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Somewhere along the way, tacos became trendy. A recent study by Whole Foods Market’s global buyers and experts revealed the most anticipated food trends of 2018. Coming in at No. 8 on the list: tacos. While the traditional taco isn’t going anywhere (and some of Madison’s eateries do the classic taco well), more and more Madison restaurants are breaking free from conventional ingredients to create off-the-beaten-path offerings. Yes, this year, it’s safe to say that tacos are officially coming out of their shell. Here we list some of Madison’s taco hotspots that have given us something to taco ’bout.
While you may devour a taco in record time, creating mouthwatering flavor combinations requires patience, as is the case with the Ninja Pig at one of Madison’s newest taco eateries, BelAir Cantina, which is part of a Milwaukee-born regional chain. To create this Asian-inspired, sweet-and-savory taco, pork butt is cooked in its juices for four hours, glazed with homemade hoisin arbol sauce and seared to create a delicious, crispy flavor. For an extra zing, chef Noe Zamora tops it with green onions and cucumber jicama slaw that’s far from traditional. BelAir (which doesn’t stop at one taco Tuesday — it has $2 taco offerings on Tuesdays and Thursdays) has nearly a whole page of the menu dedicated to interesting tacos with meat, fish and veggies. 111 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 620-6040
Canteen tacos offer authenticity with a twist. While the restaurant’s taco recipes are anchored by braised meats and other proteins, unique salsas, garnishes and condiments are added to each taco to amplify its flavor in unexpected ways. A menu favorite is the tecate fish taco — a beer-battered or grilled cod taco combined with tajín spice, pickled morita crema, green cabbage, citrus salsa and a pinch of cilantro. For a meatless standout, try the calabacitas taco. It features garlic-braised zucchini, avocado and tomatillo purée, queso fresco, watercress, toasted seeds and fresh red onion. Don’t forget to order some of Canteen’s signature duritos (puffed wheat wagon wheels) with your tacos, too. 111 S. Hamilton St., 285-5703
El Grito Taqueria
“We make tacos,” reads El Grito Taqueria’s description on its website. It’s short and sweet, but it’s basically all you need to know about this food cart. El Grito’s ever-changing menu of tacos speaks for itself. Owners Joshua Barraza and Matthew Danky’s culinary explorations from around the world inspire many of the food cart’s tacos. “With over 30 different regions all containing their own food traditions, traveling throughout Mexico over the winters allows us to find constant inspiration year after year,” says Barraza. One taco you can expect to see this summer is the roasted cauliflower taco topped with tahini, schug, pomegranate molasses and pumpkin seeds on a tortilla bed. And rest assured, while El Grito’s location and its recipes fluctuate, its flavors remain strong and delicious. 50 State St., 719-8244
On Tuesdays, we eat tacos. If you celebrate taco Tuesday (who doesn’t?), you’ll surely love Eldorado Grill’s Top Shelf Tuesday, which takes this long-standing weekday tradition to new heights. Every week, chef Javier Olivos challenges himself to test the limits of the taco, creating new and exciting recipes for the restaurant’s top shelf menu, which is updated each week online. A meat, seafood and veggie taco are always available and can be mixed and matched. Past creations include an eggplant taco made with fried eggplant slices, a tomato-basil sauce, Parmesan cheese and fresh tomato slaw. These aren’t your mama’s “quick, what do I make for dinner?” tacos. No, these tacos are thought out, researched, tested and new each week. We can get on board with that, can’t you? 744 Williamson St., 280-9378
Some believe a taco is only as good as its shell, as is the case at Forequarter, where hard-shell tortillas are made entirely from scratch using whole-grain corn. The outer hulls of corn kernels are broken down in a process called nixtamalization. The corn is then ground into fresh masa, or corn flour dough, pressed, formed and fried to create a wholesome and natural tortilla. The shells are then packed tight with beef, pork, lamb or veggies, housemade taco seasoning and fresh sauce made with locally grown jalapeños. For a colorful final touch, they’re sprinkled with 2-year-old aged cheddar, sour cream and shredded greens. You’ll find these tacos on Forequarter’s Thursday, Friday and Saturday late-night menus and Monday through Friday for happy hour from 4:30 to 6 p.m. 708 1/4 E. Johnson St., 609-4717
The best part about eating at Fuegos is not having to worry about dietary restrictions. With both meat and meatless taco options available, there’s something for everyone. Let’s start at the taste buds — and no, I don’t mean yours. Fuegos serves lengua tacos, which is beef tongue served with pico de gallo and creamy avocado salsa verde. You can count on the meat being fresh, because steers are purchased locally from tongue to tail at Vindicator Farms in Stoughton. Try an al pastor taco, which showcases the restaurant’s wood-burning grill and features spicy pork and pineapple salsa. Not a meat lover? Try one of the quinoa bean chorizo tacos topped with pico de gallo and spicy nut cheese. 904 Williamson St., 229-6920
Hubbard Avenue Diner
Back in April, Madison pie and taco lovers alike went crazy for Hubbard Avenue Diner’s new release: the pie taco. This sinful snack created by Jason Harder, aka “the pie guy,” comes in four different flavors: cherry, French silk, apple and key lime. Each one is held together by a taco shell made of baked pie crust. Start with the cherry for a sugared lattice crust topping or the French silk for a layer of whipped cream and yummy chocolate flakes. The apple taco is covered with a delicate streusel garnish while the key lime is finished with whipped cream and fresh lime zest. I’m not drooling, you’re drooling. 7445 Hubbard Ave., 831-6800
Monona Bakery And Eatery
You’re used to having tacos for lunch and dinner, but what if we told you tacos are now made for breakfast, too? That’s right, Monona Bakery and Eatery on Monona Drive redefines your standard breakfast with its original breakfast tacos. While traditional tacos usually have a meat filling, these breakfast tacos feature fresh scrambled eggs topped with tasty pico de gallo and crumbly feta cheese. With a breakfast option like this one, it might finally be time to give that whole “morning person” thing a try. But if you do oversleep, don’t worry, as the eatery added two new seafood tacos (fish and shrimp) to its menu last month. 4544 Monona Drive, 720-1133
Let’s just read the writing on the wall — Ohio Tavern (which has the words “Taco Lounge” on one of its walls) is one of Madison’s most beloved (albeit unlikely) taco hot spots. Before becoming the tavern it is today, the building previously housed The Ohio Tavern dating back to Prohibition. But Kristi Genna and Jack Williams, in partnership with Josh Swentzel, made some changes in 2016. The biggest difference? The bar started serving food, including a taco offering that on some nights has Madisonians packed wall to wall in the bar. Now you can choose from one of 10 specialty tacos plus a daily special, à la carte or a set of three tacos. If you’re just passing through, try the Travelin’ Matt (named after a character from the 1980s children’s puppet TV series “Fraggle Rock”), made with juicy brisket, poblano chow-chow, radish and habanero crema topped with gooey queso. Or maybe take a bite out of the Old Boy, a carnitas-based taco with rice, kimchi, bacon and charred scallion dressing. On Fridays, the Ohio Tavern offers a seafood taco. Sometimes it’s jerk catfish, sometimes it’s Korean peppered shrimp. Whatever it is, it’s never fried. 224 Ohio Ave., 245-0007
Pasqual’s Cantina, which opened in 1986, is one of Madison’s longest-standing Southwestern restaurants, but it still manages to keep things exciting with its selection of new and traditional taco recipes. Its salmon taco was first previewed at a tequila-pairing event, and people are demanding the popular treat be added to the regular menu. The Taco Bandera is not new to the restaurant’s menu, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Grilled green chile chicken, arugula, crème fraiche, balsamic vinaigrette and strawberries — yes, strawberries — tie it all together. 1344 E. Washington Ave., 819-8002; 670 N. Midvale Blvd., 663-8226; 100 Cross Country Road, Verona, 497-3333
Salvatore’s Tomato Pies
Sal’s eccentric flavors (courtesy of our 2016 Chef of the Year Patrick DePula) aren’t limited to its specialty pizzas. Its tacos are just as much of a head-turner on the menu. This eatery interprets a tortilla just like it interprets fresh pizza dough — as a blank canvas waiting to take on fun, delicious ingredients. Try the Acadian redfish taco for a sea-to-table treat. The wild-caught Acadian redfish is partnered with seasonal vegetables from the local farmers’ market. The carne asada taco features a wagyu skirt steak — a cut of beef that’s distinctly grained and rich in beef flavor — paired with cilantro, onions and fresh salsa. A little spicy, a little sour and always bright, it has great depth. Next time you stop at the Johnson Street or Sun Prairie eatery, don’t be afraid to order something other than pizza for a change. (Pro tip: Get both.) 121 E. Main St., Sun Prairie, 318-1761; 912 E. Johnson St., 238-6040
Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace
Though Tex Tubb’s has been open for more than a decade, its taco menu continually changes. “My team and I are always brainstorming new ways to do things, new tacos to try and new flavor pairings,” says general manager Christopher Durley. And for these delicious tacos, it’s all about the sauce and seasoning. Take its smoked brisket taco, for example. The brisket is first applied with Tex Tubb’s housemade, super-secret seasoning, smoked for 48 hours and topped with grilled onions and smoked cheddar. “But what makes [this taco] really special is the sauce,” says Durley. The eatery partners with Mandy’s Food Moods in Madison to top off the taco with Mandy’s original habanero hot sauce. Here’s hoping you can handle the heat. 2009 Atwood Ave., 242-1800
The Green Owl Cafe
As with the “unwich” (no bread) sandwich movement, tacos are losing their shells altogether and allowing their filling, or what The Green Owl Cafe calls “the heart of the dish,” to take center stage. A “raw” taco replaces a traditional shell with fresh romaine lettuce that is filled to the brim with sun-dried tomato-walnut chorizo (a surprisingly satisfying take on meat-based chorizo), avocado and juicy pico de gallo topped with creamy cilantro jalapeño dressing for a tangy, spicy finish. And just in case these yummy fixings aren’t enough to convince you its raw taco is worth tasting, Green Owl’s recent win as the 2018 Best of Madison vegetarian/vegan restaurant cements the restaurant’s long-standing reputation as one of Madison’s best purveyors of vegetarian eats — tacos included. 1970 Atwood Ave., 285-5290
Abigail Carpenter is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.
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