If you can find Crazy Tacos once, you’ll know it forever.
In the middle of a neighborhood, lying across the street from a busy lumber yard, the taco shop stands small and bright orange. The picnic tables are painted to match, and from the right angle, the beach doesn’t feel so far away. The winds, when they blow, jostle the palapa umbrellas like a sea breeze, and underfoot the crushed gravel parking lot could be sand.
But then again, Crazy Tacos is its own kind of oasis.
Owner Vanesa Aguilera’s mother, Vanesa Brito, had lived in the United States 10 years when she started Crazy Tacos in 2009. Brito sought to bring truly authentic Mexican dishes to a part of the state where she said the family saw many people from her country living, but no food that felt like their own. They moved from Newton Grove to Smithfield, looking to cut down on the trips to the outlet mall along Interstate 95 and built the shop on a spot where a popular taco truck once stood.
“In the area, no one sells real Mexican food, only Tex-Mex food,” said Aguilera, who took over the cooking seven years ago. “You don’t see Mexican people in Mexican restaurants. We like to show people which one is the real Mexican food.”
In Mexico City, where Aguilera once lived and returns to visit every few years, the best meals come from the street. Vendors set up tables and plastic chairs. People stand in line for tamales dipped out of giant metal pots, steamed in banana leaves and corn husks, or taco meat sliced with a machete off a rotating spit. There’s not much cheese or lettuce or flour tortillas, Aguilera said, comparing her food with what’s served in many Mexican restaurants tuned for American tastes.
“It’s completely different,” she said. “The difference is in the tacos: corn tortilla, onion, cilantro. That’s a Mexican taco. Ground beef, flour tortilla, that’s not real.
“In Mexico, people sell the food out on the street, there’s no other place,” Aguilera said. “So we sell this food, the street food like that.”
Each morning starts with fresh tortillas – masa mixed with water in a big silver bowl and then formed into a ball by hand. After getting flattened in a tortilla press, rows of tortillas puff up on the griddle, filling with air like balloons made out of corn. They let out wisps of steam as they fall, darkening and blackening in spots.
“That’s when you know they’re done,” Aguilera said.
With the state’s barbecue culture, North Carolina knows not to dismiss anything served on a paper plate or a take-out box or food best eaten under the sun.
With no dining room, there’s no salsa bar, but orders come with everything one needs to perform the taco ritual. The tacos are wrapped in a single soft tortilla and topped with onion and cilantro. There are radishes to tuck into the tortilla for crunch, a lime for squeezing and a single charred jalapeño with grilled onions.
The sauces, green and red, cater to taste and tolerance, the green a peppery tingle, the red, opaque and bright, that good slap in the face we all need sometimes. Fair warning, Aguilera will chuckle as you struggle with the burn. You may want a beer, but you’ll be happy to settle for a cooling spiced horchata or a sugary Jarritos soda.
Construction worker Billy Cubero and a crew pull into the Crazy Tacos parking lot with a trailer in tow while en route from Virginia to Florida after completing a job. If someone can be a regular while living hundreds of miles away, these men are, stopping by whenever they pass through, or maybe stealing away for a long lunch break if they’re working within an hour’s drive.
“We eat all over, we travel a lot, and this is one of the favorites,” Cubero said, saying the other favorite is a place in Nashville, Tenn.
Cubero, who was driving the truck, ordered menudo, a beef tripe soup, and took it on the road, a feat of coordination and the power of cravings.
The rest of the crew ordered a mix of probably the most authentically Mexican dishes Aguilera says she has on the menu. Quesadillas with squash blossoms and one with huitlacoche, or corn smuts, a mushroom-like fungus that grows on corn and is a delicacy in Mexico.
“Everything is just about the taste,” Juan Morales says. “It’s real. ... It’s not easy to find this kind of thing in the whole east area of the United States.”
Aguilera said menudo is one of her top sellers and one of her own favorites, a bright red soup flavored with chiles, herbs and slow-cooked tripe. Even in the relentless July heat, people come for her soups, especially on Sundays for consume de borrego, a lamb soup served on special occasions.
“In Mexico, people eat the lamb soup only at parties, like big parties, weddings or something really important,” Aguilera said. “On Sundays, it’s like tradition in Mexico, all Sundays families eat together, and that’s why on Sundays the families come here and eat the soups.”
Smithfield is only a half-hour drive from Raleigh, but seems to exist in a world largely free of trend or influence. The old tobacco town identifies more with Eastern North Carolina than the Triangle and as the weight of Johnston County shifts more to the west, the county seat remains a tight and prideful community. In the last two or three years, people have started finding Crazy Tacos, Aguilera said, drawn by word of mouth or its own brand of authenticity.
“We have high people and low people,” she said. “Firefighters, people from the community college, families.”
On a recent day, two Johnston County assistant district attorneys waited in suits for their orders, proudly admitting how often they come to the stand. There were nurses in scrubs, neighbors walking over, parents and children stopping in and picking up. Regulars will admit to coming weekly but sheepishly suggest it’s sometimes more.
“I have ventured and gotten other things, but sometimes, when you know what’s good, you just stick with the normal,” said Rebecca Nguyen, one of those weekly visitors. “It’s just nice to support a good local place.”
David Morton, in town from Arkansas on business, stopped in on the advice of co-workers. He ordered carnitas and al pastor tacos, a fried, slow-cooked pork and a grilled pork marinated with peppers and pineapple. As if showing his taco credentials, he started with just a bite of jalapeño.
“Always take references, that’s the way to find the good food,” Morton said. “Go to the hole in the wall. ... This one has color, it’s in a neighborhood, it’s in an industrial park, not on the main drag. But you get ambiance.”
Aguilera’s mother died two years ago, but the daughter has continued to grow the business. They expanded the kitchen a few months ago, bright orange as well, and run a food truck in Fayetteville called Taco Loco.
“When she died I continued, because I like the people,” Aguilera said. “I like to cook the food and I love the kinds of people who come and tell me, ‘That’s good food.’ ”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
If you go
Crazy Tacos, 911 South 5th St., Smithfield. 919-938-0338. facebook.com/crazytacossmithfieldnc. It is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
On the menu
▪ Meat options: steak, marinated pork, fried pork, chorizo, beef head, tripe, fried pork skin
▪ Tacos: $2
▪ Tortas: $6
▪ Quesadillas: $3
▪ Sopes (thick flat tortillas with toppings): $3
▪ Gorditas (stuffed tortillas): $3
▪ A bowl of menudo or consume de borrego: $8