In preparation for my two year anniversary and the 2011 list, I spent the summer re-visiting many of my favorite taco al pastor restaurants. As you may well know (whether you care or not is another thing altogether) finding tacos al pastor roasted on a spit is still much more difficult than it should be in Denver. Because of this I travel any and everywhere around the metro area in order to satiate my longing for this marinated meat. In doing so I have had some great and some borderline terrible tacos, and if nothing else I have learned that Denver's small taco al pastor world is littered with inconsistency.
Take for example my number one pick for last year: Taco Veloz. I went here a few times before I branded it number one in 2010 yet a friend of mine with a refined pastor palate had been there before and was not as impressed. Then a few months ago he told me how right I was. I went back shortly after that and I didn't even finish my taco it was so bad.
I feel like a schmuck (more than usual) that someone might have gone to Taco Veloz and ate a crappy taco because I brazenly wrote that my top picks from last year "serve an amazing taco al pastor". So into this year's rankings has now entered the idea of consistency. I will still judge everything on overall taste-- and I still think that my top five will not disappoint-- but I suppose that you never know what can happen on any given night in the tumultuous world that is the taco al pastor in Denver.
As a reminder, to make this list the meat must be cooked on and carved from a spit. I also finally have a top ten list (although as a spoiler I wouldn't really recommend that last two) so it feels much more like an official list this year. Here it is.
1. Toluca Mexican Restaurant
I have written three posts about Toluca just this summer so that should give you an idea of how much I like it. Besides the very good marinade, what sets Toluca apart are the final slices and presentation. Each slice is paper-thin and broad; both juicy and well-charred. With the fresh chunks of pineapple on top it is as close to Mexico-city style as one can find in Denver as far as I know. And what's more, they have a catering service called El Divino where they serve their awesome pastor curbside like it was meant to be (most notably outside the Museo de las Americas on First Fridays). How is the consistency? This summer has been flawless, but as the business is new it is hard to say. For the moment they are getting everything so right that it is worthy of a number one ranking.
2. (The tent next to) La Flor de Michoacan
When you approach the tent next to the Carniceria y Taqueria La Flor de Michoacan on it's quiet and lonely corner in Thornton after dark you would not be crazy to think for a few moments you were at the entrance to some incredible (albeit slightly sketchy) night market in Mexico. La Flor serves a good taco al pastor carved from a beautiful spit (although sliced too thick for my taste) and topped with fresh pineapple. The consistency of both taste and presentation is decent. What gives it the two-spot, however, is the ambiance.
3. Tacos Junior
I have always really liked Tacos Junior although I still think that the pastor marinade is a little sweet. That being said it is sliced relatively thin (not paper) and cooked perfectly to be both at once juicy and crispy. It is also one of the only places in Denver where you can get a taco Arabe-- a thin pita-like flour tortilla tightly rolled around a thick filling of pastor meat. And as a bonus the tables and floors are usually spotless for those out there that care about those things. But what really bumps them up this year is its consistency. Although there are just three Denver locations, it has the operational feel of a professionally managed chain restaurant--albeit one that serves a great taco al pastor from the spit with fresh pineapple.
Carboncitos on 38th and Pecos has been around for a while and every single time gets it right. In addition to the taco, they pay proper homage to their Mexico City roots with incredible huaraches de pastor. They do slice their meat from a spit in the kitchen but in small little chunks that get a little too cooked on the grill. The taste, however, is still excellent, the tortillas are house-made and it is one of the most accessible taquerias on my list for the non-Spanish speaking. The downer is that the pineapple is canned.
5. Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas
It's easy to love Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas for it's amazing pupusas, but these Salvadoreños also serve a mean taco al pastor from a spit. I have been here on days when the pineapple looked like hardened hummus (at least it wasn't canned) and others when the pastor was overcooked (hence the drop from #2) but for the most part they stay relatively consistent.
6. Taco Mex
What's not to like about Taco Mex? This was the first place I came to in Denver for off-the-spit pastor and I fell in love. I imagine just the act of finding such a place outside of Mexico enamored me too much because in subsequent trips I was never as impressed with the pastor. Like many places they grill a little too much after slicing it from the spit, and the taqueros don't seem to have any good strategy for their slicing-- alternating big chunks with tiny ones-- hardly ever getting them perfectly thin. Also a negative is the big vat of canned pineapple next to the grill. That being said I still come here quite a bit and the consistency is acceptable. It is also a great place for the first-time pastor eater because of the friendly staff and the excellent outdoor eating experience.
7. Taco Veloz
This was my number one last year, but after my last experience I left with a feeling not dissimilar to discovering your girlfriend has been cheating on you with your best friend: really bummed out. My taco was almost inedible last time I went: dripping with grease, big chunks of overcooked meat, minuscule bits of pineapple (although still fresh). And it tasted as if it had been sitting out for hours and re-heated even though I saw them come out and slice it from the spit. The great salsa bar was still there and the taste of the marinade left me with some flashbacks to the tacos I used to love getting here, but it just wasn't that good. That being said, chances are next time it might be great again but simply for that inconsistency they don't deserve to be at the top.
8. Tacos y Salsas
I have never been a big fan of the pastor from Tacos y Salsas even though I usually get and eat one every time I am there. It is a good taco of some chunky, spit-roasted pork in some sort of red marinade-- and consistent as it is, it just doesn't taste that much like pastor to me. That being said, most everything else I have had from there is very good. Of its several locations I recommend avoiding the East Colfax one and heading down to South Federal instead. Also look for my review of their new 16th Street Mall outlet in the coming months.
9. Los Gallitos
This was my most recent review and likely my most disappointing as well. The spit outside looks so good I could have cried. Then I almost did cry when they brought the lovely meat into the kitchen and grilled it until it lost all of its flavor. The thing that kept them out of the last spot was that last week by chance I ate at another of their outlets on Wadsworth near Mississippi and although it was not great, it was quite a bit better than the central Alameda location. As far as consistency? I probably won't go back enough to find out, but being inconsistent (like forgetting to take it into the kitchen) might be this taqueria's only chance of getting it right.
10. Tacos Tijuana
It is a little unfair to keep Tijuana on the bottom because my first experience there with pastor was so disappointing that I never went back. Not only did the marinade not have a lot of flavor and the taquero over-cooked my large chunks on his grill, but they didn't have any pineapple--and then they looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for some. Apart from that though, everything else I had there was pretty good including an excellent alambre.
That is the list. Thanks for checking in again on what is two years to the day of me babbling on about the food I eat. Hopefully you will continue to read as I search for more pastor and whatever lies in between.
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