Growing up in the 1980s, I hated the “taco.” In our house and the restaurants where we saw it on the menu, it consisted of a crispy-cardboard textured corn envelope stuffed with ground hamburger, sour cream, cheese, shredded iceberg and diced tomatoes. The more “authentic” ones included salsa and a pack of taco seasoning stirred into the meat. Aside from the insipid taste, each bite weaponized the shell into corn spears that stabbed the side and back of my mouth so that eating one felt more like an act of self-defense than nourishment.
Fast forward 25 years… to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to my friend Kristin’s rehearsal dinner where the tacos were the star of the menu. I had learned a lot more about Mexican food in the interim, especially from a Spanish professor who spoke six languages, cooked amazing mole (pronounced mo-lay) sauces and swore Mexican cuisine was second only to France’s in terms of its complexity. But I remained a taco novice, scarred (literally and figuratively) from my youthful experience with them. That night changed everything.
In between dancing myself to the drenching point with my closest college friends and a few too many gin and tonics, my husband Dave and I tried the tacos. We knew these were different from the start. First, there was the long, snaking line to get them. Second was the fact that the tortillas were being made in front of us so each one was warm and pliable—the perfect wrapper for the aromatic pork being sliced from a rotisserie that evening. We didn’t know how it was cooked, but salt, pepper, garlic and maybe a little chili powder seemed to be the spices—and it only needed a smattering of cilantro and onion to make it perfect. Standing under the stars in the courtyard of a beautiful mansion in Mexico didn’t hurt, either. We returned to the line too many times.
Ever since that evening a new craving was born in me for the real thing—the one without shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream—and ground beef with taco seasoning, whatever that is. If you haven’t tasted the real deal because of bad memories from your childhood like me, or dismiss them because you don’t like spicy food or because you don’t speak Spanish and are nervous about whether you will be able to order what you want, let me help you abolish all of your preconceived notions about the humbly delectable street food.
With the explosion in the Latino population in the past decade in the Chattanooga region, there are a myriad of places to grab a fabulous taco spiced to your liking where servers speak English or will direct you to someone who does. Street tacos are typically very inexpensive, two to three dollars apiece.
By far the most popular type of taco is the asada—grilled, chopped beef layered on a small, round, soft corn tortilla. Most places we visited double layered the tortilla, and either added lime, cilantro and onion or made them available. The meat tastes like salt and peppered steak. It’s the sauce that adds the heat. Go for salsa verde (green) if you prefer a mild flavor or habanero (red) if you like it hot.
My favorite chip-dipping salsa was at Las Morelianas in Hixson. Owner Juan Ramirez says everything is made daily in house by traditional cooks, including the cilantro-laden salsa that I couldn’t stop scooping. Other standouts include the tacos al pastor at Taqueria Jalisco in Chattanooga, and the Hixson Carniceria Loa (Loa has four locations in the region. The Hixson one is the only one where we ate).
In my opinion, the best pastor tacos have lots of crispy charred bits, and mine had plenty, along with a ton of flavor—but not heat. I went out on a limb at the Loa and also ordered the chicharrón, not knowing what it was: fried pork rinds stewed in a salsa verde. I’m more of a lean meat person, so will steer clear of these in the future. However, I was invigorated by the adventure and between two of us, we were out only $8 for four tacos and two soft drinks before we hit the authentic Mexican grocery store that houses the restaurant for great deals on cilantro, peppers and tomatillos.
Jorge Loa, who grew up in Georgia and is a partner at Carniceria Loa, said everything in his four stores is made fresh daily and tastes slightly different depending on the chef. And he even has sour cream and cheese available— just not ground beef, at least in the taco area. (The stores are known primarily as a cut-to-order butcher and market.)
Don’t let the aesthetics of a restaurant deter a venture into one. Never been to a restaurant inside a meat market before—isn’t there a first time for everything? Never eaten at a hut in the parking lot of a gas station—why not? Don’t like strip malls—the more run down the better we found, and the outside had no correlation with the cleanliness or the quality of the food. What would you rather have: trendy decorations and high-priced real estate or good food? We were pleasantly surprised to find granite tops on all the tables at Las Morelianas, though.
And don’t worry about speaking Spanish. I enjoyed practicing, but it wasn’t necessary. At many of the places we visited a sizable portion of the people filling the seats were speaking English—if not all of them as at Taqueria Jalisco. Loa hopes more people will get out of their comfort zones and try his food. “I want everyone to feel welcome here no matter where you are from or what you do,” he said. Take our word for it, you will—and enjoy a delicious taste of Mexico within just a few miles of home.
Still nervous? Here’s a cheat sheet on the most popular types of tacos and how to pronounce them. At the very least, you can point!
Asada: (ah-sah-doh) grilled, spiced, chopped flank or skirt steak
Pastor: (pah-store) grilled, spiced, pork shoulder
Pollo: (poh-yo) grilled and spiced or braised chicken
Barbacoa: (bar-bah-koh-ah) braised and spiced beef.
Carnitas: (car-neet-ahs) braised and spiced pork shoulder
Tripe: (treep-ay) braised and spiced beef stomach
Lengua: (len-gwa) braised and spiced beef tongue
Chorizo: (chore-ee-zoh) spicy sausage
Chicharrón: (cheech-ah-rone) pork rinds simmered in salsa
Places we visited and suggest trying:
Taqueria Jalisco: 1634 Rossville Ave, Chattanooga, TN 37408
Carniceria Loa: 1500 Broad St Chattanooga, TN 37408; 4816 Hixson Pike Chattanooga, TN 37343; 400A Chickamauga Rd Chattanooga, TN 37421; 203 Keith St NW, Cleveland, TN 37311
Las Morelianas: 5622 TN-153, Hixson, TN 37343
Taco Town: 4812 Hixson Pike Suite 110 Hixson, TN 37343
Tacos de Cunao: 5813 Lee Hwy #4, Chattanooga, TN 37421
Carnitas Carmelita: 2604 Amnicola Hwy, Chattanooga, TN 37406
Photography by Neelu Eldurkar