Tacoquest 2018: Where to find the best tacos in Louisville

Tacos are the perfect food. Some folks will argue that honor belongs to pizza. These people are mistaken. Don’t get it twisted — pizza is great. But tacos tick some boxes pizza just can’t. Versatility, for instance. Almost any ingredient can successfully find its way inside of a taco, even ice cream. Conversely, there are some things that simply don’t belong on a pizza. Like pineapple. The fuck is that? No one wants that. But grilled pineapple nestled in tender cuts of al pastor on a warm tortilla? You’re not gonna do any better than that. And the taco in its traditional form is gluten and dairy free, if that’s your thing. Skipping either with pizza leads to greatly diminished returns.

Tacos — they bump, obviously. One thing that leaves a lot to be desired though is proper taco guides. For instance, three of the top five ranked TripAdvisor restaurants for Mexican food are whack as all get out — like Chuy’s, the type of concept that believes the path to masking lack of flavor lies in pools of 3-inch-thick, gelatinous cheese-food blanco like the Chi-Chi’s-ass dining experience it is. Of the top five on FourSquare’s totally brain-burning best of list, only one — no shit — only one is an actual Mexican restaurant, with the rest populated by, uh, barbecue on Japanese joints. I almost suffered a form of ego death when I saw that Dairy Kastle — that celebrated Latin American culinary explosion specializing in soft serve and hot dogs — is No. 7 on here. Dairy Kastle. Top 10 tacos in town. I know it’s Trump’s America, and nothing matters, but I still hit the fainting couch very hard. And Wild Rita’s over El Mundo? Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Yelp’s best taco list is much better than the rest, but it suffers from geographical favoritism and skews more toward the gourmet sect.

TacoQuest is about none of that noise. TacoQuest is here to find authentic, Mexican street food hidden in nondescript pockets throughout our fair city with their recipes passed down from abuela, and a delicious Occum’s Razor approach to the craft — marinated meats, finely chopped onion, and cilantro (salsa optional) on a warm tortilla, and that’s it. TacoQuest is about the family taquerias with real football on the television, and may or may not include a small grocery selling religious candles. Joints where the gringos are few (but welcomed), the El Yucateco bottles are full, and the portions are generous. Restaurants without a PR team and, often, even without a website. That’s where I like to get a taco, and if that sounds like you, you’re in luck!

Welcome to TacoQuest II: Electric Chewaloo. You can read the first installment from 2016 first if you’d like, but there’s no real narrative structure to this prose. Of course, just like last time, we at LEO are looking forward to all the comments reading “you forgot such and such,” engaging with this Facebook post and bumping our list journalism into everyone’s social feeds (thank you!). Friend, please, nothing was forgotten — there are countless great spots in Louisville for real tacos. These are the spots that were chosen this round, but mark my words, I will eat every goddamn taco in this town. Unlike the inaugural TacoQuest, which highlighted the vanguard of authentic international dining in Louisville known as Preston Highway, this TacoQuest expands the scope to include taquerias throughout the city, including a stretch in Southern Indiana that challenges Preston in terms of quality and volume. The rating scale, like last year, ranges from one to five skulls. Vamos!


Coconut Beach
2787 S. Floyd St., University Campus
One great restaurant did make it to the top of even the wonkiest of the aforementioned taco guides: El Taco Luchador. And for good reason — it’s gourmet Mexican served fast casual in a welcoming atmosphere with two locations on the busiest retail drags in the city. Fernando Martinez, who owns El Taco Luchador alongside Artesano Vino Tapas Y Mas and many other very successful concepts opened Coconut Beach in 2014. In many ways, it’s the forgotten little sibling of Luchador. Martinez’s Ole Group doesn’t even claim Coconut Beach as one of their properties on the website, or even the gift cards. Perhaps they are estranged. And they certainly don’t possess the web or social media presence of any other Martinez business.

It’s all a little weird, compounded even further by the bizarre atmosphere. The cavernous shotgun-style space once housed a rowdy sports bar vis-a-vis its location across from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The facade resembles a crossbreed between a barn and a warehouse, with vaulted ceilings in a menacingly-large hall inside, all saturated in neon light. It’s like the hotel ballroom from “The Shining,” but sponsored by Corona. And since dad has forgotten about them, they act out a little bit too. The restaurant doubles as a nightclub some nights. You might even catch a soundcheck of pulsating booty bass depending on when you drop in.

So, with that said, strange place. But I love Coconut Beach. Here’s a serious #hack for you guys — those Luchador recipes are still floating around the Coconut Beach kitchen. But the tacos are served traditional cilantro-and-onion street style, rather than Dad’s gourmet, and they’re all priced $1 to $1.50 less. Another #hack for you Catholics in the middle of Lent right now, Coconut Beach serves the best fish taco in town. A golden, crispy-breaded cod filet topped with a peppery and bright slaw garnished with a lime wedge, I prefer these fish tacos over Luchador’s legendary Baja taco. The al pastor is served with chunks of pineapple in a tangy guajillo sauce. And the salsas are made fresh in-house, which you can tell because the dates are written on a piece of masking tape (unless you wanna get all Alex Jones false flag about things). So for the newcomer, yes, it’s a bit jarring walking in your first time, passing through a lounge area apropos of nothing with 100-plus decibels of Spanish hip-hop bumpin’ for a small lunch crowd. But you won’t regret staying, especially if gourmet-apparent tacos for street vendor prices is your bag.


La Rostia Sol

La Rostia Sol
8730 Westport Road, Lydon
East Enders, you have a real taqueria. Is this La Rosita the same as the one on Preston Highway or even the other one in Southern Indiana? I… don’t know! Taquerias tend to share similar names. But the quality seems congruent to the Okalona flagship in the strip mall next by Supermercado Guanajuato. And this one, La Rosita Sol, is also found in a small strip, vinyl stickers plastering the windows with slogans like “Our Tacos are Greaaat!,” shouts out to Tony the Tiger. Like most taquerias, you pay at the counter after your meal. Unlike others, the tables are numbered, and they’ll assign you seating to ensure quicker delivery. Though made to order, my order came out in less than five minutes. The barbacoa was perfectly succulent while the al pastor featured chunkier cuts than what you might find at other taquerias. This La Rosita is a hike if you live inside the Watterson, and the quality is on par with other taquerias closer to the urban core (like the aforementioned Cafe Aroma and Panchito’s). However, if I lived out here, you better believe I’d enjoy lunch on a regular basis planted near the flat screen TV showing a soccer match. The market portion offered lots of fresh produce worth checking out, as well.


La Lupita
827 Eastern Blvd., Clarksville
Thanks to some scuttlebutt from friends and peers, I learned that Preston Highway Norteño exists. It’s across the river in Clarksville. Eastern Boulevard shares much with its southern vecino — a heavily-trafficked, wide-lane commercial corridor dotted with big box stores, auto mechanics and taquerias tucked away in strip malls. Obscured behind a street-facing Chinese restaurant, La Lupita hangs a large banner flashing photos of their menu over the side of the building. Inside, you’ll find very warm and attentive service as well as a huge menu of dinner plates, soups, tortas, a couple of Tex-Mex items and, of course, your choice of tacos Americanos or tacos Mexicanos. Because you’re not a dunce, you’re gonna get tacos Mexicanos and spring for lomo, a popular style of beef tenderloin served throughout Latin and South America. While their pollo is a little on the chewy side, the succulent al pastor and lean lengua (that’s tongue — give it a try!) are pitch perfect. More taco-adjacent than taco proper, they also serve gorditas — a flavorful street food that swaps tortilla for masa harina cakes, resembling a sort of Mexican-style arepa. I’m interested to see how they measure up to El Molcajete’s. Speaking of…


El Molcajete
2932 S. Fourth St., South Louisville
Wagner’s Pharmacy is like Bob Dylan for me, beloved by many, but I really don’t get it. I tried. I really did. But y’all, Wagner’s is just a Waffle House with a gift shop. I’d rather have Waffle House, as I’d rather listen to Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie. The originals, you know? Yet people lose their entire fucking shit over Wagner’s, every physical drop of their shit they can muster, and recommend it as a must-eat for visitors around Derby due to its proximity to Churchill Downs. Maybe it’s because I’m not originally from here, but nah. I doth protest — the must-eat is El Molcajete, which is just as close. And it serves beer!

El Molcajete, like many Tex-Mex spots, yet unlike most taquerias, serves complimentary chips and salsa. Their salsa, however, is dark, smoky, and warm — the only place I know of serving this sort of salsa. The tacos are consistently scrumptious and feature the usual suspects of barbacoa, pollo, al pastor, carnitas, and carne asada topped with the cilantro-onion dynamic duo plus radishes for texture and crunch. These tacos kill fascists. The dark horse of the menu, though, are those gorditas. Cheesy and overflowing with your choice of meat and beans spilling outside a griddled corn cake, it’s one of the smarter $3 investments you’ll ever make. One gordita and two tacos is a fine and filling meal. The service is matter-of-fact, but the portions and prices are generous. After a day of sinning at the track, come nourish your body, which is your temple, at El Molcajete instead. Giddy up!


Don Juan

Taqueria Don Juan
615 Eastern Blvd., Clarksville
At one point this joint three blocks from La Lupita was known as El Molcjaete Norteno. Now, it’s something new as Taqueria Don Juan, which opened earlier this year featuring a renovated dining room and a fresh twist on the taqueria experience. The menu is smaller than other sit-down taquerias, focusing on tacos, gringas (their take on gorditas), ceviche and other authentic Mexican favorites and in-house frescas to wash it all down. Where Don Juan truly stands out though: toppings bar. Fixings, salsa, even pinto beans — you dress your own tacos and gringas to your liking. For me, that involves utterly abusing the cilantro. How could you not?

Don Juan also boasts particularly friendly service. It turns out the Indiana side has service on lock. That’s not to say Louisville taquerias are unfriendly. The service just tends to be, as I mentioned with El Molcajete “matter of fact.” You roll up, order, gracias/thank you, done. Which is fine with me, I’m here for the food. But since folks at Don Juan went out of their way to be attentive, I wanted to mention it as some folks appreciate an elevated level of, I guess, acknowledgment. Don Juan is very welcoming, and it’s very delicious. That beautiful toppings bar, though — that’s what really makes Don Juan a destination for those searching out a new taqueria experience. Eastern Boulevard in Clarksville is a taco lover haven so, in the words of the inimitable Christopher Wallace, “If you don’t know, now you know.”

Advertisement


Taco Taxes
912 Eastern Blvd., Clarksville
While we’re in Clarksville, let’s bop over to Taco Taxes, a storefront with bright green and red branding. I was extremely agog to find out just what a taqueria called Taco Taxes looks like, and what it all means. Are the tacos free of sales tax? Or does it refer to the taxes we charge our bodies when piling on a little too much habanero? Of course, I’m willing to remit any tax burden when it comes to tacos. I’m in the highest of taco tax brackets when it comes to gross adjusted taco consumption.

Ah, hell. Shit. No, this business is an actual tax preparer. This is an accounting office, the type of business where accountants do accounting.

Damn.

Well, I suppose they could help me figure out how to do write-offs for these tacos. But there are no actual tacos here. I have been… hosed.


Cafe Aroma

Cafe Aroma
2020 Brownsboro Road, Clifton
The wisdom of modern liberalism’s father John Locke differed greatly from his Enlightenment Era cohort Thomas Hobbes vis-a-vis the social contract and the nature of man. One concept they did agree on was the Krogerian Principle, a theory suggesting as the subject becomes hungrier while shopping at Kroger, the probability he will purchase three tubs of spinach artichoke dip for the fuck of it approaches one. Going to the grocery on an empty stomach is one of man’s greatest follies.

If you live in Clifton, Crescent Hill, Phoenix Hill or Butchertown, your local Kroger is the Lower Brownsboro location. That kinda sucks because, while recently renovated alongside stores citywide, the Brownsboro Kroger still lacks a lot of inventory found at other locations. And shit, the Gucci Kroger in St. Matthew has a sushi station and a Starbucks. The Holiday Manor one has a barbecue restaurant. Our Kroger got… less dirty.

But! Dirty Kroger has a leg-up on the competition, thanks to Cafe Aroma. You might not know about this hidden gem. The name certainly suggests more an Italian bistro than a taqueria housed in a shotgun-style, vinyl siding-laden retail building next to a CPA and salon, tucked behind a small parking lot and slightly out of view from the road. And it is right. Next. To. Kroger. There is grace, and strategy, in eating before shopping.

Cafe Aroma is a classic bodega and taco purveyor combination. You can get a meal, Jarritos to go, a bag of Takis and an international calling card or two. The menu remains simple: tacos, burritos, tostadas and a special here and there. The walls lined with a handful of booths, always with folks sitting down for a meal at any given hour. The tacos themselves are as good as anything along Preston Highway, a truly home cooked-tasting meal. And unlike the Okalona taquerias, if you work downtown, you can get there and back during your lunch hour (provided you didn’t feel like crossing the bridges to Clarksville, which is also close as the crow flies). More importantly, I eat here often before braving Kroger so that I don’t fill up my dumb cart with six damn rotisserie chickens because I didn’t eat beforehand like a big stupid idiot.


Panchito’s

Panchito’s
2245 Bardstown Road, Highlands
A taco spot in The Highlands that doesn’t go off script with unnecessary elaboration on a perfect dish? Surely you jest! Nope, Bardstown Road has a legitimate taqueria thanks to Panchitos opening their second location near, oh snap, Kroger. The Highlands Kroger has bested my Kroger yet again!

I wrote that Panchito’s was the best new restaurant opening in 2017. The reason I did that is because it is. Go there. Or order delivery with Uber Eats if you’re too sedentary to be bothered (though it’s always better to dine in). You can read what I wrote back in December in the Welp! Year End recap.


Victoria Mexican Food
2918 Hikes Lane, Hikes Point
The modest, seafoam-colored freestanding brick structure at 2918 Hikes Lane, next to The Golden Nugget, has hosted a menagerie of Mexican eateries: El Rey, Agave, others. Certain addresses tend to feel cursed, running through myriad businesses throughout the course of only a couple years. Some restaurants do finally get it right and break the cycle. The tricky 2319 Brownsboro Road address, for example, seems to have found a permanent tenant with Chik’n & Mi. Will Victoria be the taqueria that firmly plants its flag on this Hikes Point intersection?

I hope so because these are the best tacos in town. Each and every ingredient tastes farmers market fresh. The meats have been prepared with care and marinated with time, cooked at the perfect doneness, heavy with citrus notes and a complex balance of spice and brightness. Radishes are cut so thin they might’ve been prepped with a razor. The tortillas are cooked in a little bit of the seasoning grease, a trick I saw for the first time at a taco cart in San Ignacio, Belize (not to sound too Bourdain about things) and, like Post-it notes, serves as one of those mind-blowing little tricks that make you feel incredibly foolish for not coming up with yourself. This coupled with a very clean and comfortable atmosphere — lots of natural light shining through the windows — makes Victoria a noteworthy taqueria experience. And I appreciate the strategy, whether the restauranteurs realize it or not, of adding brunch to a taqueria. Of course, you wanna capture the type of potential customers who simply must have their weekend brunch, who enter some higher plane of existence when eating pancakes with a fucking smiley face made of chocolate chips on top. But I have folks in my life that are, ya know, a little Nulu-y, maybe even a little Olive Garden-y. It’s hard to get them to agree to try something that might be out of their comfort zone, like a traditional taqueria. But if I say the word brunch, your boy here is gonna be enjoying four lomo tacos muy rapido. Which I will always prefer over an egg and butter thing, nothing but respect to the Butter and Egg Man of course. And that is a godsend. Muy bueno.

About the Author

Tacoquest 2018: Where to find the best tacos in Louisville

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

All Articles by this Author >

Comments