican restaurant. Content farms like T*******t and their copycat verticals spread bad intelligence by out-of-town writers like dengue across social media, which ensure a high density of the adjective ‘hipster’ in all their copy, proclaiming El Camino or Ramiro’s Cantina as serving up the best tacos — comical, but an atrocity nonetheless. El Nopal, the Carlos Mencia of Kentuckiana Latin cuisine, is up for another Best of Louisville award, attributable to either empire, or someone at the magazine owing the restaurant franchise a solid.
And look, gringo tacos from joints that might serve 32-ounce margaritas with twisty straws are fine. So are gourmet, artisanal, green-washed, overpriced tacos served on a board in a trendy-ass neighborhood. You know, however you get your jollies (as long as it doesn’t violate the spirit of the social contract). But, tacos in their truest form are street food from south of the border, likely invented by Mexican miners, that incorporate a delicious Occum’s Razor approach to cuisine passed down from abuela — marinated meats, finely chopped onion, and cilantro (salsa optional) on a warm tortilla, and that’s it. They generally should run no more than two and a quarter a pop.
Considering we as a country consumed 4.5 billion of these, and have made Taco Tuesday an annoying memeable thing like Sunday Funday, it’s inconceivable that there’s no guide available to find authentic, street-style tacos like what you might find in Texas, California, and, most importantly, all points south toward the equator.
That’s where Welp! comes in. Welcome, my friends, to TACOQUEST!
And folks, to do this right, we’re going to the South End. The New York Times and Garden & Gun will have you believe East Market is the hottest culinary corridor in the city. But the truth is that they’re dead wrong: it’s Preston Highway, the primary north-south artery of Okolona a.k.a. Tacolona — Louisville’s El Dorado of taquerias. Like the deepest trenches of the ocean, nobody has an empirical count on how many taquerias exist in this part of town, or how deep the tacos run. All we know is that the harvest is bountiful.
Like December’s Godspeed You! Mall Emperor, LEO assembled a small caucus of thoughtful gourmands to help eat and commentate, including Interapt’s UX consultant Steve Fowler who, with his Southern California childhood and half-Mexican identity, knows and loves this cuisine, always ready to provide some expert analysis, as well as my friend Daniel, a fluent Spanish speaker, my business partner Mark Evans of Vectortone, since he’ll eat anything, and my girlfriend, Charlotte, because I like her company. The caucus also serves a few pragmatic functions — mainly to share food family-style for the broadest sample set, and because I, for whatever reason, studied German in school instead of Spanish. So please, allow me to properly pronounce all the tubed meats and beers at Oktoberfest, but for TacoQuest, I’m dead in the water over here. Also, as a control, we ordered at least one of the same taco at every taqueria. For me, it was al pastor. With the calvary assembled, thus the five amigos embarked on the quest.
5059 Preston Highway
Moving north to south along the golden taqueria path, La Rosita welcomes you shortly after passing over the Watterson from downtown, nestled within the green-roofed plaza that also houses the essential Koreana II (fun fact: there is no Koreana I). La Rosita serves as both a cozy counter-service lunch or dinner spot and a grocery with solid Mexican market staples — fresh produce, dried peppers to go, candles wrapped in very intense crucifix artwork to remind you of the suffering the Son of God endured for you being awful.
If this is your first time patronizing an authentic taqueria, please make note that regardless of whether you order at the counter or table-side, more than likely you’ll close your check at the counter, and the server or cashier just remembers what you had because they’re great. Many are bilingual, so don’t be detoured if, like me, no habla español. There is no English spoken in La Rosita, however, but you don’t need to engage in sophisticated conversations about the weather when ordering tacos — know what you want, and the numbers one through four, remember the double L in pollo is a “why” sound you dingus, fork over a $5 if you’re dining alone or a $10 with a date, let out a “gracias” at the end, and you’re good to go. You can also elect to take a Spanish speaker with you, like I did.
La Rosita’s partitioned dining area hosts a few diner-style tables and a cooler stocked with refreshing Mexican colas that, as you might be aware, do not inject your body with gnarly corn slime like the Coca Coca Company prefers. Only pure cane sugar here, baby.
We picked up four tacos: pollo, al pastor, lingua, and lomo. Per the latter, La Rosita advertises on a sizable banner outside that they sell Peruvian-style charcoal meats, in addition to their Mexican fare, so my dude, Daniel, had to get the lomo — a popular style of beef tenderloin throughout South America. He loved it, remarking the meat balanced a perfect mix of charcoal character and fattiness, with a flavor and consistency closer to steak than carne asada. He also went with the lengua, which is tongue. Gotta spring for the offal meats when you can, right? He remarked lengua is easy to overcook. La Rosita nailed it though — chewy, lean and not too gamey in taste. My carne asada taco was pretty standard, thick cuts of beef with fat on and grilled, elevated nicely with that heat-forward roja. The al pastor, however, was awesome — succulent, peppery and a solid citrus presence in every bite from the pineapple and lime traditional marinade. Delicious.
6201 Preston Highway, No. B
Jutting out from a sea of asphalt, Guanajuato is a gargantuan Mexican grocery store abutted by a Big Lots, Unique Thrift and a parking lot threefold larger than necessary for any of those businesses, obscured from the Preston curb by an Aaron’s rent-to-own. Car dependency infrastructure, and a thirst for good deals, is alive and well in south Louisville. The grocery portion is clean, well stocked, and organized — a solid spot to pick up bulk cooking sauces that are easy on the wallet, a colossal selection of butcher cuts, any given Goya product you can imagine and frozen tamales to go.
And behold, immediately to the left of the checkout lanes, a door behind a sandwich board calling out the day’s special. That’s the taqueria. Upon entering, the first three things you might notice are the somewhat non-sequitur luminescent LCD menus, the al pastor spinning on a vertical spit just like you might see on a Mexico City street (a gift brought from Lebanese immigrants to the central part of the country), and the giant vat of horchata — a creamy and sweet rice milk. The latter two are truly glorious sights that you ain’t gonna get at an abomination like Qdoba.
And we washed those tacos down with horchata. They hit it out of the park — not too thick, notes of nuttiness, extremely refreshing. This was a highlight of Guanajuato. As for the tacos, we ordered chorizo, carne asada, pollo and, of course, al pastor. The carne asada was cooked well done and finely diced with a strong grill presence. The chorizo did not pack a lot of heat but, as Steve remarked, came replete with a strong black pepper presence. Luckily their roasted roja completed the flavor profile. The pollo was seasoned with a light sprinkling of spices and cooked not too dry. Guanajuato’s al pastor, rather than simply relying on the tartness of the juice marinade, actually dumped on a healthy mound of chopped pineapple chunks in the taco — a nice touch. The tortillas, unfortunately, obviously came from a bag, which was a disappointment. However the taco fillings and horchata are worth a pit stop before slaying some killer deals at the grocery.
Taqueria La Mexicana
6201 Preston Highway #J
Speaking of that obscuring Aaron’s, Taqueria La Mexicana shares an address and a parking lot with Guanajuato right next to that rent-to-own … as well as a parole office. By urban-core standards, though, walking across that parking lot will rake in three or four blocks as far as the steps your FitBit or whatever quantified health gadget you prefer registers.
La Mexicana, when we arrived around 2 p.m. on a Saturday, dealt us a wait (roughly the 10 minutes) and not a single gringo in sight, except for me and two of the three other caucus members. The protein choices here are impressive — 11 total, including cabeza (cow head), chicharron (pork skin), and sesos (brain), as well as lengua and such popular touchstones as carnitas and chorizo. Though tacos are our quest, I couldn’t help eyeballing the massive cauldrons of pozole dropped on neighboring tables — a Mexican hominy soup. Perhaps next time, which there will be a next time, because these tacos were beautiful — flawlessly constructed within a warm tortilla, and piled high, with special generosity given toward the fresh cilantro. The barbacoa was surprisingly unfatty, and yet almost buttery to the palate, the best I’ve had this far north. The pollo was braised in some sort of adobe base that artfully struck the balance between sweet and heat. Awesome tacos.
The caucus remained divided, though. Mark also loved the tacos, remarking he sensed more meat than heat, and every taco possessed that intangible homemade quality that, like, pornography, you know it when you see it. Steve preferred the carne asada at the taqueria across the lot, and the horchata tasted as if it came from a mix. But I’m the writer and Welp! is my baby, so I have veto power. Four calaveras!
1209 McCawley Rd
Some of the best family-owned, authentic eateries in town are known for their character-laden facades — usually in an unassuming strip mall next to a dicey pool hall or, like the last taco destination, possibly adjacent to a parole office and discount outlet. And, of course, everyone likes to remark on this fact when submitting their thoughts in the TripAdvisor-Yelp-Facebook-Google complex. Nevertheless, it is a true phenomenon, so witnessing our next stop tucked in amongst a few tire shops and auto repair garages, adorned in weathered fliers for calling cards, it seemed as if La Chapinlandia would straight dunk on our palates. I was excited. Steve had done the due diligence to discover La Chapinlandia serves handmade tortillas, as long as you request them. While not the healthiest option (read: lard), handmade tortillas really, if I can use shitty marketing jargon for a sec, “move the needle.”
La Chapinlandia is specifically a Guatemalan spot, which might have accounted for the inexplicable serving of pasta salad alongside the refried black beans. Odd touch. The al pastor lacked the citrus-forward marinade that sets that type of taco apart, and the carne asade tasted dry and gristly. But the tortillas were absolutely incredible. Usually taquerias double up on the shells to keep your filling in tact. Not so with these bad boys — the La Chapinlandia tortillas are built like an ox. If you could Frankentstein the scrumptious al pastor from La Rosita or pollo from La Mexicana with these tortillas… well, no one should have that much power, but good googly moogly would, that be a hell of a taco.
Though La Chapinlandia fell short compared to previously visited taquerias, the service was friendly and attentive, and the adjacent grocery store sold some decidedly excellent keepsakes.
La Sierra Tarasca
6501 Shepherdsville Road
Before I get into this stop along the quest, I must take a quick break in the column to address Yelpers. Nuts to you, Yelpers. This restaurant’s page, with a solid 4 our of 5 star average, has to suffer yet another white dude remarking on the “interesting decor.” Yeah idiot, in the delicious-cheap-environment triad, you only pick two. Did the salsa knock your socks off? Did you throw down a 20 spot and get change back? Then who cares if the walls are purple. Really grinds my gears, fam. Leave the HGTV commentary and judgement at the door.
Anyway, La Siera Tarasca, like La Rosita, is both a bodega-style grocery and a restaurant. Unlike La Rosita, they exist in entirely different spaces, comically separated by a Subway. Can you imagine? There’s you, slack-jawed in your Bazinga! shirt you picked up recently at Target, standing before a family-owned Mexican market with fresh produce and a butcher on duty to your left, and an authentic full-service taqueria with ice-cold Tecates waiting for you to the right, and you entertain the thought “to be honest, a cold cut combo is speaking to me right now.” This is an existence I wish not to know.
The entire meal and experience at La Sierra Tarasca ticked all boxes. Complementary chips and salsa drop on the table immediately, providing the requisite bottled spicy roja and green chile crema common in taquerias plus a big dish of chunkier, cilantro-heavy salsa. I’ve tasted many green chile cremas — this one might be the best I’ve had in recent memory. On the taco front, I ordered the lomo this time, chewy and delectable, and again with the al pastor, a robust explosion of flavor almost nuclear, and I truly have to reach for the vocabulary that properly relates to you, dear reader, how delicious these monster tacos were. And since we were feelin’ saucy, we also ordered a side of chile toreados, blistered serrano peppers and bulb onions cooked in oil, lime and salt. Simple, toothsome and satisfying — chile toreados work great in concert with a taco or you can snack on ‘em right off the plate. And it’s worth remarking that four tacos, two beers, a charitably-portioned side, and chips with three salsas did not travel north of $25. Release all the calaveras!
3201 Fern Valley Road, No. 113
Thus we reach the sixth and final destination. You’ll find Los Caballos in a strip mall, right next door to a Coast Guard recruiting office, that’s a very quick jump off I-65 onto Fern Valley Road. Geographically, this might be the most convenient taqueria of the six for folks who don’t live in the South End. Upon approaching the front door, we notice a giant sign advertising gyros and a kids menu boasting pizza. I am deeply concerned at this point. Charlotte said she had a good feeling about this place, and noticing the requisite giant pictorial menu behind the cash register, I felt better about moving forward. After dabbing a drop of their habanero salsa on my fingertip and felt thusly lit up like the Fourth of July, it seemed Los Caballos was good to go.
Caballos, by the way, is horses, if one couldn’t discern such from the horses on the menu, the horse mural on the rear wall, and the copper horse head set atop a crown moulding ledge near the restrooms. That’s what LEO Weekly is here for, folks. Like Guanajuato, their al pastor included chunks of pineapple inside the taco. The pollo featured a very nice char around every bite. And like La Sierra Tarasca, the meal included chips with three salsas, including the aforementioned, unadulterated atomic habanero sauce that humbles even someone with a resistance to heat that rivals NASA engineering, for an unquestionably filling meal. Really good tacos and great service offered up a very pleasant surprise.
Traversing the road well traveled along Preston, we spotted easily two to three dozen taquerias over the course of Tacoquest’s three days. So best believe Tacoquest 2017 will commence next summer, and perhaps the quest might venture outside Tacolona. Have a suggestion of something not to be missed next time? Leave a comment. Namaste.