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Pulpo, Carnitas and Tikka Masala: Our Favorite Tacos from Taco Libre Dallas

The only problem with Taco Libre is that my stomach doesn’t have room for all the tacos I want to eat. Dozens of taquerías set up shop at the Dallas Farmers Market on Saturday eager to impress with their best stuff, ranging from Oak Cliff tortilla factories to budding celebrity chefs. Some even came from out of town, like Shreveport’s excellent Ki’Mexico and two taco vendors from the markets of Mexico City, sponsored by Mexico’s consulate general. Along the sidelines, carts added elotes and paletas to the mix.

It’s just too much for the belly to take in. I prepared for Saturday’s taco feast by skipping both breakfast and lunch. Before bed, I needed a light snack, so I ate more tacos. Here are some of the best bites — from Dallas and elsewhere — that I encountered at Taco Libre 2019.

Urban Taco's lengua del diablo, with habanero fire and a garnish of marigold, was one of the most impressive bites at the festival.EXPAND
Urban Taco's lengua del diablo, with habanero fire and a garnish of marigold, was one of the most impressive bites at the festival.
Brian Reinhart

One of the biggest local surprises was Urban Taco, the Mockingbird Station restaurant that has a tradition of going hard at festivals. This year, Urban Taco’s carnitas rivaled some of the best in the festival for flavor, but the standout to me was the “lengua del diablo,” rich, tender beef tongue stewed in a spicy habanero marinade. With slivers of red onion, a sprig of marigold and a wedge of orange rather than lime, it was one of Taco Libre’s standout bites.

Another big surprise: Halal Mother Truckers, the South Asian food truck. Festival patrons seemed to underrate this vendor’s potential — there was no line and I’ve never had food truck food served more quickly — but Halal Mother Truckers breathed life into a style of cultural fusion that occasionally gets dodgy. True, the tortilla was off a store rack, but the fragrant basmati rice played beautifully with a chicken tikka masala that was roaring with spice, flavor and heat.

After spicy tikka and rich lengua, no taco acted as a better palate-cleanser than the shrimp aguachile offering from Tacodeli. With lime, cilantro and salsa verde wrapped in flour, it was light, cooling and refreshing. Call me crazy for using this analogy, but it was like the mojito of seafood tacos. One of my dining companions said that Tacodeli’s shrimp aguachile actually made her feel more prepared to down a few more tacos.

José served a birria de res taco with beef jus for dunking.EXPAND
José served a birria de res taco with beef jus for dunking.
Brian Reinhart

We tested that theory at José, where chef Anastacia Quiñones served up flautitas de frijoles, guisado de puerco on cilantro-flavored tortillas and birria de res. We opted for birria, dunking the slow-cooked beef and fresh-made tortilla in a little cup of beef jus. Quiñones’ offerings honored tradition — and they also won top prize as the best in festival from Taco Libre’s official judges.

I was a little surprised by that choice, but not by any means outraged. After all, the judges had to eat many, many more tacos than I did, so they know best. But the two sellers that wowed me the most also seemed to be the two stalls drawing the longest lines all afternoon: Revolver Taco Lounge and Carnitas Meche y Rafael. Part of the draw at Revolver, of course, was that any customer who took a photo of the booth and posted it online got their taco for free.

The other part of the draw was the photos’ subject matter: chef Regino Rojas tending his now-legendary “pulpo al pastor,” a vertical spit stacked high with waving octopus tentacles and topped with a huge chunk of pineapple. Right alongside, members of the Revolver family made tortillas from scratch, by hand, to order. How could anyone resist? BBBop Seoul Kitchen was doing an octopus taco, too, but I, perhaps unfairly, decided that there was no way Revolver’s could be topped. (Sorry, BBBop.)

Revolver Taco Lounge's booth included tortillas made on-site (foreground) and the restaurant's notorious pulpo al pastor (background).EXPAND
Revolver Taco Lounge's booth included tortillas made on-site (foreground) and the restaurant's notorious pulpo al pastor (background).
Brian Reinhart

Carnitas Meche y Rafael was one of the two Mexico City taquerías, and the draw here was simple: great carnitas. Extraordinary carnitas. With crispy shreds of pork, equally crispy tortillas grilled with just a bit of oil, nutty dark-brown salsa and a variety of pickles and escabeches of varying heat, Carnitas Meche y Rafael took home my heart’s gold medal. (Urban Taco took home my imaginary silver.)

Next to the long line for carnitas, the other Mexico City taquería, Mariscos El Paisa, was getting less attention for their seafood tostadas on blue corn tortillas. Truth be told, the “seafood chicharrones” were not the most pleasant of surprises — aren’t chicharrones supposed to be crunchy rather than soft? — but if you asked nicely, they’d throw on a generous handful of extra-crispy chapulines (grasshoppers).

Carnitas Meche y Rafael had some of the festival's longest lines for its carnitas and serve-yourself garnish bar.EXPAND
Carnitas Meche y Rafael had some of the festival's longest lines for its carnitas and serve-yourself garnish bar.
Brian Reinhart

I feel bad to have missed BBBop, Ki’Mexico (a longtime fan favorite) and Casa Komali, which won the judges’ second-place trophy. Resident Taquería had their classic cauliflower taco on hand, too, and the display of grilling meats and cheeses from Fort Worth restaurant Chile Pepper Grill was probably the single most drool-worthy booth in the whole place. But even though one humble food writer was unable to eat even half of the offerings, 2019’s Taco Libre was, without doubt, a resounding success, one of the best afternoons of gluttony to hit Dallas in years.

In fact, rather than leaving me taco-ed out, Taco Libre made me hungry for more. Much later that night, we popped into Revolver’s Deep Ellum storefront to mingle with the midnight crowd and sample a new special, the Caro Quintero, which piles chorizo verde, white beans and pico onto two of the restaurant’s glorious tortillas. Then Rojas emerged from the backroom brandishing a roasted suckling pig head, a basket of tortillas and a carving knife. He returned a moment later bearing another pig head, the deep red skin practically crackling.

“I made seven,” he told me, in a tone which from any other human might have sounded like a joke. But no, that’s Revolver Taco Lounge, and this is Dallas, and Dallas is a city where the taco festival never ends.

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