Taco Trek

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Tracking down Reno-Tahoe’s must-try tacos.

When it comes to tacos, everyone has strong opinions. Crunchy or soft shell? Flour or corn tortilla? Cheese or no cheese? And don’t even get me started on cilantro, the most divisive of herbs.

Tacos were invented by the earliest inhabitants of Mexico, who turned the copious amounts of maize, or corn, they’d harvested into flour. From the flour, they made tortillas, which were meant to act as spoons for any number of ingredients — usually beans, chiles, and (get this) an insect called cochineal. The word taco derives from tlahco, which in the Aztec language of Nahuatl means “half” or “in the middle,” referring to the way the tortilla was folded.

Regardless of how you fill yours, our love for tacos unifies us. They’re inexpensive, conveniently portable, and the ideal palette for any protein or topping, from humble to elegant (hopefully bug-free). In summer, it’s the perfect meal, requiring little cooking and providing a wonderful way to use the fresh tomatoes, peppers, and other produce and herbs in abundance at this time of year.

Luckily for us, the Reno-Tahoe area is bursting with outstanding taco joints.

With guidance from a local taco pro, chef Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Facebook group The Great Taco Trek and host of the popular Old’s Cool Kevmo channels on TikTok and YouTube, I set out to uncover some of Reno-Tahoe’s finest tacos. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. You’re welcome.

SOUTH RENO

We began not south of the border, but on South Virginia Street, where Dora Rivera opened the second location of Chihuahua’s Cantina & Grill, the restaurant she founded in Winnemucca 20 years ago.

Rivera hails from the meat-centric area of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, which guided her menu creation. Dora and Javier, her son and the Reno location’s manager, are committed to fresh, quality ingredients. They make their tortillas in house as well as four salsas — a traditional red, mild green tomatillo, pineapple/habanero pico de gallo, and spicy habanero.

We started with carne asada tacos, with the traditional sliced steak marinated in lime and asada seasoning (salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, chili powder, and paprika) and grilled, then served in simple street-taco style with cilantro and chopped onions on Chihuahua’s handmade corn tortillas. With a squeeze of lime (this is essential — see the sidebar, “A Proper Mexican Taco” to learn why) and a drizzle of salsa — the tomatillo adds a nice tangy acidity to the meat.

The slow-roasted pork in Chihuahua’s carnitas is prepared Cuban style, meaning it’s grilled with onions, adding caramelization and juiciness. The habanero salsa is a perfect complement to this one. And the Baja-style tacos feature juicy grilled shrimp (or grilled cod); cool, crunchy cabbage slaw; avocado; creamy chipotle sauce; and pineapple/habanero pico de gallo. The fresh, flavorful pico and slaw add texture, crunch, and heat, but also sweetness; they perfectly balance the spicy shrimp and creamy sauce. It’s exactly right for summer — cool and refreshing.

Baja-style taco at Chihuahua’s in South Reno. Photo by Jessica Santina

Next we headed north to Dream Tacos & Cantina, at the corner of West Peckham and South Virginia in the Reno Town Mall shopping center. Luis and Liliana Ventimilla opened the eatery in April 2020; he’s the manager and menu designer, she’s the chef. The menu features Guadalajara-style dishes made from scratch, including the chorizo, al pastor, tortillas, and six types of salsa.

Assortment of tacos at Dream Tacos & Cantina. Photo by Jaci Goodman

The quesabirria is the most popular taco filling, Luis says. Though Mexican tradition calls for goat meat in birria, which is a stewed meat in braising liquid, most birria you find these days is beef. The quesabirria here is a savory, juicy, braised beef short rib. The meat is piled with mozzarella, then grilled inside a corn tortilla, and served with a cup of consommé for dipping, for a taco that melts in your mouth.

The flavor of Dream Tacos’ spicy house-made chorizo in a taco is amazing, with excellent texture and the right amount of heat, topped simply with the traditional chopped onions and cilantro. Or give the carnitas a try; topped with jalapeño, this taco features a balance of savory pork flavor with tangy heat.

Vegetarian, vegan, or simply looking to cut back on meat? We got you. Head to Moana Lane for House of Mexica, a family-owned restaurant that serves plant-based dishes emphasizing ancestral ingredients.

Examples include our taco selections: hibiscus flower, featuring chopped pineapple for a sweet bite; and nopale, made with juicy nopal cactus pads that contribute tanginess and are seasoned to offer the satisfying heat I want in a taco. For those looking for a more meat-like filling, the al pastor made with soy crumbles has outstanding meaty texture and great flavor, while the mushroom nut has the crumbly meatiness of ground beef but with a mildly bitter, nutty flavor. All tacos are topped with handmade guacamole, adding richness and depth.

Plant-based tacos at House of Mexica. Photo by Jaci Goodman

MIDTOWN RENO

In 2020, just before the pandemic, Rene Preciado opened Mexcal, his own small Midtown taqueria inspired by a taco truck in Phoenix, Ariz., where he’d eaten the best taco of his life.

These generously stuffed masterpieces are sold individually, so you can mix and match them — but just one is filling.

Let’s talk about the quesabirria taco — it’s stuffed with beef short ribs braised for 24 hours, so it’s unbelievably tender and melts in your mouth, and a soft, mild white cheese (Preciado says it’s a secret ingredient). The taco is then grilled until crispy — a great balance against the juicy meat and cheese — and served with house-made salsa and a bowl of flavorful consommé. Heaven.

Quesabirria tacos grill to a crisp at Mexcal. Photo by Jaci Goodman

Preciado and his cooks emphasize balance, in texture and flavor. Rich, savory, spicy meats are combined with bright, crunchy produce and acidity. Take, for example, the mahi mahi taco. The mild fish is delicately grilled, for crispiness, and topped with a fresh pineapple salsa, pickled cabbage slaw, and chile de arbol crema, for both creaminess and a touch of heat.

As chef Ashton sagely points out, “You get the acid and pop from that salsa, then the pineapple offers sweetness and tanginess. Then you get the savory, umami flavors … it gets every single one of your taste buds.”

Just around the corner from Mexcal, on Center Street, the tacos are a big departure from the true Mexican flavors we’ve had until now. At Brothers Barbecue, it’s all about Texas-style barbecue, and that includes the tacos. We enjoyed the smoked brisket tacos, though pulled pork always is available as well. The meat is piled high, then served with a mild green salsa for Mexican flavor, or try the corn and black bean relish for added freshness and crunch. If you prefer a more barbecue-oriented experience, choose from Brothers’ house-made mild or spicy habanero barbecue sauces. We enjoyed ours with traditional-style coleslaw and a side of creamy mac ’n’ cheese.

Brisket taco topped with salsa, corn and black bean relish, and mac ’n’ cheese at Brothers Barbecue. Photo by Jaci Goodman

DOWNTOWN RENO

On East Fourth Street, you’ll find Estella Tacos y Mezcal, where chef Will Sheppard has created an innovative taco menu that changes according to what’s fresh and in season. Summer offerings include the smoked oyster mushroom, a taco featuring smoked, locally grown mushrooms sautéed in garlic oil and topped with Oaxacan green mole, local microgreens, and queso fresca. The moist carnitas is anything but ordinary when topped with house-pickled red onions, roasted tomatillo salsa, queso fresca, and cilantro. And the chicken chirmol taco at Estella is moist and flavorful, thanks to chunks of roasted dark meat chicken, ancho chile, smoked bacon, and tomato, all of which combine to create a smoky, savory flavor that’s complemented well by creamy queso. These are elevated tacos that feel like fine dining without the fuss.

In-season vegetables fill this taco at Estella. Photo by Jaci Goodman

No conversation about local tacos would be complete without a mention of Beto’s on Fifth Street downtown. Since the moment a friend first introduced me to the Beto’s taco combo plate in 1998, it has remained a personal favorite — and Ashton and Preciado, who joins us, agree. We taco trekkers simply had to revisit this oldie-but-goodie.

I’m a total sucker for Beto’s al pastor, which is locally renowned. It’s a spicy pork shoulder marinated in a combination of chiles, spices, and fruit juices, then spit grilled and sliced; my go-to taco meat, this al pastor has heat. It’s served on two corn tortillas; enjoy it with a squeeze of lime, a spoonful of Beto’s signature fresh-but-spicy salsa, with chunks of radish on the side, which are usually thought to be garnish but are purposefully placed there for cool crunchiness between bites. It’s spicy, savory, and satisfying — even now, it’s hard to beat.

Al pastor tacos at Beto’s. Photo by Jaci Goodman

Those in the know follow Daddy’s Tacos NV closely for updates on the food truck’s website and Facebook page about where to catch owner Martin Gomez’s killer tacos. Our intrepid team of trekkers caught it one afternoon behind Renown on Mill Street in Reno.

As a fan of tacos “la gringa” (aka with cheese), I was excited to discover that Daddy’s offers three types of taco shell: regular corn tortilla, tortilla with cheese, or a grilled mozzarella cheese shell for an indulgent, carb-free, paleo- and keto-friendly shell. You bet I ordered one for my carne asada taco. The cheese contributes mighty flavor, so it needs a good, savory meat to balance it, and the carne asada or al pastor are great choices.

Next we tried the cochinita pibil, which isn’t found at most taquerias. In ancient tradition, this meat that originated in Yucatan is made by marinating pork in a paste of achiote, garlic, spices, and orange juice; wrapping it in banana leaves; then burying it underground in a smoldering, stone-lined pit to cook over many hours. Gomez marinates his pork overnight, using lime and orange juices, and cooks it slowly (in a kitchen) over a 24-hour period. Once the pork is pulled and piled onto the tortilla, Gomez tops it with his own habanero-marinated red onions, generating an interesting, deliciously complex flavor that is sweet, citrusy, and hot, but not uncomfortably so.

Carne asada in cheese shells and cochinita pibil in corn tortillas at Daddy’s Tacos NV. Photo by Jaci Goodman

WEST RENO

At Kings Row and North McCarran in Northwest Reno, in the Viewcrest Center, is Cielito Lindo Taqueria. In this innocuous neighborhood taco joint, you’ll find what chef Ashton has crowned his new favorite carne asada taco, and I can’t argue — it’s so good that upon taking our first bites, both of us unconsciously uttered “Mmmm.” The marinade offers spice and a tangy brightness that really sets it apart from your average carne. Try it as a Jalisco-style compadre red taco; the tortilla is soaked in beef fat and broth that is spiked with chiles, paprika, and other seasonings, giving it the distinctive red color.

Carne asada tacos at Cielito Lindo. Photo by Jessica Santina

Head south down West McCarran to the Mayberry Landing shopping center, and you’ll find a taco institution beloved by Renoites for more than 20 years: Buenos Grill. This Baja-style taqueria owned by Mimi and Greg Butler emphasizes seafood (though steak, chicken, and vegetarian options are available, too), as well as healthy preparations. Seafood is sustainably sourced and rotates based on availability. Buenos’ famous salsa bar is no longer available in the age of COVID, but you still can enjoy individual servings of its famous house-made salsas, ranging from mild to hot, which are widely considered among the best in Reno.

Acapulco shrimp tacos at Buenos Grill. Photo by Jessica Santina

Chef Ashton and I enjoyed Baja tacos with San Felipe-style (batter-free) fried basa, a tender, mild whitefish, topped with cabbage slaw tossed in a sour cream chili sauce. The chili adds some heat to the cool, crunchy slaw, while fresh dill adds distinction and brightness. The Acapulco shrimp taco is a can’t-miss option as well, with Italian notes thanks to a sauce made with garlic butter, tomatoes, scallions, and Parmesan.

SPARKS

As you head east toward Sparks, take the surface streets — Glendale Avenue, to be exact — and make a pit stop at Mother of Macros Café. MOM prides itself on reinventing fast food using real, quality ingredients, such as hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, in convenient, macronutrient-balanced meals, including tacos.

We tried the grilled shrimp tacos, topped with an out-of-this-world slaw tossed in chipotle aioli, which is crunchy, refreshing, and also legitimately spicy — it hits all the right notes, and knowing it’s filled with quality, healthy ingredients makes it easy to gulp it down in a hurry.

Shrimp tacos at Mother of Macros Café. Photo by Jaci Goodman

Speaking of being in a hurry, MOM’s deconstructed taco-on-the-run, served in a cup, helps you skip the mess and even eat your taco in the car (if you must). We tried the chicken tinga version. It starts with a base of rice and black beans, then come hefty layers of chicken tinga — moist, shredded chicken stewed in tomato chipotle vegetable broth — pico de gallo, guacamole, and shredded cheese. So tasty!

From there we headed to where West McCarran intersects with Prater Way and Toro De Oro. This grocery store/butcher shop/panaderia/taqueria is new to Sparks, and as one of its neighbors, I couldn’t have been more excited to sample its tacos, which feature meats butchered and prepared in house by the Gonzalez family, who owns and operates the business.

Chorizo and carne asada tacos at Toro De Oro in Sparks. Photo by Jaci Goodman

In the extensive butcher shop, you’ll find not one but four types of handcrafted chorizo; we enjoyed mind-blowing Mexican chorizo tacos bursting with spices — notes of cinnamon, clove, and allspice are balanced with chile pepper for heat. The meat is topped simply with chopped cilantro and onion, so the incredible flavor of the meat shines through. The result is nearly addictive — I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Another must-try taco selection is the carnitas, slow-roasted in house for an extraordinary smoky flavor and moist texture. I’ll soon return with my family to sample every taco on offer at this establishment.

TRUCKEE

When I say, “Great tacos,” do you think “airport?” No? Clearly, you’ve never been to Red Truck. Located at the Truckee Tahoe Airport, this casual eatery offers tacos so good they’d be worth flying to Truckee for.

Owner Larry Abney founded Red Truck in 2010 as, you guessed it, a truck, but it was so popular that when officials at the airport approached him about opening a restaurant there in 2012, he parked the truck for good. It’s a favorite among locals, who love Abney’s Middle Eastern/Mediterranean take on breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, and tacos. Their deliciousness likely has to do with the quality, healthy ingredients — humanely raised meats, locally grown (and organic when possible) produce, and healthy oils instead of butter.

we settled in for adana pork, coconut curry lamb, chicken tikka masala, and falafel tacos. All are topped with a savory, spicy yogurt tahini sauce, plus cabbage and fattoush — a fresh, Greek-style chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions tossed in vinaigrette. The fattoush is everything; its cool bite is a terrific complement to the almost-bitter heat of the Middle Eastern spices.

Chicken tikka masala taco at Red Truck. Photo by Jaci Goodman

While every taco I ate was outrageously good, I kept coming back for the Adana Pork — a Turkish recipe of ground pork seasoned with fresh marjoram, rosemary, onions, garlic, salt, and pepper — and the Falafel taco. The falafel is made with dried, organic chickpeas, soaked overnight then puréed with lime zest, mint, cilantro, garlic, onions, cumin, salt, pepper, and tahini, formed into balls that are then cooked to a crisp. It’s the best falafel I’ve ever had, and in a taco, it’s out of this world.

One of the newest additions to Downtown Truckee is RMU (Rocky Mountain Underground) — half outdoor apparel retailer, half bar and grill, RMU is all good. We bellied up to the bar and ordered one of each taco to split — slow-smoked brisket, chicken and bacon, and black bean and poblano — which was a wise decision considering how huge they are; we could easily split them and still feel satisfied.

The brisket is rubbed with RMU’s signature spice rub and smoked for eight hours, then tossed in a braising liquid full of spicy guajillo and chipotle peppers, shredded, mounded into a crispy grilled flour taco shell, and topped with pickled red onions, smoky-sweet roasted tomato chili salsa, cilantro lime crema, and guacamole. The flavor resembles a chili Colorado — hearty, rich, and smoky.

Brisket tacos at RMU. Photo by Jaci Goodman

I adored the chicken and bacon, a simple concoction of a crispy flour tortilla filled with smoky, juicy diced chicken and chopped bacon, along with gooey, creamy melted cheese. Really, what’s not made better with bacon?

And who needs meat when RMU offers a hearty, filling taco chock full of black beans; substantial, satisfying slices of roasted, smoky poblano peppers; and melted cheese?

SO MUCH TO TACO-BOUT

It’s almost not fair how many outstanding tacos can be found in the Reno-Tahoe area. We’ve only scratched the surface — my apologies to those we’ve had to leave out of this article, but there’s only so much space (and room in my stomach!). We invite you to embark on your own taco-ventures, then share your insights with us on social media and The Great Taco Trek page on Facebook!

 

Jessica Santina is a freelance writer and the managing editor of edible Reno-Tahoe and edible Sacramento magazines. She can currently be found walking around her neighborhood, trying to lose her summer taco story weight.

 

RESOURCES

Beto’s Places.singleplatform.com/beto-mexican-food/menu
Brothers Barbecue Bbqreno.com
Buenos Grill Buenosgrill.com
Chihuahua’s Cantina & Grill Chihuahuasgrill.com/reno
Cielito Lindo Taqueria Cltaqueria.com
Daddy’s Tacos NV Daddystacosnv.com
Dream Tacos & Cantina Dream-tacos-cantina.business.site
Estella Tacos Y Mezcal Estellareno.com
House of Mexica Houseofmexica.com
Mexcal Mexcalreno.com
Mother of Macros Café Motherofmacros.com
Red Truck www.redtrucktahoe.com
RMU Rmuoutdoors.com/pages/truckee
Toro De Oro Find Toro De Oro Market on Facebook

A Proper Mexican Taco

Though many of us load our tacos with cheese, tomato, lettuce, peppers, and more, according to Mexcal owner and chef Rene Preciado, who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, an authentic, perfect Mexican taco has only three ingredients: a protein, chopped cilantro, and chopped onions, inside a soft corn tortilla.

And here’s something else Preciado really wants you to know: When your taqueria gives you lime and salsa with your tacos, they aren’t just garnish.

“I’d say about 60 percent of people don’t use the lime or salsa, but tacos are meant to be interactive, an experience,” he says. “We could add the lime and salsa in the kitchen, but it’s meant to engage you with what you’re eating. And lime and salsa have acidity, to balance the flavor of the meat. They give it that pop you need.”

The Chef Behind the Trek

Kevin Ashton earned his culinary chops from his parents, who own ZOZO’s Ristorante in Reno. Ashton studied at the former Western Culinary Institute, in Portland, Ore., and went on to work as kitchen manager at Butcher Boy Meats in Reno, executive chef at Great Basin Brewing Co., and executive chef at ZOZO’s. But despite cooking up fine Italian food daily, he and four close friends — Colin Richards, Kevin Shaddy, Anthony Amar, and Scott Tackitt, owner of the now-closed Scottacos truck — enjoyed a taco obsession in their free time.

Kevin Ashton enjoys a quesabirria taco at Mexcal. Photo by Jaci Goodman

“We did regular potlucks, and we did a taco potluck, because we all just loved tacos,” he recalls. “The group grew and some of us started going out and hitting different taco places every Tuesday. Somebody would say, ‘Have you tried this place?’ and we’d all show up the next week.”

To keep track of their taco experiences, Ashton started a private group on Facebook called The Great Taco Trek in 2019, and friends of friends started making taco recommendations and asking to be part of the group. Today, the group has more than 1,000 members, and anyone, anywhere with taco love can ask to join.

When the pandemic hit and the Taco Tuesday trips came to an abrupt halt, Ashton blended his culinary skills and social media prowess to keep people connected through food.

“I got on TikTok and started making food videos,” he says. “Suddenly, people were like, ‘Wow, we love your voice, you sound like Bob Ross.’”

Soon, his soothing voice narrating quick-and-easy meal and snack preparation ideas developed a following among people hungry for new food ideas with a helping of positivity. Before long, his Old’s Cool Kevmo channel had thousands of followers. But it was a replication of a Gordon Ramsey video about making a steak sandwich (“It was word for word the same thing,” Ashton explains) that made him a viral sensation. Even celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck became a follower.

“This video got 5 million views,” Ashton says, still in disbelief. “I suddenly went from 7,000 followers to around 50,000 in a week.”

Ashton left ZOZO’s in May 2021 and started making videos full time, using the lessons he’d learned about gaining followers to add a YouTube channel with the same name to his endeavors; within 10 months he had 100,000 subscribers — an achievement that earned him an award from YouTube earlier this year.

Ready to join The Great Taco Trek? Find the group on Facebook and ask to join. The only rules? No politics, no agendas, no arguing, and no advertising — just keep it about the tacos.

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