Through culinary fusions and pub-grub stylings, the taco has been reinvented dozens of times in Asheville; still, there’s nothing like the original version. At tiny taquerias and cozy eateries, the Latino community serves up the staple that likely originated centuries ago as a Central American silver miner’s snack. Here are five nearby Mexican street food classics worth discovering and revisiting.
747 Haywood Road
Daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In the open kitchen of Taqueria Gonzalez, diners watch as an adroit cook pounds fresh dough into a tortilla mold and tosses the flat disk onto the grill. In the hot bar nearby, taco fillings toast along with tamales, refried beans and the makings of gorditas (stuffed corn-cakes). There's no menu: it’s all laid out in front of you. Choose from pork as pastor or carnitas, grilled beef, chicken, chorizo or lingua — tongue, that is, which is exceptional at Gonzalez, stewed for long hours to sublime tenderness. A selection of salsas and condiments awaits the diner in a cold bar in the dining area. The pico de gallo is fresh with a moderate, satisfying spiciness; the tomatillo-avocado salsa waits with the avocado pits in the mix to prevent it from browning, and the pickled jalapeños are a treat for pepper-lovers. Sip on a Mexican Coke (made with sugar instead of corn syrup) while the Spanish soap operas play in the background, a lively and comfortable soundtrack.
1328 Patton Ave.
Sunday to Thurday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
In addition to savory smells, song occasionally wafts from the kitchen at Tacos Jalisco. It's not strictly a taqueria, but the eatery offers a small, cozy restaurant atmosphere. It boasts a semi-open kitchen and the intimacy of a small venture. Enough typical Mexican restaurant fare — burritos and quesadillas — populates the menu to satisfy the less adventurous, but those looking for something more authentic will find it here. The tacos arrive de Asador (with grilled fillings) for the most part, in steak, pastor, chicken and tripe (beef stomach) varieties. Other fillings include lingua, chorizo, shrimp and fish. Jalisco also serves menudo (a traditional tripe stew) whole grilled fish, assorted tortas and carnitas by the plate or pound. To wash it down, try hibiscus punch, horchata — a lightly sweet and creamy cinnamon and rice milk concoction perfect for cutting spice — or a michelada — a beer cocktail featuring tomato juice and lime.
1563 Patton Ave.
Daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The diminutive tortilleria looks like an afterthought flung against the side of the Plus gas station on Patton Avenue, but inside, the food is carefully prepared. A large, bright menu board hangs above a miniature kitchen, and a giant tortilla machine dominates the space. The tortillas are made simply from masa (corn flour) and water. The two ingredients start at one end of the long procession of trays and cogs and gears and emerge fully formed from the other end — perfectly engineered to hold fillings without splitting or leaking juices. Tacos come in chicken, steak, pork or tongue, delicately mixed with a bit of green salsa and topped with cilantro and onions. Or try them dorado — fried and covered in a variety of sauces. There's no dining area inside, but a constellation of brightly colored umbrellas and picnic tables tucked beside the building provides a new perspective on Patton Avenue. Somehow, the convenience store parking lot becomes a tranquil place to eat some of the town’s tastiest tortillas.
122 College St.
Daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Recently opened in the former Fiore's location, Aqua Cafe and Bar dishes up far more than just tacos. The menu offers pizzas, hamburgers and Italian pasta dishes along with its lineup of Latin staples such as mole with chicken, fajitas and carne asada. The tacos, though, are tasty and a safe bet for those less inclined to spiciness. They come in the grilled steak variety with two thick corn tortillas from the owners' Los Nenes Bakery. Onions are sautéed for sweetness and the tomatillo salsa that accompanies them is mild and satisfying. They're a safe bet for sampling an authentic dish without the risk of mouth-burning. And the service is excellent.
175 Weaverville Highway
Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It may or may not be a fast drive to Woodfin, but the tacos are worth it. The restaurant’s decor features monochromatic photos of the Mexican Revolution. The tacos come in two styles, auténticos and gringos. The former is served on a crisp corn tortilla with ample cilantro and chopped white onions, while the latter caters to American tastes on a flour tortilla with cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomato and sliced avocado. Choose from pork, chicken, beef and shrimp in various cuts and marinades. The barbacoa beef arrives moist and tender, practically flaky and flecked with chilies. From the plate to the stomach, these tacos do move fast.