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A tasty tour of Buffalo's taco turnaround

Even today, I meet otherwise well-educated people completely unaware of Buffalo’s tragic taco history. They have no idea that for a long, dark age the Queen City was a vale of sorrow for those in love with Mexican-style tacos.

“But we have Taco Bell and Mighty Taco,” they protest, indicating that they have never crossed the threshold of a taqueria.

There is no point in wrangling, because Buffalo has tacos now.

In the last six years, nine restaurants specializing in tacos have opened in the area. Three more are under construction, while four trucks roam the countryside picking targets of opportunity.

Why the torrent of tacos? There is no simple or single answer, no sudden influx of people who demanded that the market fill a niche. By all appearances, it looks like the drought inspired the first few places, then their success hinted at enough pent-up taco demand to inspire the latecomers.

Map: Mexican taco finder for the Buffalo area

What I know for sure is, the floodgates have opened and I’m glad it happened. Here’s a primer to Buffalo’s new taco landscape - just the taco specialists, not Mexican restaurants with broader menus, whose strengths tend to lie elsewhere.

In the beginning, there was Lone Star Fajita Grill. The little place at 1855 Hertel Ave. offers a version of Tex-Mex close enough to take the edge off. It sells a hefty taco of freshly grilled steak ($3.75), chopped and piled into a flour tortilla, with housemade pico de gallo to apply at will.

Lone Star Fajita Grill at 1855 Hertel Ave. has been in business for 30 years. This is the steak fajita with housemade guacamole. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The first Lloyd taco truck started serving at Main and Mohawk in 2010, in chicken, pork, beef and bean flavors. The first hints of taqueria were the use of doubled corn tortillas, though Lloyd would eventually switch to single-ply.

Lime wedges, bracing red chile “Rocket Sauce” and thinly shredded cabbage instead of lettuce were all steps in the right direction. They’re served up by four trucks now, at $2.64 a pop. My go-to is pork with medium hot sauce, but the fish taco special is formidable.

In 2011, Cantina Loco opened at 191 Allen St., offering a wider range of tacos, burritos and Tex-Mex plates. Large tacos come on flour tortillas, like my favorite, the Koreatown, of grilled Korean-marinated short rib and gingery kimchi ($8.50). Tasty, but still not taqueria.

Another outstanding choice is the chicken ($6.50), a pair of crisped corn tortillas bearing chopped grilled chicken thigh, roasted poblanos, and salsa.

The taco train stalled there for years, during which I sometimes drove to Monte Alban, 507 E. Center St., Medina, on summer weekends. There, a taqueria operates out of a trailer beside a Mexican grocery store, Friday through Sunday.

Single corn tortillas well-griddled and loaded with meats including chorizo, al pastor (chile pork with pineapple), and carnitas (shredded crisped pork), dusted with chopped onion and cilantro, go for $8 for five. Salsas, rojo and verde, are offered in squeeze bottles.

Carnitas tacos from Monte Alban in Medina. (Andrew Galarneau/Buffalo News file photo)

Then in August 2015, Buffalo got its first glimpse of authentic taqueria. Kenmore, actually, at La Divina, 2896 Delaware Ave. Tortillas fired on a greasy griddle and doubled, a long list of fillings that added lengua (tongue), barbacoa (brisket) and cecina (salted beef) to favorites carnitas and al pastor, all currently available at $2.50-$3. Beer is available, too.

Crucial to its taqueria qualification was La Divina’s introduction of a salsa bar. Four salsas, from cool avocado to fluorescent orange salsa so fiery it calls for an eyedropper, chopped onion and cilantro, and fresh-cut pico de gallo lets customers precisely adjust their tacos to their taste. Sliced radishes and lime wedges completes the kit.

La Divina was closed by an immigration raid in October, then reopened the following week. This February, a second, nearly identical location opened at 4125 Transit Road in Clarence.

Meanwhile, in November 2015, Deep South Taco introduced another style. These came already dressed in distinctive sauce or salsa, with numerous braised meats, two vegetable versions and a fish version, fried or grilled.

Deep South’s tacos are more refined than taqueria standards, served on thick housemade corn tortillas, at $4-5. They’re backed up with a full bar and hip surroundings that include big televisions for watching a game. This New Year’s Day, a second Deep South Taco opened at 1701 Hertel Ave., and a third location is planned for Transit Road.

From left are the pollo pibil taco with chicken thigh steamed in banana leaf, achiote citrus marinade, pickled red onion and cilantro, the costilla de res taco with guajillo braised beef short rib, salsa de tomatillo quest fresco, onion and cilantro and the panza taco with crispy braised pork bell, tomato guajillo sauce, quest fresco, onion and cilantro. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

I would particularly recommend the panza, with slices of braised pork belly, tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco, and the seared chunks of tender steak in the carne asada, dressed with tomato-garlic-serrano salsa (both $4).

When Lloyd Taco Factory opened in December 2015 at 1503 Hertel Ave., Lloyd fans got a fixed address to find their favorites. They also got a full bar, and a constant supply of previously sporadic specials like the Dirty South (fried chicken, kale, bacon aioli, waffle pieces) and the Skinny Thai (fried tofu, Thai peanut sauce, Asian pickles, radish, scallion, cilantro) and a dynamite fish taco with chipotle aioli (all $3.14). Mexican? No. Tasty? Yes.

Lloyd tacos, from left, are Dirty South taco, Crispy Fish taco and pork taco. (Andrew Galarneau/Buffalo News)

In November, Lackawanna got its own taco specialist with Cantina 62, 2723 South Park Ave. Tacos of braised beef or pork, ground beef, chicken, beans or seared fish come on flour or corn tortillas or crunchy corn shells ($2.75-$3.75). Beef on weck and Buffalo shrimp are two unusual choices.

Cantina 62 will dress your tacos in “classic” style (shredded lettuce and cheddar, tomatoes, sour cream, hot sauce), “fresco” (cabbage, shaved radish, cotija cheese, fresh tomato, green chile sauce) or spicy (shaved jalapeno, chipotle black beans, fiery salsa). I’d go for the braised pork fresco ($2.75) first, even if the cabbage is thick-cut instead of shaved.

In December, Mexican fine-dining chef Victor Parra Gonzalez and food truck chef Zina Lapi started offering tacos at Casa Azul, 128 Genesee St. These are the most elaborate tacos in the city, adorned with accents like crispy chicken skin chips, pickled vegetables and candied pumpkin seeds, served on housemade tortillas griddled till puffy. The proteins finished to order and garnishes galore, plus a taqueria-style salsa bar for further flavor.

The standard 11 run $2.50-$6, from braised squash to fried fish with salsa verde, avocado cream and pickled onions. Especially recommended: al pastor, chile-marinated pork shaved from a vertical spit, with fresh pineapple ($2.75) and dark-meat chicken crisped on the grill and chopped, with avocado cream, herb salsa verde and crispy chicken skin chips ($3). At dinnertime, you can pair them with offerings from the full bar upstairs.

Fish taco with avocado cream at Casa Azul. (Andrew Galarneau/Buffalo News)

In January, Breezy Burrito opened in EXPO, the downtown food hall at 617 Main St. Its fillings include beef both braised and ground, shredded chicken and a vegan filling of organic tempeh. They’re packed into tortillas of soft corn or flour or crispy corn shells.

Customers can have them topped to order Chipotle-style, with shredded cheese, a variety of salsas, cilantro, and pickled onion. A pair of tacos is $7-$8.50.

All of the taco places have a vegetarian option, but the heartiness of the tempeh – fermented soybean – made it stand out ($7). It doesn’t sell alcohol, but you can buy it only steps away.

In February, La Delicias Taqueria, 454 Pearl St., added another straightforward Mexican taqueria with a full bar to the mix. Doubled corn tortillas cradle meats finished to crispiness on the griddle.

The 13-filling lineup includes a lineup of Mexican standards ($2.50-3), shrimp and fish ($5 each), and slices of ribeye steak ($4). A salsa bar completes the picture, and cebollitas, fried green onions, come alongside each order.

Crispy-edged carnitas ($2.50) and resonant chorizo ($3) topped my repeat list.

After all those years where Taco Tuesday was a day of mourning, the pain is a different flavor now: the agony of too many choices.

Email: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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