The Great Dallas Brisket Taco Hunt

Five brisket tacos at five places in five hours: It's more meat -- and more fun -- than it seems.

I reached down to my right, pulled the small plastic lever, pushed back in my seat and moaned. We were puttering down U.S. 75 in a tinny Honda hybrid, three men on a mission.

I felt an intense pressure emanating deep from within, and hoped that reclining my seat would create some much-needed real estate between my quickly expanding midsection and my quickly tightening belt. I was running an internal pressure of somewhere around 55 psi. A Jeep could have successfully substituted my middle for one of its tires and made it to Mexico, but we had two stops to go.

Still, my emotions were high. What had initially started as an amusing outing to determine which restaurant was serving Dallas' best brisket taco had become much more: a taco history lesson, a survey on the endless varieties and interpretations of brisket tacos served around Dallas and a test of wills. Now, nearly three hours into our taco adventure, I had no idea I was about to become a man who would seriously debate desecrating a defenseless paletas cart to relieve my discomfort. Our first stop felt like a distant memory, shrouded in a haze of beef, fat and rising guilt.

See more photos of the brisket tacos of Dallas in the slideshow
Rusty Taco was our final stop -- and our favorite.
Sara Kerens
Rusty Taco was our final stop -- and our favorite.
Taco Joint: Feed your hangover with brisket.
Sara Kerens
Taco Joint: Feed your hangover with brisket.
Taco Republic's version had actual barbecue sauce. And pickles.
Sara Kerens
Taco Republic's version had actual barbecue sauce. And pickles.

Good 2 Go Taco, 12:23 p.m.

We arrived at Good 2 Go in the heart of the lunch hour, still draped in the previous evening's excess and fueled only by coffee. There was already a significant line running from the taco counter on one side of the restaurant to the coffee counter on the other, and the smells of browning meat and brewing caffeine battled for olfactory dominance. (Meat won, of course).

We ordered tacos from the build-your-own section of the menu: braised beef (Good 2 Go uses brisket) with cilantro and fresh onions. They arrived soon after, the meat heaped generously into the single flour tortilla. But its quantity couldn't make up for its lifelessness. The meat was bland and dry, over-braised and cooked down to tiny thread-like strands. All of the inter-muscular fat was cooked away into the braising liquid, which the kitchen squeezed from the meat when they built the tacos. Salsa moistened things a bit, but only a bit.

I'm a Northerner, so when I first heard of Texas' brisket tacos, I envisioned a warm, delicate white-corn tortilla loaded with slices of tender, salty and perfectly smoked brisket. This fantasy taco was topped with a crunchy, bright slaw and a drizzle of heady hot sauce — a sort of pitmaster's Tex-Mex. But while similar tacos exist, my dream taco doesn't align with Dallas' understanding of the brisket taco — which could be one of this city's most significant offerings to the culinary world.

Certainly the roots of Fritos and the frozen margarita are widely known. There is no doubt these foods were invented in Dallas; the stories of their provenance are not debated. Arguing about the genesis of brisket tacos, however, is like debating who invented bread. There are no patented machines or registered trademarks that link them to one restaurant or another.

Of course, Texans weren't the first people to drop some braised meat in a tortilla and call it dinner. Taquerías on both sides of the border offer suadero and barbacoa and have since the beginning of taco time. These tacos typically feature gently braised cuts — including brisket, face and belly — cooked down into mystery meat and dressed with cilantro and diced onions.

But if Texas can do anything, it's bastardize Mexican food, and the brisket taco is no exception. Endless interpretations have spawned over the years, as cheese, gravy, jalapeños and other ingredients and cooking techniques came into the fold. Along the way the tacos got bigger and louder and more Texas.

Good 2 Go's brisket meat resembled old-school Mexican barbacoa. Big slivers of pungent yellow onion, fresh cilantro and smoky chili-laden salsa were all fresh and made for a fine enough taco, but something was lacking and it centered on that over-braised beef. This wasn't what we were looking for. Luckily we had a lot of taco to go.

Taco Joint, 1:38 p.m.

Taco Joint caters to the hungover on weekend mornings and afternoons, and bed-headed college kids were still everywhere when we arrived, looking like they'd spent the night at the Quarter Bar. Two of them heard us plotting our route.

"Are you going on some sort of ... taco crawl?" one asked. She looked half-intrigued, like she wanted to come along, and half concerned for our health. Her inquiry inspired a brief but detailed fantasy that started with good-2-go coeds joining our taco adventure and ended in ranchero-sauced romance. They must think we're taco warriors, I guessed, and then, through the awkward silence that followed her inquiry, I realized there was a more likely explanation for their curiosity: They thought we were taco dorks.

And they were right.

I didn't feel bruised for long. The line was moving quickly and I was about to discover that Taco Joint sells one hell of a brisket taco.

"That's, like, straight brisket," Nick, one of my fellow taco dorks, said, staring longingly into his foil-wrapped number. He was describing big chunks of moist and sweet meat. Tossed in a basket with shredded lettuce, some tomatoes and an avocado slice (two if you were lucky), this taco, housed in a double-ply corn tortilla, was noticeably better than Good 2 Go's. The subtle sweetness balanced fatty flavors that clung to the large, stringy chunks of braised meat. While a jalapeño ranch sauce tasted like a gimmick, red salsa and green salsas were simple, bright and worthy condiments.

Joe, our third fellow glutton, had joined us by now, so we made him eat two to catch up. He finished quickly — too quickly, really — and we tossed our baskets in mock triumph and headed for the door.

Taco Republic, 2:07 p.m.

"This looks like a Whataburger," Nick said as we walked (or did we waddle?) into Taco Republic, which hangs on the edge of U.S. 75 in Richardson. He was being generous. The salmon-colored tables and terra cotta tile floors invoked a fast-food joint from the late '60s. The place had a fresh coat of paint and a new sign out front, but inside things were pretty drab.

Ron Guest, the co-founder of Café San Miguel, turned this former La Paloma Taquería into a new-style taco joint. Thankfully he put more thought into his menu than he put into his interior design. He uses traditional techniques for his slow-braised brisket meat, which was juicy, rich and fatty. But then he gets weird, adding crispy fried onions and smoky barbecue sauce to give the delicious and basic filling a distinctly Texan flare.

Taco Republic's smokehouse taco demonstrated that shunning tradition can sometimes lead to some amazing taco innovations. Those innovations are on display all around the city, and they may have started at Mia's Tex Mex, the stroller-friendly fajita factory in Oak Lawn. I'd had their tacos before, but a recent conversation with Lisa Fain, the author of the Homesick Texan cookbook, shined a new light on what has become one of Dallas' most important tacos.

"The use of melted white cheese with meat in a taco wasn't really seen in Texas until the Dallas-style brisket taco," Fain told me, describing the addition of Monterey Jack, sauteed onions and poblano strips, along with a pan gravy, a byproduct of meat braising, that's served on the side.

Fain gives Mia's credit for the Tex-Mex brisket taco, and Mia's menu gives credit for the recipe to Butch Enriquez. He opened the restaurant with his wife in 1981, and those gravy-drenched tacos have been a hit ever since. Many Tex-Mex restaurants now offer a similar taco.

New-style taco restaurants, however, continue to try to put their own spin on things, and Taco Republic's offering is a worthy addition to the brisket tacos of Dallas. A sprinkle of fried cilantro added nothing, but a small plastic cup of pickles livened things up. The acid from the brine was a necessary addition, cutting the rich flavors of that fatty brisket.

Those pickles also brought a hint of roadside Texas barbecue to my mouth. Guest, I realized, had replaced a slice of white bread with a pre-made corn tortilla, and a Texas taco was born anew.

Torchy's Tacos, 2:42 p.m.

My seat-back was nearly horizontal by the time we shoved off from the Republic, but the soft murmuring sounds of discomfort didn't seem to bother Nick, our driver, who proved to be a great fellow taco hunter. As two of us moaned about the meat and masa expanding in our guts — three brisket tacos is a lot more than it sounds like — Nick bolstered morale, greedily diving into each taco and leading the charge to the next stop, all while proclaiming his constant and ravenous hunger. Truth be told, I needed this support. As we pulled up to Torchy's, a shiny gringo taco shop in the heart of shiny gringo land, the enthusiasm I'd basked in at the beginning of our adventure had festered into a dark and seedy taco resentment.

The logo for Torchy's blares like a bad tattoo. The Austin-based chain caters to young people who like to spend big money for big tacos. Apparently Preston Hollow has a lot of these folks — now well into the afternoon, the line at Torchy's stretched to the door.

Four bucks may seem expensive for a single taco, but Torchy's piled loads of irregular cubes of pink, intensely smoky brisket into a sizable flour tortilla. "Is there bacon on this?" someone asked. "No," our champion eater answered. "It's just that smoky." And it was good.

It became apparent that none of these tacos was going to easily outshine the other. While some were executed with more culinary acumen than others, they were all different tacos. Some incorporated elements of authentic Mexican techniques, others leveraged Tex-Mex flavors and some were borne out of Texas' barbecue culture. All of them brought something new to the taco table (but sadly, none of them used handmade tortillas).

Buttery onions, shredded jack cheese, an avocado slice and pickled jalapeños made for heavy eating at Torchy's. It was a true Texas taco: If bigger is better, way bigger is way better. Still, it had its appeal. "I'm kinda into this one," I told my taco compatriots, after wiping the brisket grease from my fingers. My body disagreed.

Rusty Taco, 3:16 p.m.

As we pulled into the small parking lot of Rusty Taco, I experienced a temporary bout of synesthesia. I swore I could see the smell of browning meat that poured over my senses, and I could smell my pending fear. I was so full I thought briefly about purging into one of the paletas carts, lovingly staged out front of a taco shop that now represented my personal hell. I say this only to provide context to the following statement:

Rusty's brisket taco was by far my favorite.

The finish line in site, we ordered celebratory Pacificos to sip while we waited for the final tacos to be assembled. Rusty keeps the bottles on ice in open coolers up front, something I vowed to remember when summer returns. Cheap beer should always be this cold.

The tacos made use of huge pieces of brisket, their muscle fibers running the length of the folded corn tortilla. I thought this would make for difficult eating, but it was tender enough to manage. Topped with a dusting of cotija, onions, cilantro and a tiny lime wedge that required great effort to liberate of its juices, Rusty's taco made a solid nod to tradition. It was small and cheap ($2), and it tasted of a culinary simplicity I celebrate every time I encounter it.

Maybe I was just happy to be done. Taco Joint served up another taco crawler's favorite because he said "it packed big flavor," but I liked Rusty because it felt like an honest taco. It reminded me most of the street tacos that got the whole thing started, and it rejuvenated my taco enthusiasm — remarkable, considering my condition when I ate it.

Not everyone was this happy, though. Later that night I received a text from Joe, the third taco crawler. He didn't have a favorite taco, he said, but he did have an announcement: He was going vegan.

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29 comments
Guest
Guest

Casa Milagro in Richardson has awesome briskey tacos.

Guest
Guest

Guess it would help if I could spell brisket.

Steve
Steve

That bottom taco looks way 70's.

Seanewell
Seanewell

Check out Long Boat Key Tacos & Catering at the Deep Ellum Arts Festival over Easter Weekend!!!

RGV41
RGV41

Does the O have something against Fuzzy's? I never see Fuzzy's mentioned in the myriad of taco articles...

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

Fuzzys sucks, it way overrated by it cult following

RGV41
RGV41

I'm not a Fuzzy's cultist, but I'm not a hater either. They don't suck.

Raine Devries
Raine Devries

LaGrange's tasty brisket tacos are sadly missing from this list!

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

For what his taco hunt was, it was a successful trip. Almost any true taqueria or mexican taco joint is not going to have brisket tacos, they all use the barbacoa style. Im just glad fuzzys didnt make the list, probably the shittiest tacos Ive ever eaten. and since Scott or the CoA is taking requests, how bout a chicken parm crawl. I need to know who has the best in town please

Daniel
Daniel

Fuzzy's does indeed blow. Its success is mystifying.

informed opinion
informed opinion

Yeah you're right, in order for them to grow from 1 store in 2003 to 42 in 2012 they must suck hard. Haterade?

CheeryBitch
CheeryBitch

Fuzzy's is to tacos what Olive Garden is to Italian food. just because they're everywhere doesn't mean they're good. (They're not!)

Putomamon
Putomamon

This is much more like an short outing than a "Great Hunt". It's merely a single sortie in a larger war.

There's 10 taco places near my old job in Carrollton, there's 10 near my house, 20 near my current job, 20 near my wife's job, 15 more over on the other side of town if we are visiting the in-laws...

I recommend a full monthly spot devoted to this great battle. It would take years to get through them all and would make you a true scholar of the subject.

To be a true taco nerd, you must envelop yourself with your subject matter. As is, you have simply done the "wikipedia book report" version.

Kevin
Kevin

Is this a Dallas Morning News article? Or maybe D magazine blog post? I expect something a little less 'OMG I'm living on the edge by leaving Uptown/Park Cities' from the Dallas Observer. Gringo tacos are almost as overdone as upscale burgers.

Wayne L
Wayne L

I think it's also worth mentioning that brisket tacos are simply another alternative to barbacoa tacos. Obviously the gringo taco spots you went to and friendly tex-mex places aren't putting a cabeza into the ground overnight and also dont allow for too much unsightly fat. So enter brisket. Still nice and beefy and recognizable to any local, yokel, bbq-fan or texan.

I think they have a place and are not a "bastardization" at all. Sometimes you want some beef in a taco...and not shitty-ass ground beef.

btw, I'm not so sure DC is considered the "North" neither in current nor historical context.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

....I'm not so sure DC is considered the "North" neither in current nor historical context...

Tell that to these other guys...

Jim Brashear
Jim Brashear

If you're in the mid-cities, try El Taco.H, which is co-located with Baja Grill in Grapevine and Watagua. http://www.eltacoh.com They have a new concept, Funky Baja Cantina on FM 1709 in Keller, with a menu of tacos. The best is the "Espanto" brisket taco with chorizo.

Gregg
Gregg

blue goose makes some mean brisket tacos. get there early to get it fresh.

kyle
kyle

This article makes me SO sad. These are boutique tacos! If you want REAL tacos, try Tacos La Banqueta in East Dallas, Taqueria El Si Hay in Oak Cliff, Fuel City, or Taco Hut in Lewisville.

Daniel
Daniel

Brisket tacos are an authentic local specialty in a city that is, frankly, inauthentic most of the time. Give'em some lovin' fer chrissakes.

And BTW, Fuel City is way overrated. El Si Hay is awesome, though.

Guest
Guest

Who are you targeting with these stories? Someone from up north comes and visits all of the least authentic taco stands in the city, makes a huge deal about eating five tacos over four hours (Really, shut up. It's not that much food), and then the favorite is RUSTY TACO because it reminds you of authentic street tacos? One of the worst tacos places in the entire city is your favorite because you claim it is the most authentic. Has anyone told you that the entire damn city is filled with... you know, actual authentic tacos? El Guero, El Si Hay, etc. You must have passed dozens of these places. Are you scared of Mexicans? You are a complete failure as a food writer.

Beda
Beda

Guest, it's really chicken of you to make the rude remarks about Scott that you did without using your real name. Please be man enough to make such statements out in the open instead of hiding behind the anonymity of "Guest."

Deep_Sigh
Deep_Sigh

Good grief as soon as he gets the urge for a tripas taco, I'm sure he'll find a sufficiently authentic place to please the purists.

Craig Greene10
Craig Greene10

This is my family that owns the Rusty Taco and i agree with Scott about this carpet bagger. I am glad you liked them Scott.

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

What a carpet bagger this guy, huh?

Thing is, I wanted to go on a brisket taco crawl so that's what I did. I didn't want to go on a suadero, or a barbacoa crawl, but a brisket taco crawl because one of my readers requested it. The word brisket is English which led me to research Americanized brisket tacos in Dallas. I ate at Mia's, Avilla's and Manny's to gain some understanding of the original Dallas brisket taco and Tex-Mex influences. Mia's got its very own blog post and a mention in this story. And then I went to five places that I thought built on that theme in some way or another, and offered something new.

And by they way I'm not afraid of Mexicans. I find them delicious.

Aaronstew2003
Aaronstew2003

I was sorry you omitted Mia's. Its my personal favorite brisket taco. Nice to hear about these others though.

Daniel
Daniel

Dude, Mia's invented the damn thing. I like your premise and your writing, but your omissions (the aforementioned being principle among them) are kindalike glaring. Manny's. Hell, even uber-honkytown Fernando's. For the love of St. Christ, man, even Mi Cocina knows better than to stick lettuce in that shit. The places you went to are all good and well, but their target demo is drunk college kids from places like Tyler and the Northeast who know neither Mexican food nor Tex-Mex from the hole in their gosh darned arse (Good2Go excepted and winning special plaudits for creativity).

Scott Reitz
Scott Reitz

I like some other things at Good 2 Go, but I'm just looking at brisket here and Taco Republic's was far more innovative.

 
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