Chef Jessica Joyce tasted her first traditional taco when she was 28 years old.
A Mexican line cook made her one with cilantro, onions and tender beef cheek after an evening shift at an Omaha restaurant.
As a child in Lincoln, World-Herald reporter Juan “Johnny” Perez Jr. watched his elderly Mexican baby sitter make tortillas in her kitchen. His parents, both from South America, often served Mexican-inspired dishes at their dinner table.
For different reasons, both Johnny and Jessica love tacos. And they both helped me find the best one in Omaha as part of my June Food Prowl.
Add Paul Urban, lover of all things street food and Joyce's partner in life and in their business, Block 16, and you have a panel that knows a lot about good Mexican food.
We had a tough time narrowing down Prowl spots. Our original list included more than 10 taquerias. One place, Maria's, made it onto the list after I got at least a dozen emails from fans urging us to try it.
We found two main types of tacos: Americanized, with lettuce, yellow cheese and varied fried shells; and tiny traditional-style Mexican tacos, often served in duos or trios and filled with more unusual ingredients such as lengua (tongue) or tripe (stomach lining).
The prowl came down to a difficult battle between two places: One we expected and one that surprised us. And for the second time in Food Prowl history, your food writer got outvoted in the end.
We started at California Tacos and More, a local institution on the corner of 33rd and California Streets.
The restaurant became wildly popular after its appearance on the Food Network's “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” In case you missed the episode, it plays in a loop all day every day on one television in the restaurant.
We tried beef tacos and tilapia tacos. Cali also serves fish tacos with fried cod.
A slender white fish filet, a handful of lettuce and a pile of shredded cheddar cheese filled the bulky fried shell in my basket. The shells are made of soft dough and have a thick, flaky appearance. The fried dough flavor dominated. I decided not to use the tartar sauce that came with the taco and went for a hot and sour tomatillo green salsa that was especially good. Tartar sauce on a taco just seemed too weird.
One fish taco of the three we ordered wasn't great. The bloodline — a strong-, sometimes bad-tasting portion down the center of many white fish — hadn't been removed, and none of us wanted to eat the overpoweringly fishy cut. One beef taco was too greasy: It saturated the paper in the bottom of the basket.
Jessica liked how the tacos held together in her hand: Nothing fell out, though she said she could have done with a less doughy shell. The fried exterior, in fact, was a main discussion point.
“The fried shell is really giving it the Nebraska touch,” Paul said. “All it needs is a shot of ranch.”
Johnny was the biggest fan.
“There is something awfully satisfying about a California taco,” Johnny said. “Warm bread and cheese is a magic touch.”
We all agreed that the tacos were good, especially as late night, after-bar food, but we weren't sure they were the best we could find. We decided on our next stop: a South Omaha hole-in-the-wall.
We reconvened at Tacos el Peligro for Sunday afternoon lunch. Both Johnny and Paul insisted it be on the list. Tacos here are cheap — just a few dollars each — and the restaurant takes only cash.
We ordered a wide array: al pastor, marinated pork chunks cooked on a hot grill; shredded chicken; carnitas steak; and barbacoa, fragrant Mexican barbecued beef.
Paul, the bravest of the bunch, ordered both beef cheek and “face,” pork from a pig's head, in his tacos.
Instead of fried shells, each taco had two petite, hand-pressed tortillas. The meat filled the bottom and most were topped with chopped raw white onion and cilantro leaves.
The al pastor stood out. The incredibly tender meat came topped with petite slices of pineapple — a tart and sweet counterpart to the chewy tortilla, tangy cilantro and subtly spicy meat.
Paul's chef side came out as we ate.
“This meat is great quality,” he said. “The technique they've used to clean it is awesome. Usually in tacos you get one disgusting globule of meat, but this is all cleaned up. The prep work is spot on.”
No one had any funky chunks or fatty bits in their tacos. None of the meats we tried were greasy or oily. We all agreed that the al pastor taco was the taco to beat.
A few days later, we met on a windy, sweltering afternoon at the Taqueria el Rey taco truck in the Avanza supermarket parking lot. The truck serves many of the same types of tacos as Tacos el Peligro. The menu includes carnitas, cheek, tongue, chorizo, chicken, steak, al pastor and buche, which is pig stomach.
We didn't like the al pastor at el Rey as much. It was missing the delicious pineapple chunks.
“This al pastor seems more tomatoey,” Johnny said. “And the pineapple we had before took it to a new level.”
We all liked the bites of cheek taco — the meat was tender, smoky and juicy — but some of the taco meat, including the tongue, wasn't cut and cleaned well enough for us.
We moved on.
None of us had been to Maria's, in Ralston, but because of my emails, we included it.
Maria's is huge and was packed on a Saturday night. I'd heard of their “puffy” tacos, and when our big plates — platters, really — of tacos, gravy burritos, rice and beans arrived, we realized puffy was the perfect descriptor.
“The tacos remind me of giant open empanadas,” Johnny said, and he was right: This version of Americanized taco was crumblier, less greasy and definitely puffier than its Cali counterpart. Mine was full of finely chopped fish. The beef inside some of the tacos wasn't as deeply seasoned as at Cali taco, but it was less greasy, a benefit in our eyes. All the tacos needed some salsa to moisten things up.
The beef tacos came topped with lettuce, tomato and cheese. The fish tacos came with a cabbage slaw that could have used some sauce.
Of the Americanized tacos we liked, the majority of our group liked Maria's the best.
I chose our final destination because an acquaintance described it to me as “the most underrated Mexican food in Omaha.”
As soon as I heard him say that, I knew Rivera's, in an unassuming strip mall off 120th and Blondo Streets, had to be on our list. Boy, was my source right.
At lunch, we each tried one of the four tacos on the menu: al pastor, steak, fish and one we hadn't seen anywhere else, norteños, a Northern Mexican version of carne asada.
The fish taco was packed with chunks of lightly seasoned grilled mahi mahi. Spicy ranch dressing added the right amount of moisture and the homemade corn tortillas held everything together. The flavors went together perfectly. It's the best fish taco I've ever had.
Everyone worked through their plates with looks of surprise. We knew a few bites in that we faced a tough decision.
Johnny liked his norteños: He said it was juicy, spicy after he swallowed and “really imaginative.”
Paul and Jessica, too, were impressed. Paul's skirt steak was tender instead of tough, as the cut can sometimes be.
“At 2 a.m.,” Paul said, “this is the plate of food I want to eat.”
The sides weren't throwaways, either. Each grain of rice was separate; we didn't see one gluey clump.
“The beans are the closest to what my parents made,” Johnny said. “Definitely homemade.”
We were done prowling and forced to vote. How would Jessica, a relative newbie to traditional tacos, and Johnny, a veteran, square off?
I'd written down Jessica's name first in my notebook, so I made her start.
“If I had to go to one place for tacos,” she said, “It would be Peligro. The flavor of the tortilla, the seasoning on the meat, the pineapple. All of it.”
I went next, and voted for the place that most surprised me, the place I found the best, most unexpected food: Rivera's. I can't get its fish taco out of my head.
Paul and Johnny both struggled, but ultimately, both voted for Tacos el Peligro.
“I think the overall experience at Rivera's is amazing. Even the chips are great,” Paul said. “But for me, the great meat at Peligros tipped the scale.”
Johnny chose Peligro for another reason.
“It's not just the plate we're eating that defines the experience,” he said. “It's the feel of the place. Something about a dank hole adds an intangible to it. It just feels better in South Omaha.”
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