Want to find the best tacos possible in Dallas? Look for handmade tortillas. Sure, there are a handful of great taquerias around town that don't make their own meat hammocks, but chances are if someone is pressing or patting out masa within the confines of your chosen taqueria, the tacos you're about to consume will be very good ones.
Most of these taquerias use masa harina, a manufactured product that starts off a lot like the very best handmade tortillas. Corn that's been boiled in lime and soaked until soft is ground into masa, which is subsequently dried and pulverized into a fine powder. Would-be tortilla makers only need add a little water to reconstitute the mixture before they can press and cook golf ball-sized portions of dough into delicate, fresh, if slightly bland tortillas.
Irrationally devoted tortilla makers boil their own corn, soaking it for a day before running it through a grinder called a molino to create masa. Their extra care avoids the processed drying step, which preserves a lot of the delicate texture and fragrance of the corn.
All of this, of course, adds a significant cost to what is one of the most cheapest meals you can buy, which is why the act of making tortillas from scratch anywhere but a tortilla factory makes little business sense. There are scores of tortillerias around Dallas, each cranking out round after round after round, and charging a dollar for an 8-inch-tall stack of tortillas so fresh they trail steam as you walk out the door. You'd be an idiot to pay an employee a wage to stand around all day to wrestle with a press to make one tortilla at a time as customers place their orders.
No, the decision to make tortillas by hand in a restaurant is not a rational one. It is a decision of passion, and it just so happens that passionate people tend to make very good tacos.
At Barbacoa Estillo Hidalgo, on Lake June Road, large, fluffy tortillas are pressed and griddled all morning long, and owner Raymundo Sanchez is just as obsessive about the meat he grills and roasts to fill them. He soaks legs, shoulders and other lamb parts in salt water overnight, and early in the morning sears them over a wood-burning fire. They're then roasted over a bed of chickpeas, so the fat and drippings resolve into a meaty and beautiful stew. A bowl of soft chickpeas and broth with onions, cilantro and a freshly squeezed lime is a stunning thing to eat, but fold some of that tender lamb into one of his fresh tortillas it's damn near transcendent.
Or how about La Nueva Fresh and Hot, on Webb Chapel Road, the taqueria that seems to have opened because the tortilla machine happened to be there? Through the front door and to the left, a giant contraption digests a ball of wet masa harina the size of a St. Bernard, while from the other side, perfectly round tortillas emerge. In the back kitchen, pork is cooked down into green and red stews that you'd be happy to eat with a spoon, but here you can funnel them directly into your face with tortillas cooked just seconds before. Should you feel inspired, you're welcome to take home a stack for yourself to see what you can accomplish on your own.
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In the tiny, open kitchen of Fort Worth's Revolver Taco, the tortillas are made from whole kernels of corn in the most primal and labor-intensive way, and they're also the lightest, fluffiest, most tender tortillas you can find in the area. Here, stewed kidneys, young roast goat, fatty head meat, funky huitlacoche and other fillings join an army of tacos worthy of real plates and white linen tablecloths. Nico Sanchez serves his tacos outdoors on metal trays and uses the same process to make tortillas at La Ventana. He does this not because it's the practical thing to do, but because tortillas made this way smell of freshly roasting corn and have a characteristic bite and chew you can't replicate if you automate any part of the cooking process. His tacos are the best you can get downtown, by far.
All of these taquerias are the best at one thing or another, and they sell a sizeable dose of happiness for just a dollar and some change, while taquerias that take too many shortcuts offer tacos that taste like they cost. The same people who press out their own tortillas tend to stack their trompo spits with well-seasoned pork and roast whole cow heads for barbacoa, when they could be using cheek meat or a shoulder, like the guys who soak their tortillas in hot oil until they're pliable enough to fold.
Scope out a taqueria with a few 50-pound bags of masa harina lying around, or even better, sacks of dried corn, and you can be pretty sure your lunch is going to be a good one. Find the glass-door refrigerator, pry the cap off a fizzy Topo Chico and settle in. The eating is good and at prices like these for hand-crafted fare, you can afford to eat a lot of it.