Food Truck Review: The 13th Taco is a lucky find for taqueria fans
If you’ve guessed that 13 Tacos & Taps sells 13 different kinds of tacos, give yourself a gold star. But I bet you can’t guess what fillings are in those tacos.
OK, maybe you could name a couple if you’ve eaten at The 13th Taco, the food truck that David Peraza-Arce has been operating with his wife, Marilyn, since 2016. The truck sells just a handful of tacos, three of which are essentially the same as at the restaurant: The Red Bird (chargrilled chicken adobo); Porky (Korean barbecue); and Moo Moo (seared filet mignon with roasted poblanos, bell peppers and onions).
But even if you’re a devoted fan of the truck (which gets its slightly different name from its “buy 12 tacos, get the 13th free” punch card), you’d be surprised at some of the audacious tacos served at the restaurant.
Chicken & Waffle, for one, which serves up fried chicken drizzled with smoky, chile-infused maple syrup and capped with pico de gallo and queso fresco on a two-tiered foundation of Belgian waffle and homemade flour tortilla. Nobody will judge you if you resort to a knife and fork for this one.
Or for the Shrimp & Grits taco, pairing seared shrimp and stoneground NC grits, amped up with chorizo and chile salsa, on a homemade corn tortilla.
The Missing Link is Peraza-Arce’s inspired fusion of a Sonoran hot dog and an Italian sub: house-made sausage links seasoned with fennel and arbol chiles, wrapped in bacon and flash fried, then topped with grilled peppers and onions and chipotle-spiked ketchup. A flour tortilla plays the role of the bun.
At the opposite end of the flora-fauna spectrum, there’s Vegged Out, a vegetarian delight featuring lightly breaded fried cauliflower, cabbage and radishes served on a corn tortilla and topped with mango salsa and garlic aioli.
That’s just a sampling of the 12 multicultural mashups listed under the Taco Fusion heading on the menu.
And the 13th taco? That’s the chef’s special, and it changes more or less weekly. You’ll find its description on a large chalkboard shaped like the state of North Carolina, suspended from the ceiling at the back of the casual, minimally decorated dining room. And if you’re thinking this will be the most boldly inventive taco of them all, think again. Think traditional
Peraza-Arce is a native of Mexico City who grew up in Yucatan and has worked locally at Mez, Jibarra and Gonza Tacos & Tequila. So for this 13th taco, he returns to his roots for inspiration.
One week, Cochinita tacos pay homage to the achiote-marinated, slow-roasted-in-a- banana-leaf pork he recalls his mother making when he was a child. A week or two later, the chef may turn to the taqueria classic suadero for inspiration for confit brisket and flank steak, a combination he calls El Chilango.
Not long after the restaurant opened in January, Peraza-Arce featured Baja-style fish tacos, showcasing fresh mahi that he bought whole and cut into fat finger-size pieces, then fried in a textbook tempura batter. He served them on corn tortillas, topped with shredded cabbage, radishes and a cilantro emulsion. The tacos were so popular that they earned a place on the permanent menu. They’re called Fish Tales, and you’ll want to set a hook in them.
Tacos come three to an order (two at lunchtime), with your choice of side — and choosing just one is no easy decision. Do you go with soupy, scratch-cooked heirloom Oaxacan beans from Rancho Gordo in California? Or cauliflower frita, flash-fried in that same light batter as the fish tacos? Or fire-roasted Mexican street corn, or arroz crema: jasmine rice flecked with corn and poblanos, and topped with crema and queso? If you can resist ordering an extra side or two a la carte, you’ve got more will power than I do.
A couple of main course dishes round out the savory offering: a classic egg white-battered poblano relleno, and scratch-made “Mole Tia” chicken enchiladas. You won’t go wrong with either one — or with anything else on the menu, for that matter. The only disappointment I encountered as I sampled my way across much of the menu over the course of two meals was surprisingly dry braised beef short rib in an order of El Chapo tacos.
Marilyn Peraza-Arce runs the front of the house, but also turns out a couple of tempting desserts. Food truck fans will be familiar with her churro bites, which for the restaurant she has elevated to full size churros, rolled in cinnamon and sugar, and drizzled with a chile-chocolate fondue.
Better still, for my money, is her margarita-laced tres leches cake. Go ahead and splurge on the optional margarita floater. When you’re eating at a place that serves chicken and waffle tacos, a little walk on the wild side when it comes to dessert is a no-brainer.
13 Tacos & Taps
10511 Shadowlawn Drive, Raleigh
Cuisine: Mexican, fusion
Rating: 3 and 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual, spare
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and enthusiastic, variably experienced
Recommended: tacos (especially Fish Tales, The Missing Link and The 13th Taco), mole enchilada, sides, tres leches cake
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.