A good taco is a culinary adventure. And at $2 or so, it's a bargain. At Tampa Bay taquerias, it can be as simple as grilled beef in a corn tortilla, topped with chopped onion and cilantro. The meat might be as subtly complex as al pastor, the marinated meat redolent of garlic, oregano and pineapple. Or something exotic to most American palates: lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (steer head), tripe (sliced beef stomach), chicharron (fried pork skin). Storefront taquerias sprawl across Tampa Bay, generally humble, family-run places in strip shopping centers. Think fluorescent lights and Formica countertops. You'll likely find more Mexican soda than Mexican beer. And you might encounter a language barrier, though usually you will find someone behind the counter proud of their food and eager to help.
La Cabana Del Tio
1709 Drew St., Clearwater, (727) 466-0504
This is such a small, humble place you'll feel like you're sitting in the kitchen. From the counter you watch the staff form fresh tortillas out of a giant mound of masa. Like fresh-baked bread, the difference with package tortillas is immediately obvious (corn only). The fillings are among the most flavorful of any taqueria in the region. The pork and chicken are excellent, but try the steak with cactus, or the lean cabeza.
The Taco Bus
913 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, (813) 232-5889
Originally Taconazzo, Taco Bus' new owner Rene Valenzuela embraced the nickname, kept the kitchen bus, expanded the menu (smoked pork marinated in achiote and bitter orange is a highlight) and went 24/7. The taco prices are the highest on our list ($2.69), but the vibe is still roadside taco stand. Love the menu diversity: fried pork skin and tofu tacos. Hate the packaged tortillas: No room in the bus for fresh?
Cielito Lindo Taqueria
672 E Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs
A chowhound.com poster declared these the best lengua tacos around and they just might be. Tender and tangy, they make you forget you're eating beef tongue. If that's not possible, try the al pastor (pork) or the barbacoa. All prepared in a tiny storefront on fresh corn tortillas and topped simply with chopped onion and cilantro. Prices are great ($2) and even better on half-price Mondays.
2801 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater
A small storefront in a strip shopping center across the street from the original Hooters, Compadres takes a straight-forward approach to tacos — a fresh, homemade tortilla filled with flavorful ingredients (asada, pastor, barbacoa, lengua, tripe, among others), topped with cilantro and onion. Not much atmosphere, but the food is the real thing.
Acapulco Grocery and Taqueria
1001 N MacDill Ave., Tampa
The taqueria is in the back of this tiny West Tampa grocery, an L-shaped counter with a grill and a white board menu, a bowl of masa ready to be transformed into fresh tortillas. The language barrier is broken by the friendly cashier, who guides you through the day's offerings (all tacos $2 or less). But even she won't go for the buche. Face it, chopped pig's throat is an acquired taste. Makes for a surprisingly tender and tasty taco, though.
2320 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa
Taco Bus owner Rene Valenzuela adds a third restaurant to his growing taqueria kingdom (the other is a Taqueria Monterrey in Plant City). And with the addition of freshly made tortillas (flour or corn), an extensive salsa bar and a few menu additions, this USF quickstop is winning over Bus loyalists. The prices are low ($2.25) and the ingredients fresh. The al pastor and house-made chorizo sausage are highlights. Shown here are (front plate) campechanas with homemade flour tortilla with cheese, pork al pastor, grilled pineapple and avocado slices, grilled onions and jalapenos on the side; and on the back plate, two carne asada tacos, with marinated onions, pico de gallo, accompanied with Mexican-style rice, chili and chili-spiced refried beans