Where are the best tacos in San Francisco? Wracking my brain, I run the numbers in my head. Is the best taco found in the experience of standing outside Best Buy and ordering from El Tonayense’s taco truck? Is it a trip to Gordo in the Outer Richmond for their tacos loaded with succulent meat, beans, and pico de gallo? Is it the salsa? The tortilla? The al pastor? Is it the perfect combination of all three?
I realize it isn’t found only in the taco, but in the taqueria, the time and space. It’s that first magnificent bite of raw onion, citrus, and smoke, heightened by two gummy, grilled tortillas. I think of the first taqueria that I ever stumbled into: Taqueria Vallarta.
Vallarta often lives in the shadows of more critically acclaimed Mission Street taquerias like La Taqueria or Taqueria El Farolito, but it mustn’t be overlooked. Taqueria Vallarta has a sincereness, a neighborhood vibe that tends to be drowned out by the fame of other local eateries. Vallarta’s muraled walls are covered in paintings of Mayan lore, Mexican landscapes, Santana, and the 49ers. Instead of walking toward the line to order from the counter, my attention is abducted by the taco stand parked in the corner of the dining room.
Behind an oily, slanted glass panel, is a piping hot flat plancha with a large, circular sheet of metal containing different selections of meat, all divided into triangular piles. The self-serve salsa bar resting on the taco bar’s ledge offers pans of chopped onion, cilantro, lime wedges, radish slices, pico de gallo, and about four different kinds of salsa. Hanging on the wall behind the permanent taco cart is a sign with the most glorious assortment of meats. Very little goes to waste in old taquerias like this place.
Amongst the barbacoa, pollo asado, and crispy carnitas are delicacies less seen these days. Cuts of cabeza (beef head), pancita (lamb stomach), and buche (pig neck) are perfect choices for those who love that flavorful, gelatinous texture. Their fattiness oozes and cuts through the crunchy pungent garnishes, enhancing all the different mouth feels. Other cuts like lengua (beef tongue) and tripita (beef tripe) are crispy, tender bites with a distinct spinginess. While these cuts may be unfamiliar to some, the tacos are just downright delicious.
Taquerias like Vallarta are what keep the Mission special in the city’s inevitable evolutionary shifts. These restaurants and the tacos they serve have been a part of San Francisco for a long time, way before it was too expensive to pay rent and the city’s best tacos were determined by clicks and visits. Forging on into the void that is the unknown future of San Francisco restaurants, Vallarta holds its ground. It’s the best taco in San Francisco.