What food packs more soul into every square inch than a taco? The tortilla is often handmade, sometimes with freshly nixtamalized corn. Hours of marinating and years of experience might define the meats, while salsas can whirl dozens of chiles, herbs, and spices in a single batch. You pick it up, and in a flash, it’s gone. Says Austin chef Fermín Núñez in Netflix’s Taco Chronicles: “In the first bite, you lift the taco, tilt your head, and raise two fingers. It’s like a soft kiss to the taco. You go, ‘Hi, there.’ Bite and kiss. The second kiss is the best one. And the third kiss is the farewell, meaning it’s over.”

Taco hunters take their favorites very seriously. You can’t just Google “tacos” and go to the closest taco stand. For the true seeker, a trusted recommendation is worth its weight in gold (or carnitas). We did plenty of research on our own, plus asked several taco lovers—a tortilla maker and some taco cart and restaurant owners—for their advice on the very best tacos in Portland.

And come thirsty. Though most of these taquerias don’t offer beer on-site, we asked a beer expert for pairing advice if you’d like to take your tacos to go and imbibe at home. And while we go in depth on six taquerias, don’t miss our 16 other must-try spots. Buen provecho!

Adobada tacos from Los Puñales bring Angel Medina of República right back to his childhood in Mexico.

Image: Michael Novak

Taqueria Los Puñales

3312 SE Belmont St, Portland, 503-206-7233

Make no mistake: Taqueria Los Puñales is very gay. The owners—longtime friends David Madrigal and Brian Aster—are queer, as is much of the staff. Prints by queer Mexican artist Felix d’Eon line the walls, alongside framed portraits of Gia Gunn, Mariah Carey, Verónica Castro, and Marsha P. Johnson. “The only heterosexual thing we have is sports,” says Aster, gesturing at a few fútbol pennants. And then there’s the word “puñales,” which means ... well, it can mean daggers, or a handful. But it also means “fags,” say Madrigal and Aster, who named the restaurant in a move to reclaim the word with pride.

But Madrigal and Aster don’t just want a gay restaurant; the goal is to create a great restaurant, where homos and heteros alike flock for mouthwatering tacos guisados. “Queer irreverence is nothing unless you are putting out an amazing product,” says Aster.

Madrigal is a third-generation taquero with decades of restaurant experience, including a dozen years at local mainstay La Bonita. Opened during the pandemic, the SE Belmont taqueria has already earned a loyal following. Regulars come for tinga de pollo (or, for the meat-averse, a delightfully rich and bright soy curl tinga) and juicy barbacoa, best enjoyed in the crispy Jalisco style.

With a whopping 22 taco options on the menu, you can choose your own adventure—traditional, playful, veggie-based. This is where vegan mole and gluten-free chile relleno live alongside ultra-tender lengua en salsa verde and bistec con papas, braised in “grandma’s specialty tomato stew.” Angel Medina, whose Pearl District restaurant República makes great tacos itself, is a huge fan of Puñales’ adobada. “[Those] are probably the closest thing to my childhood in Mexico, saving money as a fat kid to eat adobada tacos on Fridays,” he says. —Tuck Woodstock

Beer pairing: Aster recommends a Pacifico with lime, though a michelada made with Victoria should do the trick nicely if you’re feeling a little hungover.

This barrel-aged peach sour adds brightness to the carne asada from Los Francos.

Image: Michael Novak

Los Francos Taco Truck

12051 SE Stark St, Portland, 503-473-7066

You’ve heard the complaint: late-night food is nearly nonexistent in Portland. Los Francos begs to differ. The truck, which taquero Clemente Franco started 14 years ago, is the favorite late-night spot of Oracio Hernandez, owner of wildly popular taco cart Birrieria La Plaza. Before the pandemic—and before Hernandez started waking up early to prepare birria at the new family cart—he and several friends often carpooled to Salem for weekend concerts at the Salem Armory, dancing to corridos or tuba-heavy banda. Afterward, the crew headed to Los Francos for expertly seasoned, delicately crisped tacos.

“At 3:30, they’re still open,” Hernandez says. “It gets pretty packed on Fridays and Saturdays. Everyone shows up and gets the tacos there, trying to sober up.” (Currently, Los Francos shutters at 1 a.m. on weekends).

Hernandez’s order: carne asada, chorizo, and carnitas tacos, with tortillas so hot they’ll burn your fingers. Carne asada surely is a standout, its caramelized, crunchy edges giving way to juicy steak that avoids the gray, overcooked fate many other trucks condemn it to. The chorizo melds into a crisp, porky plane, and the carnitas are succulent. As for beer? Hernandez goes for Modelo Especial (in the cans for optimal flavor) or Pacifico (bottled for best results). —KCH

Local beer pairing: Pfriem Pilsner, a close analogue for Modelo Especial, works well with chorizo and carnitas, says Drew Salmi, co-owner of beer and hot sauce shop Alefire (3520 N Williams Ave). “Pfriem has just that little extra hop bite to it.” Out-there pairing: For leaner carne asada, Salmi likes a sour like Upright Brewing’s seasonal barrel-aged peach sour, Fantasia, or Ale Apothecary’s Ralph, an aged-in-wine-barrels wild ale made with local honey.

Grilled shrimp tacos and Tijuana-style steak tacos evoke Efrain Abarca’s memories of Tijuana.

Image: Michael Novak

Tacos El Patron

21070 SW Tualatin Valley Hwy, Beaverton, 503-372-6229

Owner Efrain Abarca opened this taco cart amid the auto dealers lining TV Highway in 2019. Here, he chased the dream of starting a taqueria that reminded him of the childhood tacos he ate while visiting his grandma in Tijuana. Park in the gravel lot, grab a plastic picnic table, and order a wealth of varied tacos from a massive menu. The wise pay attention to the house-made aguas frescas, strawberry horchata to pineapple-celery-lime.

Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel, owner of masa and tortilla factory Three Sisters Nixtamal, grew up in Mexico City, where tacos de suadero, a fatty, tender cut of steak, reign supreme alongside tacos al pastor.

“You’re in the metro, going from one place to another. You get out and someone’s selling suadero. You go, ‘Ooh, let’s have a taquito!’ It’s probably not even planned. You just see it, smell it, and you just want to eat it.”

One bite in—juicy, fatty, set over a toasty corn tortilla with green salsa—and Azcárate-Ferbel’s eyes widen. “The smell, the texture, the flavor transport me to the street,” she says.

Grilled shrimp tacos are another must-order, the succulent, bouncy shrimp edged in a hint of char. A layer of crispy cheese blankets the tortilla. Adding to the vibrancy: spicy aioli, crisp purple cabbage, and juicy pico de gallo. One more must-try: tacos Tijuana topped with steak, guacamole, and onion, based on the memories that inspired the cart.

And while we believe the honor of best quesabirria taco in Portland goes to Birrieria La Plaza, Tacos El Patron isn’t far behind—juicy, full of satisfying cheese pulls, and sporting crisp, never soggy tortillas. The consomé is a standout. “I love that it’s simple and light. It’s not greasy,” says Azcárate-Ferbel. “It’s just the flavor of the meat itself. It’s not overpowered with chiles.” —KCH

Local beer pairing: “I like to taste my shrimp,” says Salmi, “and the brightness of the lime.” A crisp Arch Rock Gold Beach Lager lets both shine. Out-there pairing: In the same spirit as El Patron’s punchy aguas frescas, try a tropical-inspired sour like the mango-pineapple-orange Urban Family Moonstone.

Nico Eiser Vela serves soy curl al pastor, jackfruit birria, and chorizo verde con papas atop freshly pressed tortillas.

Image: Thomas Teal

La Taquiza Vegana (temporarily closed—reopening planned for late June)

8220 NE Davis St. , Portland, 503-764-5409

Portland is home to plenty of meatless taco options, but 100 percent vegan taquerias are still unusual. That’s where La Taquiza Vegana comes in, serving veganized versions of classic Mexican street food made from scratch by chef Nico Eiser Vela. After a year at Rose City Food Park, the cart is currently in the process of moving to another pod, The Yard at Montavilla.

“There’s limited [vegan] options here when it comes to authentic Mexican food,” says Eiser Vela, who opened the cart last year with his partner, Devyn Marie, after relocating from Southern California. “I don’t think there’s another all-vegan spot in Portland that has vegan al pastor.”

Not surprisingly, al pastor is the cart’s best seller. Soy curls in red adobo replace the usual pork, topped with pineapple and onions on a handmade tortilla made with Three Sisters Nixtamal masa for a sweet, juicy treat. Savvy diners spring for the taco plate, which boasts a jackfruit birria and the (tempeh-mushroom) chorizo verde con papas, plus scoops of expertly seasoned rice and beans.

The recipes pull from a delicious array of sources: Eiser Vela’s collection of cookbooks from Mexican and Californian chefs, memories of cooking with his family, and a decade of experience cooking French-American cuisine. French techniques, he says, are useful for making house sauces and marinades. La Taquiza Vegana also touts two cartmade beverage options: creamy horchata and a crisp jamaica, brewed with organic hibiscus from Oaxaca. In the mood for a beer? If all goes well with the new location, they’ll be next to Migration Brewing, and a stone’s throw from Stammtisch. —TW

Drink pairing: Consider a hibiscus cider from Salem-based La Familia Cider Company, which makes ciders inspired by aguas frescas.

La Tía Juana is inspired by owner Chris Vargas Sanchez’s childhood in Tijuana

Image: Thomas Teal

La Tía Juana Taqueria

18488 E Burnside St, Portland, 503-328-9691

Sir, this is not a Wendy’s. This former fast food building, defunct drive-thru and all, is now home to some of the best spit-roasted tacos al pastor in Portland. Owner Chris Vargas Sanchez, who grew up in Tijuana before moving to Portland at age 12, wanted to start a taqueria that reminded him of the flavors of home. “Nobody does it like they do down there,” he says. “All my first memories were down there, eating tacos late night. The al pastor and the asada, those were the go-tos.”

It all starts with thick, toasty handmade tortillas made with masa from La Milpa in Sandy. “You order the tortilla, it’s not even five minutes old,” Vargas Sanchez boasts. Masa expert Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel gives the tortillas her stamp of approval, too. “Their tortillas were really good,” she says. That means a lot coming from her.

I was tipped off to this place by chef-owner Luna Contreras of Northeast Portland’s Nightingale. She, in turn, gets taco tips from chef-friend and fellow Family Meal board member Sam Smith. The two love to talk tacos. One of their favorites here: the Tijuana-style pineapple-dripping spit-roasted tacos al pastor (one of the few places in Portland that uses this traditional cooking method). “The al pastor taco with the guacamole and cilantro and onions is really good,” says Smith.

Contreras concurs: “They’re pretty good. I grew up in San Diego. It just reminds me of that style of food.” She’ll also partake in the Baja-style fried shrimp and fish tacos. Quesabirria tacos are also available all day, every day. Another must-try: the tacos al vapor topped with ultra-tender, melt-in-your mouth lengua and cabeza. Azcárate-Ferbel is a big fan. So is Contreras, who says they remind her of the tacos de canasta she would find in the centros in Guadalajara with her grandmother.

“Not a lot of spots in town do [tacos al vapor]. Whenever I go [to La Tía Juana] I get a couple for that little nostalgia feel.” —KCH

Local beer pairing: Contreras goes for Negra Modelo, but if you’re looking for a local alternative, Salmi recommends the Von Ebert Bohemia Dark Lager. Out-there beer pairing: For tacos al pastor, Salmi likes Hair of the Dog’s Adam Hearty Old World Ale, “a smoky, strong German style.”

Tacos or panuchos? Why not get both?

Image: Michael Novak

Loncheria Los Mayas

4212 NE Prescott St, 503-754-3059

I’ve long craved this cart’s Yucatecan panuchos—refried handmade tortillas stuffed with black beans, the best of them crowned with avocado, tangy pickled red onions, and ultra-juicy, achiote-rubbed cochinita pibil, slow-cooked in a banana leaf. On the side: a thimble-sized cup of citrusy, bright habanero salsa. Chef Sam Smith is a big fan, too, though he warns they’re best eaten immediately—even a 10-minute drive could kill it, as the tortillas sog under the juicy meat. (But really, how could you wait?)

But the tacos are very good, too. Smith says these might just be his favorite homemade tortillas in Portland. It’s hard to go wrong with a cochinita taco, though Smith also likes the tripa. Co-owner Manuela Interian recommends the carnitas and al pastor. Vegetarian options include fried spinach sopes topped with sour cream, beans, pickled red onions, and cheese—a dish Interian invented to sneak veggies into her sons’ diets. Or, for a whole plate, try the poc chuc: citrus-rubbed grilled pork sided by mashed tomato, avocado, pickled cabbage, and plenty of those glorious handmade tortillas. —KCH

Beer pairing: Los Mayas is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Take your panuchos a few blocks north to Oakshire Brewing Beer Hall’s patio during overlapping hours, starting at 3 p.m. on weekdays and noon on Fridays.

The Cheat Sheet: 16 More Must-Try Tacos

We only had space to showcase six taquerias, but these also made our best-of list:

Tienda Santa Cruz: lengua, carnitas, tripa tacos. Panaderia 5 de Mayo: cabeza, carnitas, tripa, and lengua tacos on handmade tortillas. Tortilleria y Tienda De Leon: carnitas tacos, plus whatever guisado looks good that day. La Tehuana: carnitas, al pastor, carne asada tacos on handmade tortillas (plus memelitas!). Birrieria La Plaza: birria in all shapes and forms. Birrieria Jalisco: excellent birria and consomé, especially the spider taco and orange salsa. Rose City Taqueria: lengua, carnitas, tripa tacos. Las D’licias del Cantón: al pastor tacos. Tres Reyes: carnitas tacos (weekends only). Tecos: carnitas and adobada, as recommended by chef Roberto Torres of República. Tropicale: shrimp tacos (and piña coladas!). República: cochinita pibil and pollo enchilado tacotes (giant! tacos!). Little Conejo: oyster mushroom tacos and al pastor gringa. El Coyote: carnitas tacos. Taqueria El Gordo (Beaverton): al pastor tacos arabes. La Costeña (Vancouver): goat birria and lengua tacos on handmade tortillas.

 

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