One of the most beloved imports from south of the border, the taco, is essentially a simple dish: take a tortilla and fill it. From beans and veggies to chicken and various other parts of favorite proteins, the possibilities for topping your taco are endless. Street tacos, as the name suggests, are usually found served from a stand, cart or, in the case of major American cities, a food truck. These unpretentious, portable snacks have enjoyed a boom in popularity across the country and in the Vail Valley.
The beauty of the street taco is in its simplicity; the brevity of the ingredients allows infinite possibilities for creativity and exposition. Chefs in the Vail Valley are embracing the idea of the street taco, even if they have a fixed building; just like the chefs themselves, each version is unique.
Tacos, quite rico
At tacorico, the newest restaurant from Pollyanna Forster and partner Chris Irving, the taco reigns supreme.
“My first experience with street tacos came from traveling in Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles,” Forster said. “To be honest, about four or five years ago, I wanted to have a street taco food truck in Vail, but we were in the midst of opening Cut and it wasn’t the right time.”
Though the timing wasn’t right then, when the space opened up in the same building as Cut, Dish and Eat! Drink!, Forster and Irving decided to open the “food truck” business in a brick and mortar space.
“For us, tacorico is an extension of what our other businesses are doing with seasonal, super fresh, organic ingredients in an environment that is hip and cool, with good cocktails,” Forster said.
This attention to local ingredients and flavors mirrors the tacos found in Mexico as well.
“If you’re traveling through Mexico and you’re on the coast, you’ll have fish and camarones. If you’re in central Mexico, you’re having carne assada and carnitas. I wanted to add a piece of all those street tacos that you’d have while traveling, but with a Colorado local twist,” Forster said. “For example, the Mexican ‘hummus’ uses local black beans and huitlacoche. We’ve tried to be true to the ethnicity of street tacos but also incorporate as many local ingredients as we could.”
However, there is a marked difference between street tacos in Mexico and those found in tacorico, Forster said. When in Mexico, tacos consist of a tortilla, a protein and salsa. Forster admits that they’ve “sexed up” things a bit with garnishes like pickled onions and guajillo mayo.
Even if the tacos stray from the “original,” there are no complaints about the additions. The guajillo mayo on the lengua (beef tongue) taco imparts a low, slow burn to the tender meat, lingering like a first kiss on the lips, even after the dish is consumed. The pickled red onions perched on the carnitas add a refreshing tartness to the rich and crispy pork. While each order comes with two tacos, you may find yourself adding to your order, just to sample the different flavors.
However, the heart of the menu at tacorico is truly authentic, thanks to the influence of Executive Chef Veronica Morales, who is also the executive chef at Dish. Her family’s mole recipe can be found on the menu in “V’s mole chicken,” and Forster said that a lot of Morales’ family recipes have found their way onto the menu.
“I don’t know that Chris and I would have completely done this and conceptualized this without knowing that Veronica would be our executive chef at tacorico as well,” Forster said. “We gave her the reins and she made it all happen.”
TGIF at Maya
For chef Radamas Febles, executive chef at Maya in Avon, the tasty tacos served during the Friday Afternoon Club are born from a desire to create a perfect bite.
“When I think of tacos, I don’t just think of Mexican flavors. It has changed so much,” Febles explained. “You’re seeing so many influences from around the world — the tortilla is just a vessel to deliver flavors to the guests. I’m always looking for that sweet, salty, spicy … that’s what I look for.”
If a tortilla is a vessel, think of it as one that is perched on the sea of possibility, ready to take you to new places — some that might be located beyond your comfort zone.
“You find some of the more unique meats when you’re serving tacos, like lengua,” Febles said. “I think that has been a gateway for people to try some of these things. It’s easier to have confidence with what you’re eating when you have a smaller bite. You don’t have to commit to it. ‘I ate it, I liked it, I didn’t like it,’ then it’s gone. You can make that decision right away.”
Larkspur pours tequila For tacos
On Tuesday nights, the Larkspur patio hosts a fiesta during and after the Hot Summer Nights concert at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Featuring tequila cocktails and a DJ, the other draw is chef Thomas Salamunovich’s taco. Like most of his cuisine, Salamunovich’s tacos are a result of an extensive testing and tweaking to ensure the perfect end result.
“I grew up in Southern California and I was obsessed with tacos,” Salamunovich explained. “I spent a month testing at home — my family was so sick of tacos.”
The experimenting paid off. The Larkspur taco is different than what’s found in other restaurants. Instead of a soft tortilla, this version is crispy. And, while many Californian versions included fish, Salamunovich wasn’t a fan of the classic battered version with “tons of mayo.” Instead, his version features grilled grouper with guacamole; a hint of anchovy in the marinade adds a Mediterranean influence.
“It’s a hand food that I love eating,” he said.
Though some of Vail’s swankiest restaurants are embracing the street taco, there are opportunities for versions that actually involve food trucks, like the lime-braised pork carnita tacos from the Crazy Wagon food truck, conveniently located in the parking lot of the Crazy Mountain Brewery in Edwards.
For some excellent examples from south of the border, travel a bit further afield. In Eagle, Primavera serves up authentic dishes like beef cheek tortas and tacos featuring lengua or pork al pastor (spit-grilled meat) from its small food hut. In Avon, tucked into a shopping mall, Taqueria No Se Hagan Bolas offers authentic taco tastes like barbacoa, al pastor, lengua and cabeza.
Take a taco tasting tour through the valley. Your taste buds won’t be disappointed.