I have yet to meet a taco I don't like. Or so I thought when I began hosting a series of Taco Crawls in Connecticut last fall with some adventurous foodie friends.
Inspired by Jonathan Gold, considered the high-low priest of the Los Angeles food scene, and my favorite San Francisco neighborhood, the Mission District, I have become determined (read: obsessed) to discover the best taco in Connecticut. Fairfield County is no Mission District, but I contend that there are some amazing pockets of authentic food in southeastern Connecticut if you know where to look. One shining example is the El Charrito taco truck in Stamford. Their devotion to the taco and other traditional Mexican dishes in their quality ingredients contribute to what I consider to be a near perfect taco.
A few things I've learned along the way is that the word ‘authentic’ or 'traditional' is tossed around entirely too often and can be deceiving. The only "real" Mexican taco you are going to experience is probably South of the border or in the kitchens of Mexican grandmothers. That being said, every restaurant expresses, interprets and defines their cuisine differently, and (with the exception of Taco Bell) I respect their efforts.
With the El Charrito taco truck in our sights, we decided to begin our culinary journey in Stamford, Four taco joints would be no problem on a recent Sunday for four seasoned Taco Crawlers. Our destinations: 1. El Charrito, Richmond Hill (across from Beemers) Stamford, CT 2. Casa Villa 182 W Main St. 3. Tacos Guadalajara 217 Atlantic Street. 4. Ole Mole 1030 High Ridge Road.
EL CHARRITO TACO TRUCK
The first stop was planned as the benchmark taco, the El Charrito Taco Truck. Unfortunately we found them closed for the winter. A minor setback. If my palate serves me well, you do not want to miss them when they come back in March. You can stay tuned through El Charrito's Facebook page.
Our second stop was Casa Villa located on West Main Street in Stamford. This place looked promising with several busy chefs behind the counter of an open kitchen, a churning spit, an ample menu and eager patrons. We ordered five tacos, grabbed a Mexican Coca-Cola (we have some cult drinkers in our group) and took a seat under Frida Kahlo.
• De Pollo (chicken): A decent if not downright delicious chicken taco. With the rest of the more interesting tacos begging to be tried, this one served more as a palate cleanser. Like all their tacos, it came with chopped fresh onion and cilantro and was made more interesting with a piquant squeeze of a lime wedge and the smoky chipotle sauce that was served on the side with our order.
• Al Pastor (marinated pork): We threw some elbows over this one. Marinated pork loin, fire-roasted slowly and served with grilled pineapple. The smoky pork with the sweet surprise of the grilled fruit was divine. My personal favorite.
• De Chicharron (pork cracklings): We just had to give this taco a home. None of us could turn down the thought of a fried pork taco. The flavor was dull and salty in comparison to the vibrancy of the al pastor, however this taco more than made up for it's shortcomings in the texture department. It was like a circus in your mouth with small crunchy fried bits of pork vying for your attention among the soft shell and juicy raw onion. I recommend taking this taco for a ride.
• De Cecina (aged beef): Perfunctory but good. Although it was aged beef, it was not as flavorful as de lengua but paired well with the green salsa.
• De Lengua (veal tongue): Tender, moist and amazing. We were all surprised at how intoxicating this combination of salty, meaty flavor paired with the tender and almost slightly spongy texture of the meat. Despite some initial inhibitions, it was by far the best combination of flavor and texture of any taco. The de lengua emerged as the clear favorite of our excursion.
Casa Villa handily rates as one of the favorite stops for Mexican tacos we've found in Fairfield County. Fresh, quality ingredients, paired with an extensive, traditional menu and a devoted clientele make this a can't miss in Fairfield County. Casa Villa's proximity to El Charrito just means you'll have to hit them both up if you find yourself pining for traditional Mexican food. As for our favorite taco, it was hands-down the de lengua taco.
As my grandmother used to say, if you don't have anything nice to say...well you know the rest. I am going to chalk this up to an off day. A VERY off day. Not one customer came through the doors in the 40 minutes we reluctantly spent there. I was initially encouraged by the outdoor sign ("since 1980") and an ambitious wall mural flanking the wall as you enter. In this case, looks are deceiving.
Shortly after we took our seats, we were brought a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I'm certain the chips were a popular brand of tortilla chip that are found in your grocery store and the salsa resembled jarred tomato sauce more than the spicy condiment. We ordered one of each taco (chicken, pork and ground beef) as well as a chile relleno. In addition to two Sangria Senorals I ordered an aqua fresca expecting a fresh and fruity drink and not the concentrated fruit juice mixed with sugar that was served. The tacos were not much better and the chili relleno was unrecognizable.
I'm going to quit while I am ahead because things got worse. This place may cater to some, but certainly not ctbites foodies. Next...
With a slam dunk at Casa Villa and a harrowing escape at Tacos Guadalajara, we were off to our final destination, Ole Mole on High Ridge Road. Don't let the fact that this is a chain throw you off. Ole Mole serves great tacos. I've been to both the newer Darien location and the tiny Stamford location and if you're craving tacos you won't be disappointed with either location.
Their chips were crispy although slightly undersalted and served with a fresh and vibrant salsa that all but erased the appetite-supressing memory of Tacos Guadalajara. We ordered tacos carnitas and the special fish tacos.
• Fish Taco (mahi mahi): The fish taco was the standout, served with fresh chopped cabbage, slices of raw onion and tomato with an excellent green salsa. Fresh, bright and clean flavors made this taco a great way to end this taco-filled day. The fish was seasoned lightly although slightly dry. We agreed we'd order this again in a heart beat.
• Carnitas: Ole Mole's carnitas were flavorful and smoky and came served with queso fresco, lettuce and tomato. A solid taco if somewhat overwhelmed by the pile of lettuce and queso fresco smothering it.
Ole Mole's Stamford location is tiny and cramped, but their service is fast and friendly. Their take on the taco is certainly Mexican-style in their use of soft tortilla shells filled with a selection of meat or veggies. Where they may stray from the traditional style is in the addition of chopped lettuce, a little cheese and tomato. If you're a Mexican taco purist or if you're looking for a place to linger and sit, you may want to move on. For the rest of us, Ole Mole is just fine.
The Stamford Taco Takeaway
Stamford surprised, disappointed and at times overwhelmed with its extremes. Where Norwalk seems to have many little hidden gems among the cities neighborhoods, Stamford is hit or miss with their few and far between choices. Although we missed El Charrito Taco Truck for its winter hibernation, located just down the street Casa Villa emerged as one of the cities best destinations for traditional Mexican fare. We were blown away by their de lengua taco, and practically licked our plates clean on our way out. Unfortunately the day also uncovered the shockingly worst taco to-date at Tacos Guadalajara.
Good and bad, I suppose it's all in a day's Taco Crawl.