According to a recent Wall Street Journal headline, “Americans eat 554 million Jack in the Box tacos a year, and nobody knows why.” We’d guess it’s because a) they’re cheap and b) Jack in the Box is open after the bars close.
Although there are fancier tacos on the menu, Jack in the Box’s most basic tacos clocked in at $1.19 for two on a recent visit (we were told they’d gone up to $1.29 but then were charged $1.19 anyway).
Having them at 1 p.m. instead of 3 a.m., and looking at what’s inside might have been a mistake. But these tacos have their fans, who might rightfully wonder why someone would pay, say, $7 for a lone taco or nearly $20 for a plate of three with sides.
During the past several years, certain taquerias — Fort Worth’s Revolver Taco Lounge among them — have started to push the definition of taqueria.
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Places like Taco Heads, Salsa Limon, Velvet Taco and Tortaco take tacos to the next level — a level that can include a filling that might seem exotic to some, such as lengua or tripa (i.e, tongue or tripe), but is actually fairly common; a level that can include Tortaco’s tamarind pork or Velvet Taco’s fried paneer or Nashville hot tofu; a level that can get pricey, such as Revolver’s langosta y cangrejo, which is the $7 taco we were talking about.
We asked Jose R. Ralat, an associate editor at Cowboys & Indians who is known for the Taco Trail blog, to explain why a $7 taco isn’t overpriced in a world where chains are offering tacos for a buck or less.
“Cost and quality of product,” he said via Facebook Messenger. “The intensive, time-consuming labor and presentation on a seconds-fresh tortilla. You get what you pay for.”
In the interest of finding out what we’re paying for, we decided to do something that, as it turned out, was a little crazy: Do a taco crawl based not necessarily on the best tacos — although there are plenty of good ones in here — but on price, starting from least expensive to most.
We came dangerously close to falling down a taco rabbit hole.
There are a lot of cheap tacos out there, and there was no way to cover them all, but we didn’t ignore chains because we figure that’s where a lot of people get their tacos. We sought out some small taquerias and hit the more upscale places, too. This is what we found.
Taquerias for a tight budget
Suadero taco ($1.50), Tacos La Banqueta, Arlington: Arlington is home to dozens of taquerias, with this colorful and upbeat restaurant being one of the most popular. Tacos come double-wrapped in pliable corn tortillas, with ingredients such as chicken, cactus, tongue and intestine, all with onions and cilantro. But a trip here is incomplete without, as uncovered by Taco Trail, suadero, the restaurant’s signature twice-cooked brisket. 1021 E. Pioneer Parkway, Arlington, 817-459-1122, @TacosLaBanqueta on Facebook
Chicharron or barbacoa ($1.50), Los Paisanos, Fort Worth: The 5-year-old Los Paisanos restaurant offers some of the best — and least expensive — tacos on Fort Worth’s north side; they’re all $1.50. Hard to beat is the chicharron, pork skin softened by a green chile sauce, although the silk-tender and smoky barbacoa is a standout, too. All tacos come topped with fresh cilantro and diced onions, along with a small pile of grilled onions. 1446 N. Main St., Fort Worth, 817-625-8226
Barbacoa and pastor tacos ($1.62 each), Fuel City tacos: Yes, it’s a little weird to lump the new Haltom City location of this Dallas landmark in with stand-alone places like Los Paisanos and Melis, but it is cash only and it’s basically a walk-up window inside a large convenience store. And it has limited seating. Plus it has beyond-the-usual-fast-food offerings such as barbacoa and al pastor to put on these street-style tacos. Both were above average on our visit, with the spicy pork of the pastor giving it the edge. 1715 Haltom Road, Haltom City, 817-484-0712, https://www.fuelcity.com
Lengua taco plate ($7 for three tacos plus rice and beans), Melis Taqueria, Fort Worth: This west-side institution is pretty no-frills: A walk-up window, a couple of picnic tables, menu on the wall (tortas and gorditas are also available, with your choice from a long list of fillings), no website or official Facebook page. Tacos are $2 but the best deal is the plate of three with rice and beans. We chose the rich, meaty lengua — beef tongue — and went away full and happy. Important: cash only. 4304 W. Vickery Blvd., 817-377-8484
Carne asada tacos ($9.75 for four plus beans), Frezko Taco Spot, Southlake: Two smaller spots, Frezko Taco Spot and Chiloso Mexican Grill (not listed here but recommended), have been taking on nearby taco champ Torchy’s and surviving. Frezko takes the more minimal approach: Choose burrito, salad, quesadilla or taco, choose your meat (a vegetarian option is available), choose toppings. Tacos, served street style in corn tortillas, come four to an order; we went for the most expensive, the carne asada, lightly garnished with onion, cilantro and shredded queso blanco. Rich flavor, although we hit a couple of tough spots with the grilled, ground steak. We’re happy this place exists — it’s about as close to a hole-in-the-wall as you’re going to find on Southlake Boulevard. 3105 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake, 817-251-4836, http://frezko.com
The cheap chain gang
“Jack’s Deal” menu tacos, Jack in the Box ($1.19 for two): These are the cheapest tacos we found, although if you hit Taco Casa or Taco Bueno on Taco Tuesdays you might be able to score a better deal. Two tacos, deep-fried in their shell, come individually wrapped: The first had a nice pocket of grease; the second, which had more time for absorption, wore a full grease outfit. This made them both crunchy and chewy, although not in the most appealing way, and the fillings were meager. Jack in the Box has fancier tacos; spring for those. Or a burger. Multiple locations; https://www.jackinthebox.com
Spicy potato soft taco, Cool Habanero and Spicy Sweet “Double-Stacked” tacos, Taco Bell ($1 apiece): A pleasant surprise, if not for purists: Taco Bell’s current “Double-Stacked” menu — tacos with a crunchy shell wrapped in a flour tortilla — features some pretty substantive, flavorful tacos for a buck apiece, to go along with the $1 spicy potato soft taco on the “dollar cravings” menu. We prefer our habanero, cooled by sour cream, to be hotter, and our spicy sweet to be less sweet and more spicy, but this turned out to be a cheap, satisfying meal. Multiple locations. https://www.tacobell.com
Taco ($1.59) and soft taco ($1.79), Taco Casa: Fort Worth-based chain boasts on its website that it’s “Still the same since 1972.” The menu’s most basic taco and soft taco both bear that out: both come with ground beef, shredded lettuce and lots and lots of shredded cheddar. If you’re looking for fancy fillings, go elsewhere: You won’t even find a chicken here, just beef. We kinda dig that lack of pretension, which extends to the tacos, which were tasty without being dazzling. Multiple locations. http://tacocasatexas.com
Al pastor ($1.60 corn tortilla, $1.80 flour) and tripa tacos ($1.80), El Paisa: The Original Taco Stand: It’s easy to drive by an El Paisa and assume it’s just another fast-food taco joint, but you won’t find al pastor, tripa, chicharron, barbacoa or lengua at Taco Bell or Taco Bueno. The al pastor was the winner, with crispy pieces of pork; the tripa had good flavor but we prefer the version at Salsa Limon (see below) — even though this version is about half the price. 1550 N. Beach St., Haltom City, 817-834-1800; 2638 William D. Tate, Grapevine, (817) 481-1115; 2801 Harwood Road, Bedford; http://elpaisacocina.com. Five Dallas County locations.
Soft chicken taco ($2.09), Rosa’s Cafe Tortilla Factory: This isn’t the least expensive taco on the Rosa’s menu (that would be the crispy taco, at $1.79), but when a place has “Tortilla Factory” in its name, you tend to want to see what the tortillas are all about. “Factory” might be overstating things, but Rosa’s does make its flour tortillas in-house, and the one on this soft taco had a nice doughy texture. What’s inside the taco is fairly standard, although there was a pepperiness to it that made us glad we didn’t drown it in salsa. Multiple locations. https://www.rosascafe.com
Steak fajita taco ($2.49) and chorizo breakfast tacos ($1.29), Taco Cabana: No slight to Jack in the Box, but many of us head to Taco Cabana for our late-night taco needs. The secret? Soft, warm flour tortillas that are made in-house — the perfect cradle for beef fajita meat, scorched on an open-flame grill, and, at breakfast, slightly spicy chorizo, also made in-house. Multiple locations, http://www.tacocabana.com
Trompo Taco ($1.85), Trompo, Dallas: Trompo’s reputation precedes it — no less a culinary authority than Bon Appetit singled it out last year — which is a good thing, because pulling up to the curb might give less adventurous diners pause. This brainchild of Luis and Juan Carlos Olvera is tucked between a pair of tire-repair shops. But inside the shop, with just a steel-rimmed window for taking orders and a handful of tables and chairs, are some of the best tacos in North Texas. The signature Trompo Taco ($1.85) comes loaded with vivid red pork and topped with onion and cilantro, inside a griddled corn tortilla. It’s a revelation in a region with no shortage of authentic Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine. 839 Singleton Blvd., No. 150, Dallas, 972-809-7950, https://www.trompotacosdallas.com
Another unassuming taqueria, situated in an otherwise anonymous strip of shops in Richardson, OMG Tacos provides a dose of authentic Mexican flavors — not too many casual joints with lengua (beef tongue) on the menu, after all — but also some genuinely savory sauces to accompany the very affordable tacos. We found the OMG steak and OMG chicken both pleasantly seared, and packed with flavor.141 N. Plano Road, Richardson, 972-234-1345, http://www.omgtacos.com
Shredded chicken and shredded brisket tacos, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop ($1.99 apiece): We’ve been in many of the Tarrant Fuzzy’s locations, which somehow manage to have an individual personality, and the menu is still pretty basic. There’s a higher-quality cheese mixture on these tacos than you’ll find at the fast-food chains, but we found the meat fillings in both to be pretty ordinary. Next time, we’ll spend the extra cash to get fish or grilled-shrimp tacos instead. Multiple locations; http://www.fuzzystacoshop.com
The Texican ($2.50) and chicken-fajita taco ($2.25) R Taco: Formerly known as Rusty Taco, this rapidly expanding local chain serves street tacos in a casual, almost school cafeteria-ish setting. During a recent trip to the R Taco on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, we sampled the Texican, along with the chicken fajita taco ($2.25). The Texican, R Taco’s signature offering, is topped with Tex Mex beef, lettuce, tomato and cheese, and comes closest to what’s served at most fast-food joints. The Texican, however, is a cut above those. Multiple locations; http://www.rtacos.com
Asada and tripa “El Capitan”-style taco ($3.50 apiece), Salsa Limon: The “unapologetically” Mexico City-style tacos, served on double-layered corn tortillas, start at $2.50, but we went for the slightly more pricey “El Capitan” style (buttered and toasted flour tortilla, Oaxaca-Jack cheese, pickled cabbage, onion, cilantro plus choice of filling). Premium filling such as asada and tripa raise the price of the El Capitans to a still-modest $3.50 — and although the asada is nicely meaty, the tripa was velvety and wonderful. Multiple locations. Sampled at Salsa Limon “Centro,” 550 Throckmorton St., Fort Worth, 817-615-9760, http://www.salsalimon.com/#about
Garlic cilantro Gulf shrimp ($4.25) and Nuevo Leon al pastor ($4), Taco Heads: This Montgomery Street restaurant is one of the coolest hangouts in Fort Worth, especially if you can get one of the patio seats with a downtown view. Tacos are on the small, street-style side but fillings are generous, and we really haven’t had anything bad here, but we lean toward the less-expensive Mama Castillo’s chicken and the carnitas (both $3.50) over the more expensive options. 1812 Montgomery St., Fort Worth, 817-615-9899, https://www.tacoheads.com
Al pastor a la Tuma ($4.50), ahi tuna ($3.50), pork carnitas ($3) tacos, Urban Taco: This popular, small local chain takes an upscale approach to street tacos with sophisticated sides like avocado crema. On a recent visit, we tried the ahi tuna, pork carnitas and an al pastor a la Tuma taco, the latter of which was ranked by Texas Monthly as one of the 120 [Texas] Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die. But we found the ahi tuna proved most satisfying, with the al pastor a la Tuma — an al pastor taco loaded with fried manchego cheese — proving to be more messy than really memorable. 3411 McKinney Ave., Dallas, 214-922-7080; also 5331 E. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, and inside Terminal C at DFW Airport. http://urban-taco.com
Mr. Pink or Mr. Orange ($4.75), Torchy’s Tacos: This Austin interloper has nearly a dozen North Texas locations, where its overstuffed tacos are both the subject of frequent long lines and complaints that the place is overrated. These seafood tacos with Reservoir Dogs-style names are the most expensive tacos on the menu: Mr. Pink is a guajillo-seared ahi tuna taco and Mr. Orange a blackened salmon, with lots and lots of garnishes on both. Our strategy at Torchy’s is to order on corn tortillas, so you get two tortillas, which with deft fork work can be turned into two tacos. But it’s the green-chile queso that keeps us coming here and waiting in line. Multiple locations, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Southlake; http://torchystacos.com
Shelling out more than $5
Roasted pork, chopped potato and refried bean taco ($6), Granny’s Tacos: Among our favorites of Fort Worth’s many taquerias is this 44-year-old dive on the north side, recently heralded by Texas Monthly as home to some of the city’s best tacos. Thick flour tortillas are prepared as you watch then filled with your choice of ingredients. You’ll want those to be roasted pork, chopped potatoes and refried beans, all of which are stuffed into the tortilla then rolled together like a Chipotle burrito; it’s a huge amount of food for $6. 703 E. Long Ave., Fort Worth, 817-625-2777, @GTHerreras on Facebook
Ahi poke taco ($6.75), Velvet Taco: Velvet Taco has its share of offbeat fillings (shrimp and grits?), but it was on top of a trend with the raw ahi poke, often described as “Hawaiian sushi.” Served in an iceberg lettuce cup, it’s lined with a seaweed salad made at the restaurant that contains sesame seeds, sesame oil, rice vinegar, sugar, ginger and cilantro. Avocado goes on next, followed by the tuna, dusted with Himalayan pink sea salt, toasted sesame seeds, pickled Fresno peppers and micro-cilantro. 2700 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth, 817-887-9810, velvettacofw.com. Also 3012 N. Henderson Ave., Dallas
Tacos al carbon ($19.95 for three plus sides), Mi Cocina: It doesn’t take much looking around on menus to find taco plates around the $15 mark — Uncle Julio’s, Pouring Glory Growler Fill Station & Grill and others have taco plates in that price neighborhood — but we’re starting to talk steak prices with this plate. As we should: The tacos al carbon are strips of steak — in this case, rib-eye — wrapped in tortillas — in this case, corn. Not much more to it than that, served with rice, bean soup, guacamole and pico de gallo. The steak was medium as requested, tender but maybe a tad underseasoned; if you’re looking for something less minimalist, there’s a lot of suggestions on this list. Multiple locations; http://www.micocinarestaurants.com
Langosta y cangrejo (lobster and crab tacos, $7) and mixto (grilled skirt steak with housemade herbed green Mexican sausage, $5), Revolver Taco Lounge: You will hear complaints that Fort Worth’s most upscale taco spot is overpriced, and not just for the tacos: Some of the dishes here, such as the stunning chile en nogada, run $28. But, as Taco Trail guy Jose Ralat said in our introduction, you get what you pay for: Tortillas are made on site and are about as fresh as they can get; the lobster and crab taco, served open-face, has rich seafood flavor, along with some salsa verde and jalapeño for kick. But we were even more knocked out by the mixto, especially the sausage, which exploded with flavor and hints of heat, assisted by spicy nopales. Tacos here start at $2.50 for the vegetarian calabacitas; several meat tacos are $3, and the restaurant has a popular lunch buffet. 2418 Forest Park Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-820-0122, http://www.revolvertacolounge.com
Staff writer Preston Jones and correspondent Malcolm Mayhew contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.