- John Taylor
It's not uncommon to see a few faded buildings that once housed the taquerías of Rose Park's past as you're making your way to Santo Taco (910 N. 900 West). Indeed, Santo Taco's semi-cloistered location at the northernmost edge of the neighborhood feels like it was earned after decades of hard-won battles. Such is the conquest that owners Claudia and Alfonso Brito launched to get where they are today.
Both worked their way up in other people's kitchens throughout the Salt Lake area until they could open their own establishment. In many ways, Santo is a testament to a combined lifetime of lessons learned while the Britos were shaping someone else's dream. Its fast-casual setup is perfect for ordering a duet, trio or quartet of freshly made tacos, and its vibrant Mexico City-inspired interior is warm and inviting.
After taking your first steps inside, it's hard to miss the gigantic cone of marinated pork for Santo's tacos al pastor ($2 each, pictured) which shines like the taquería's own personal veladora. Yes, the menu at Santo features everything from chicken to cactus, but the al pastor tacos here should be consumed frequently and in large quantities. Once those slices of pork get the slow-cooked treatment on that vertical rotisserie, nothing short of taco magic happens. Since these tasty little hombres are served up street-style, there's nothing stopping you from getting five or six. Take it from me—if you let that flavor combo of marinated pork and sliced pineapple hit your tongue just once without a chaser taco, you'll seriously regret it.
Once you've paid due respect to Santo's al pastor, you have my permission to venture forth into the other areas of the menu. The carne asada ($2) and pollo asado ($2) are perfectly serviceable, though I've had a few end up slightly on the dry side. The carnitas ($2) are a great counterpoint to the marinated al pastor since you're swapping sweet and slightly acidic with a salty hit of roast pork. During the summer months, the Santo fish tacos ($2.50) are fried, crispy wonders that shine with some lime and pickled onions. Vegetarians can check out the calabicitas ($2), a duo of grilled zucchini and corn, or the nopal ($2) which is an earthy, slightly sweet grilled cactus. If you're feeling a bit adventurous—and carnivorous—Santo offers beef tongue ($2.50) and beef head tacos ($2), which are staples of traditional taco carts the world over. Both meats are cooked with the exact amount of love for each ingredient—the beef head practically melts in your mouth, though it does need some liberal doses of salsa for added flavor.
Building upon that solid foundation, diners can also get quesadillas ($6) and their meat-stuffed cousins known as mulitas ($3.50), along with nachos ($8) and burritos ($8) with your meat of choice. I like to think of this area of the menu as a marriage of sorts—once you've decided which taco is most worthy of your love, make it into a burrito for a few bucks more and ride off into the sunset.
My non-taco of choice is Santo's carne asada fries ($8), which evoke both the late-night jaunts to local Mexican joints that characterized my college years and the nostalgic childhood goo of nacho cheese sauce. I was admittedly hesitant when I opened my container and saw that Santo makes their fries with the aforementioned goo instead of melty shredded cheese, but it only took a few bites to make me see the golden light. The DayGlo sauce mixes with sour cream and whatever salsas you want to add for a pure, unapologetic amalgamation of all the flavors that make taco joints holy places. You've got the warm, mouth-coating cheesiness cooled off by some light sour cream, all of which cling ardently to the other ingredients. The carne asada is cooked and cubed to perfection and the guacamole and pico de gallo add another layer of richness and flavor. All of this hot, sexy action gets piled high on a bed of golden, high-caliber fries which are good enough to stand on their own. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this meal was the slices of pickled jalapeño that gave this just the right touch of baseball game charm.
While I will always be a proponent of traditional taco carts wherever they might be found, I can understand that they're not on-brand for everyone. If a brick-and-mortar establishment will help get you closer to some hot, made-from-scratch tacos al pastor or experience tongue or head meats for the first time, Santo Taco is waiting for you with open arms.