As far as I knew, tacos were made from preformed shells filled with ground beef flavored with Lawry’s taco seasoning and topped with large amounts of cheese—a condiment I now know to be an unforgivable adulteration of the taco.
The taco-stand taco is a different species altogether. Handy palm-size treats served two or three to a plate on small corn tortillas warmed in oil, Salt Lake City’s street tacos are the perfect lunch food. They come in a mesmerizing array as variable as any sandwich shop’s: chorizo sausage, al pastor marinated pork, spicy barbacoa, chicken. And, at around $1 per taco, it’s the city’s most affordable lunch. After adding a selection of cabbage, radishes and a mix of onions, tomatoes and cilantro, it’s healthy as well.
Unfortunately, the taco-stand taco may also be endangered. Responding to business complaints about cooking smells and alleged public urination by taco-stand customers (which I adamantly deny), the Salt Lake City Council instituted new rules. All existing food-cart licenses will be re-examined in December with nearby businesses given 21 days to protest. Street vendors additionally will need to find brick-and-mortar businesses willing to allow patrons the use of their bathrooms. And some carts will be required to ink agreements to use parking stalls.
That’s a lot of red tape for a mom-and-pop business, and city licensing officials anticipate the regulations will significantly impact 800 South’s street-taco central. So if you haven’t braved the city’s 13 surviving taco stands yet, you should get out now.
“People think it’s easy, but it’s not,” says Crescencio Amaral, owner of Tacos Mi Favorito at the west end of the Sears parking lot. Open since 1998, Mi Favorito is said to be among the first of the city’s taco stands. Amaral, along with several cart owners interviewed for this story, hadn’t heard of the city’s pending cart review.
Mi Favorito has an extensive menu, an impressive array of taco toppings including pickled carrots and cucumber and an addictive red salsa so hot it will immediately cure a hangover. But it shouldn’t be your first stop. Mi Favorito’s board includes English translations. (If you know what you’re eating going in, you might not try some of the best.)
Offerings at most carts include lengua—tongue—which melts in your mouth. Cabeza, a taco standby translated with the seemingly inadequate description “head,” is more strongly flavored. Cachete, cow cheek, is mild and floral. The only taco I couldn’t get through after one week’s tasting was the chicharron, pork skin, which looks—unlike the cow tongue—like tongue. There are also many varieties for the timid, from pork carnitas to grilled asada steak. Tacos Don Rafa, on the east side of Sears, was, unfortunately, out of tripe when I visited.
On any given day, as many as five taco vendors do business on 800 South between State and Main streets, including Tacos el Toro, El Paisa, Don Rafa, and Mi Favorito. Two more carts, Tacos Zandy and Mariscos, are at 300 West. El Buen Taco is at 500 West.
A few carts have licenses to operate north of 600 South: La Estacion, at 500 West and 300 South; San Luis, 200 South and Rio Grande; and Tacos Dominguez at the east end of Pioneer Park. But carts in the area are dwindling with four recently losing licenses for failing to be open at least the one day a month required.
And, under the new rules, it’s the main cart area, south of 600 South, that will get the most scrutiny. I drove for my tacos. That could be the carts’ undoing. In theory, the carts are supposed to be walk-up eateries, and businesses have complained about traffic. Some vendors south of 600 South may be required to move, according to city-property-management officials. And bathroom regulations may restrict operating times of carts to daylight hours.
Today, just one taco cart, Real Taco, works the downtown business district at State Street and 200 South. The owner, who goes by Dave B., has been there nine years and hopes to stay. He notes Real Taco caters to the office crowd. Most customers take their tacos with them to offices which presumably have trash cans and bathrooms. If needed, Dave says he can add a portable streetside toilet but wonders if that is really what the city wants.
The City Council briefly banished all taco carts south of 600 South once before, in 2002, after a neighboring Taco Time complained. The council reversed itself then.
Maybe a new enlightened city administration can try a new ordinance, one that mandates more taco carts downtown (particularly in front of City Weekly’s offices) and gets rid of the forced midnight closing in favor of allowing taco stands to set up at closing time outside bars—most of which, it should be noted, have bathrooms.