Like so many great things, it began as a joke. Minneapolis biking enthusiasts had recently announced the inaugural “Thirty Days of Biking.” The event inspired Jessica Nadeau and Bjorn Christianson, avid cyclists who ride nearly every day of the year, to launch “30 Days of Tacos” in April 2011 — a silly, and tasty way to start spring (or wish away winter).
But first, thorny philosophical questions needed settling. The most important being: What constitutes a taco? They arrived at an appropriately philosophical answer, as Christianson explains: “It’s a very gestalt thing; you know it when you see it. One guiding principle is if it can be better described as something other than a taco, it’s not a taco. A falafel sandwich in a pita is a sandwich, but you could have a taco wrapped in a pita or a falafel taco.” Ultimately, Nadeau explained, “It’s really up the eater.”
With the definitional question adequately answered, Nadeau and Christianson created a Twitter handle (with a bike-riding, shades-wearing, hard-shell taco avatar) and started eating. To their surprise, 30 Days of Tacos caught on. While only a half dozen or so people came to the first kickoff party in 2011, upwards of 70 taco fans showed up to last year’s event. The Facebook page for this year’s kickoff — March 30 at Cause in Uptown – already lists 90-plus people as “going.” As the event has gained popularity, some folks are upping the ante, aiming to eat upwards of 200 tacos in 30 days (Nadeau’s goal last year was 100, about one for every meal). That’s some serious taco love.
In anticipation of the fourth 30 Days of Tacos, Nadeau and Christianson joined us for a tasting. After some email back-and-forth, we settled on three destinations: Muddy Waters in Uptown for nouveau creations, Pineda Tacos for classic Mexican, and Eli’s Northeast for a taco that sounded just weird enough to win us over.
Although Muddy Waters isn’t known for Mexican food, we’d heard good things about their fish tacos ($9 for two). We’re happy to report that the rumors are true. Taco purists might sneer at the tacos’ enormity — there’s enough filling to stuff a burrito — and lack of spice. The dish has more in common with fish and chips than authentic tacos. But that’s a good thing: large pieces of flaky beer-battered cod are fried perfectly and topped with a creamy (but not gloppy) slaw, pickled red onion, and cilantro, all of which overflows a grilled flour tortilla. The only thing missing is good hot sauce (Muddy’s has Tabasco and Sriracha, neither of which fit the bill).
We also tried Muddy’s Korean BBQ mock duck tacos ($9 for two). Although it didn’t impress us as much as the fish, the mock duck was quite good. Deep fried, the “duck” is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The spicy, sweet (perhaps too sweet for some palates) sauce tasted of hoisin. Several fresh ingredients (radish, cilantro, and cucumber) gave the rich taco balance. Although it wouldn’t make our best-of list, the taco grew on us and proved a great beer companion.
Our tasting crew also enjoyed Pineda, which offers classic Mexican tacos ($4.40 for two): small corn tortillas, several spoonfuls of filling, white onion, cilantro, lime, and hot sauce (other toppings such as avocado are also available). A small salad-bar style lineup of different salsas and toppings like pickled jalapenos lets each diner customize. The tacos are simple, in the best sense of the word. You can taste each element, and there’s nowhere for sub-par ingredients to hide. With several tacos, there was no need for hiding. We especially enjoyed the wonderfully seasoned, tender shredded beef and the taco with super-flavorful porky chicharones, now a challenger for our favorite taco in the Twin Cities. A vegetarian creation featuring fried queso fresco, beans, and fresh avocado was outstanding, but a shredded pork taco missed the mark; the meat was boring and lacked distinctive flavor (we weren’t sure if it was chicken, pork, or something else).
Finally, we headed to Eli’s Northeast on a lark, having heard about a barbecue pork and tempura avocado taco ($3). It was too weird — and potentially awesome — to pass up. Plus, the State Fair, our go-to for wacky (and possibly wonderful) fried foods, is a season away (possibly two, if spring ever arrives). Like many cool-sounding but disappointing items at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, the taco was a bust. The tempura avocado wasn’t crisp or flavorful enough; the pork was cloying; and a black bean and corn salsa was ho-hum. The biggest taco success at Eli’s might have come when one of our diners spooned some banana cream pie into a “spare” tortilla (Christianson maintains there are no spare tortillas) and declared it a dessert taco.
Our adventurous afternoon led to two conclusions: We’ll return to Muddy’s for nontraditional tacos and Pineda for the traditional sort (and Eli’s for beer and good cheer), and Taco Crawls should be a thing. Like craft beer, there are many great tacos to sample in the Twin Cities. Here’s just a sampling of the Heavy Table crew’s favorites:
· Chef Shack: Sweet Potato
· El Nuevo Rodeo: Al Pastor
· El Taco Riendo: Al Pastor, Carnitas
· Los Ocampos: Carnitas
· Maya Cuisine: Chorizo con Papas
· Sea Salt: Fish, Scallop
· Sonora Grill: Beef Tongue, Chicken Rojo, Shrimp
· Sparks: Braised Pork with Kim Chee
· Taqueria La Hacienda in Mercado Central: Al Pastor, Carnitas
· The Lowbrow: Fish
· World Street Kitchen: Lamb Belly
Just to be sure we’re not missing out on any amazing tacos, we’re going to join in on 30 Days of Tacos this year. So please post a comment with your favorite tacos in the area and look for our taco tips on Twitter throughout the month of April. Happy 30 Days of Tacos!