Certain foods lend themselves to obsessions.
People fixate on finding the best burger, the best barbecue, the best creme brulee. Every dining experience is an opportunity, or excuse, to taste a version that could best the last best one.
For Andrew Ullom and Sam Ratto, the quest is to find the best taco.
Their day jobs brought them together: Ratto makes chocolate, and Ullom makes chocolate desserts. Ratto roasts cacao beans to make chocolate at Videri Chocolate Factory in downtown Raleigh. Ullom spends his days making croissants, breads and fine dining desserts as executive pastry chef for Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s restaurant empire.
The pair’s taco obsession means they have a regular standing man date, usually Mondays, to venture out for lunch at any number of taquerias. During the last 18 months, they have been eating their way across the Triangle taqueria scene.
Ratto, 35, became taco-obsessed while living in Long Beach, Calif., where seven taquerias were within walking distance of his apartment. And, Ratto noted, you only ordered certain dishes at certain restaurants.
Ullom, 30, says he works alongside Latinos every day in the kitchen and tacos are often a favorite for the staff meal. He noted while digging into a recent taco quest lunch: “The salsas at work are conditioning me.”
Taqueria El Toro
Earlier this summer, I went with Ullom and Ratto to two of their favorite spots: Taqueria El Toro, south of downtown Raleigh, and La Cabana Taqueria, in the back of a BP gas station on Capital Boulevard.
Taqueria El Toro is nestled in a strip mall off Tryon Road. It is a clean, efficient place with electronic menu boards, soccer games or soap operas on the televisions and always a line during the lunch and dinner rush. (Next door is El Toro Supermarket, which is also worth a visit. It has a meat counter, bakery, produce, canned goods and kitchen tools.)
“You brought me here first,” Ullom says to Ratto before they dig into seven different tacos, a torta de cabeza (beef head sandwich), and a glass goblet filled with an Ecuduran-style ceviche with tomato broth and cooked shrimp.
The men reminisce about the restaurant’s carne asada plate, which comes loaded with grilled beef, rice and beans for about $10. Ratto adds: “You don’t get a light meal here. There’s no salad here. That’s why you come here.”
La Cabana Taqueria
A few weeks later, we venture to their other favorite Raleigh taqueria, La Cabana Taqueria. You walk inside the gas station to see a typical convenience store with a cashier on the right and a wall of drinks coolers and rows of snack foods on the left.
But along the back wall is the taqueria’s full kitchen and a handful of tables. You buy your drinks in the front and food in the back.
Ullom, Ratto and I tucked into a spread of tacos filled with barbacoa (beef cheek), el pastor (marinated pork), chicharrón (fried pork skin or belly) and lengua (beef tongue). There’s also rice, beans and nopales, or cooked cactus pads. “This is my jam right here,” said Ullom of the cactus.
Ratto adds: “This is why I started working out – to come to this meal right here.”
They also order what has to be my favorite discovery of our small quest: a pombazo – sort of like a Mexican French dip sandwich. It is dipped in a red guajillo pepper sauce and fried in a little oil. As Ratto takes a huge bite, Ulloms says, “This sort of thing is good for your bones.”
The men leave me with one rule of thumb for finding authentic Mexican food: Avoid any place offering free refills of frozen margaritas.
▪ La Cabana Taqueria, 3520 Capital Blvd., Raleigh
▪ Taqueria El Toro, 3601 Junction Blvd., Raleigh, 919-661-5676
▪ Super Taqueria, 2842 N. Roxboro St., Durham, 919-220-9884
You can judge how good a taqueria is based on a few factors:
▪ How fresh are the toppings on the salsa bar? The fresher the salsas, pickled carrots, coleslaw and jalapenos look, the better. That means there’s lots of turnover and the food isn’t sitting around.
▪ It has tacos made with meat from lesser-known muscle groups: lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef stomach), buche (pork stomach) and moronga (blood sausage).
▪ Eat based on the crowd. “If there are no Mexicans, that’s a weird red flag,” Ullom said.