We can’t be the only ones who’ve noticed that Charlottesville’s cuisine scene is trending toward tacos. Even fine dining spot C&O offers a version on its late-night menu. But who would win in a blind battle? We put nine to the test, choosing only restaurants in the city and only those open for lunch, to save our judges from slipping into ta-comas. (We also asked some local chefs to weigh in on their favorite taco fillings, toppings and tortillas. See their Restaurant Week menus here.)
Who’s the real winner in this battle? Pretty much everyone—the readers, the judges, the taco joints, even the photographers. Nevertheless, only one could win. Would it be local legend La Michoacana? Old standby Baja Bean? Or perhaps one of the upstarts—Brazos Tacos, The Bebedero or Yearbook?
Starting with a list of 12 tacquerias, our field of competitors shrank to nine when Aqui es Mexico, La Tortuga Feliz and El Tako Nako were unavailable at tasting time. Still, our judges pressed on—heads tilted, taking in every savory bite. Here’s who came out on top.
The other contenders
Baja Bean Co.
The Baja Bean empire shrank a bit several years ago when the Corner location shut its doors. But you can still get the old-school cantina’s tacos in Richmond, Staunton and out on 29. The tac-options are extensive here—choose classic tacos with a variety of meats or mix it up with smoked gouda tacos, double-wrapped crunchy and soft shell tacos, bacon-wrapped shrimp tacos or tacos smothered in queso. 2291 Seminole Ln., 975-1070
The cult favorite that left Charlottesville last year only to come storming back delivers Austin-style tacos (read: breakfasty) from morning till night, but be advised: There’s often a long line (read: worth it). The kitchen in back of the modern space near the IX Art Park churns out classics—egg, cheese and bacon, carnitas, carne asada—as well as exotics—Yam and Eggs, Nacho Taco, brisket, chorizo and avocado. All tacos are available on corn or flour tortillas. 925 Second St. SE, 984-1163
El Jaripeo has been holding strong on West Main for years as other taco tossers have come and gone. “The Rodeo’s” no-nonsense ’cos come with beef, chicken or fish on hard or soft tortillas. If you’re hankering for traditional tacos, burritos and nachos out in the county, check out the store’s outpost on Timberwood Boulevard just off Route 29. 1202 W. Main St., 972-9190; 1750 Timberwood Blvd., 296-9300
Guad’s a blast, whether you’re next to the fountain on the patio downtown or in the schticky dining room on 29N. Mostly it’s because the atmosphere is autentico and the margaritas are en punto. But the food also carries its weight. On the taco front it’s straight up all-American Mexican: beef, chicken or beans on a crunchy corn shell, traditional corn tortilla, flour tortilla or a combination of several. Toppings are gringo—lettuce, cheese, tomato, sour cream—or traditional. More outside-the-box tacos like fish, carne asada, al pastor and carnitas also dot Guad’s formulaic but fun menu. 805 E. Market St., 977-2676; 395 Greenbrier Dr., 978-4313; 2206 Fontaine Ave., 979-2424; 108 Town Country Ln., 293-3538; 3450 Seminole Trail, 977-2677
La Michoacana is C’ville’s traditional taco temple; it’s a good thing this taste test was blind. The small, built-by-hand space on High Street got an upgrade two years back, but the focus on authentic Mexican remained. The chicken, beef, spicy pork, chorizo, tongue, tripe, etc. tacos come on fresh housemade corn tortillas with onions and cilantro. Several salsas and pickled veggies are available for further customization of these $2.50 tasty treats. 1138 E. High St., 409-9941
The sister restaurant to the well-regarded Richmond restaurant Don’t Look Back, Yearbook Taco joined the Downtown Mall Mexi scene in 2013. The dimly lit shotgun-style room houses a nice beer selection in addition to a simple menu. The everyday tacos—pulled chicken, chorizo, potato, egg, carnitas, shrimp, tofu, the list goes on—are available on flour or corn tortillas and with gringo-style or traditional toppings at $4 each. But keep your eye out for specials like the fried chicken skin taco, a favorite of regulars. 223 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 202-2619
Meet the judges
profesor de Español at Albemarle High School
A native of Houston, Texas, Gama says “there was clearly a Mexican influence that impacted our daily life, especially when it came to deciding where to go out to eat.” These days, “Taco Tuesday is a regular occurrence in our home, which my wife prepares, she and I eat and our boys ask for hot dogs instead.”
formerly of El Tepeyac
There was a collective gasp when El Tepeyac, a Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant on Greenbrier Drive, announced its closing in spring of 2015. In its two years on the local food scene, it had gained a loyal following at the hand of Gracia and her parents.
former C-VILLE news editor
Currently a resident of Ottawa, Ontario (where there is a distressing lack of taco options, he tells us), Fitzgerald fortuitously stopped by the C-VILLE office just as the judges were beginning to taste test. As they say, when life hands you carne asada…