Editor’s note: This story originally published in 2017.
Taco Tuesday may be a thing, but National Taco Day is Wednesday, Oct. 4.
Hey, who’s in charge of these things anyway? “The Strange History of Taco Tuesday” says the popular restaurant promotion began at Taco John’s in 1982. Meanwhile, Taco Bell is reported to have lobbied hard for the national day, says nationaltacoday.com.
Last year Americans chowed down on 4.5 billion tacos, so every restaurant wants a piece of the tortilla.
In Kansas City, you’ll find a rich variety of tacos served just about any hour of the day or night. There’s breakfast tacos at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop), fish or octopus tacos for lunch-only at Jarocho Pescado y Mariscos, Saturday-only tacos at Bichelmeyer’s Meats and even late-night tacos Tiki Taco.
Barbecue tacos are gaining traction: Indios Carbonsitos hits the streets with its short rib or cow cheek tacos while Q39 has a spicy pulled pork version and County Line Ice House, a Joe’s KC brand extension, will have smoked carnitas barbecue tacos on the menu when they open in the Power & Light District next year.
And if you want a vegetarian version, you can order up the cauliflower tacos at Port Fonda.
But when National Taco Day rolls around, it seems only fitting to celebrate with traditional, granddaddy of ’em all, no-frills tacos.
1229 E. Santa Fe St., Olathe (and another location at 1150 Minnesota Ave., Kansas City, Kan.), 913-768-0003, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
This essential taco stop popped up on BuzzFeed’s “Here’s The Most Popular Taco Spot in Every State” last year.
Not a surprise: The taco bar is located inside a full-service grocery providing a backdrop of fresh Mexican cheeses, baked goods that you pluck out of the case with tongs and take to the cash register on a silver tray, and pork rinds the size of a dachshund.
A la carte tacos are $1.49 each. Various filling options are kept on a warming table shielded by a window so it’s easy to point to the meat of your choice. The holy trinity, of course, is carnitas, carne asada and al pastor. Bonito Michoacan branches out with chicken, and since taco lovers are the original nose-to-tail eaters: tripe (beef intestines), hog stomach (typically listed as hog mog or buche) and lengua (beef tongue) are commonly found on local tacqueria menus.
On a recent Saturday at Bonita Michoacon, beef cheek was available. I’d had the finely shredded meat in ravioli but never in tacos. Beef cheeks are tough until braised until they melt, but surprisingly it was the tripe that rang up a little extra: $1.99.
The standard taco comes with chopped onion and cilantro, but sit down here and you can garnish your tacos from the colorful, and one of the most extensive salsa bars in the city — including salsa verde, salsa roja (hot), pico de gallo, pickled red onions with the heat of habeneros, pickled peppers and lime wedges. Alas, it’s only available for those who dine in-house.
830 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, Kan., 913-281-6433, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Like good barbecue, the line for four quality tacos for $5 starts early — and is almost out the door by 11:30 a.m.
Walk past the tortilleria — the section where fresh corn tortillas are usually coming off the conveyor belt and you can walk up and order to-go tamales by the dozen — to arrive at the ordering counter.
The taco menu includes pastor (marinated pork), asada (grilled beef), carnitas (deep-fried pork) barbacoa (steamed beef; not part of the $5 option the cashier tells me) and buche (or hog mogs, or pig stomach). Tripe (beef intestine, think calamari if you’re squeamish), according to the website, is available after 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Your number is called when the order is ready. Dress your tacos at the bar and head for the Paul Bunyan-esque blond wood tables and chunky chairs to commune with the lunch crowd or watch the telenovelas playing on the TV screen.
Across the street, El Pollo Rey’s fire pits perfume the air with wood smoke as it roasts nothing but chickens. But that is for another story.
806 Southwest Blvd. (inside Aborrotes, which is Spanish for grocery store), 816-842-0160, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday and Saturday
A red rooster decal decorates the take-out window of Tacos El Gallo.
On an unseasonably warm October day, a couple eats their tacos sitting in patio chairs on the sidewalk. When I ask if it is OK to take their photograph, the woman eagerly tells me yes, and that she’s a fan of the carne asada tacos.
Once inside the doors, I place my order at the end of the bar. The meat choices at Tacos El Gallo include carne asada (steak), carnitas (pork shoulder), chicken, pork pastor (described on a sign as “mexican gyro meat”), cabeza (beef head), buche (pork stomach), lengua (beef tongue) and tripe.
As soon as I have paid for my meal (three tacos and a small drink cost me $7.50), one of two female cooks working behind a long flat-top grill tending piles of meat like a chef at a Japanese steakhouse hands me a foam plate. There are three tacos garnished with chipped cilantro and chopped onion with a few radish slices that lend a pop of color. As I pivot toward the eat-in space, there is a small condiment bar. A hand-lettered sign warns that there are habaneros lurking.
This was one of my favorite preparations of tongue, perhaps because the meat was so finely diced and more flavorful than some I have tried. The cabeza is also a revelation. It is braised until tender, but different than beef cheeks. Carnitas get my ultimate vote because the lacy edges have been delicately crisped on the grill providing a quiet bit of crunch.
1230 Merriam Lane, Kansas City, Kan., 913-677-9065, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
A spacious if pockmarked asphalt parking lot leads to this Mexican sit-down restaurant on Merriam Lane, not far from Woodyard BBQ. The sign and many of the velvet paintings on the happy orange walls — orange is a popular color for taquerias — sport the matador motif as Spanish-language telenovelas play on the flatscreen at the back of the shotgun space.
The first patchwork vinyl booth I slid into was so slim I felt like I was wearing a corset. A few rows back was more spacious, and that was a good thing because there were 10 tacos listed on the laminated menu, and since this was my first stop, I wanted to try them all.
At $1.75 per taco, it was a sound investment. The waitress looked at me as if it was an odd request but a few minutes later the soft corn tortillas (hard shell is also available) arrived layered on a family-style serving platter.
Each taco filling — asada, pastor, barbacoa, deep-fried carnitas, chicken, chorizo, ground beef, lengua (beef tongue), tripe, and pork stomach — was set on a double tortilla the size of a baseball. Garnish included chopped onion, cilantro and wedges of lime.
Thumbs up to the succulent carnita chunks and the spicy red chorizo. And since I have been known to eat pig snout, I would do the crispy tripe and fatty chunks of pork stomach again.