The first time I walked into Acapulco Mexican Grocery on North MacDill Avenue, I felt as if I had stumbled into a Hispanic version of the book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”
In the C.S. Lewis fantasy, curious children crawl through the back of a large piece of furniture to discover a magical land. At Acapulco, you walk through a Hispanic market, past the counter where they sell phone cards, and through narrow aisles stocked with crispy chicharrones, fresh plantains and tomatillos, and dried peppers. In the back, about 15 steps in, you’ll find a restaurant counter where fantastic tacos are made.
It sort of took my breath away the first time I saw the boomerang-shaped counter and several tables hidden behind the grocery aisles. Friends who knew my love for authentic Mexican food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants had turned me on to this spot, where the cooks hand-press fresh tortillas from a mound of floured dough for every order.
So when I got a message from Dallas-based food writer Jose R. Ralat, asking for suggestions for great tacos while he was in Tampa, I immediately suggested he make his way to Acapulco.
The Tampa area is fortunate to have a ton of great taco spots to match every taste. I go through withdrawal every so often for the beef tongue tacos at Taqueria Mi Mexico on North Armenia Avenue. The chorizo torta sandwich at the Chicken & Taco Loco food truck on State Road 60 in Brandon makes my mouth water just thinking about each bite.
The Catawampus taco, with deep-fried chicken, queso dip, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese and poblano ranch salsa, is worth the drive to Capital Tacos in Land O’ Lakes. I can’t wait to visit the newly relocated Casita Tacos on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Their Verduras taco — with zucchini, squash, peppers, onions, guac, pico and cilantro — is enough to make me want to go vegetarian. At least for one meal.
I wish I could have taken Jose to all of them and a dozen others I love, but the former Lakeland resident was visiting family with his wife and son for only a short time. With just a few hours to spend, he and his brother-in-law, Michael Stratton, agreed to meet at Acapulco.
Jose writes a thought-provoking blog called The Taco Trail (thetacotrail.com) that not only goes in search of unique varieties but also celebrates the foodways associated with those who make the delicious treats. The blog mostly covers Dallas-area restaurants, but travels with him to such places as Tampa when he’s on the road.
Tacos are serious business to Jose. Although the corn tortilla was used as a delivery mechanism for fillings for thousands of years, the idea of the taco is relatively new to the modern world. The first printed reference to tacos came in an 1891 novel.
The way Jose sees it, corn and its many preparations was key. Without that, there is no taco.
“The taco is a symbol of possibilities, adaptability and endurance,” he writes.
“It is Mexico’s gift to the world,” Ralat says. “When I eat a great taco, I eat a world-silencing food. And I want to learn as much about it as I can by reading, listening, traveling and eating, of course.”
Ralat’s Taco Trail writing started in 2010 as a weekly feature on the Dallas Observer’s City of Ate food blog. He went independent in 2011. Since then, he has visited more than 300 spots, which is impressive considering that he doesn’t drive.
To visit a place such as Senor Locos Tex-Mex Icehouse in the Dallas suburb of Plano requires a bus ride of about five hours, just so he can eat, write a few notes and get back on the bus. He agrees that the effort sounds ridiculous.
“Yeah, but that’s how much I love tacos,” he says. “I’m Puerto Rican, so my father doesn’t understand why I love tacos so much. I’ve dedicated my life to this.”
Daniel Vaughn, who is Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, says he admires Ralat because his mission to find the next great taco mirrors his own search for great and colorful barbecue practitioners.
“Jose is trying to become the most educated man in tacos and enjoys teaching his readers about the history of tacos and debunking myths and biases around them,” Vaughn said.
“He is a great ambassador for the taco in all its forms,” he said. “As the country’s only barbecue editor, I can tell you somebody needs to make him their taco editor.”
With an expert of Ralat’s stature trailing his way through Tampa, I was nervous about whether Acapulco’s taqueria would measure up to his Tex-Mex favorites back home. I shouldn’t have worried.
He noted that although the food was described as being typical of the coastal town, really only the tacos dorados (what most Anglos know better as the rolling “taquitos” at 7-Eleven) were typical of that Mexican region.
Still, though, Ralat dug the carnitas and beef tacos, as well as the huaraches, filled tortillas that are grilled and topped with beans, cotija cheese and pork.
With our bellies full, we spoke with the server, who told us the daily special was chilaquiles. The cooks at Acapulco take day-old hand-pressed tortillas, cut them into pieces, fry them in oil and then dunk them into boiling salsa verde. They are then smothered in refried beans, chicken, queso fresco, onion and cream before being topped with scrambled eggs.
Full or not, we had to have a batch for the road.
They never made it to the parking lot.
About this spectacular dish, Ralat wrote that the “Friday-only special [was] so outstanding any fault found in the tacos ... was negated by the breakfast food’s tart, bright salsa verde of tomatillos and jalapeños with an enveloping, prickly heat, by the tangy crema Mexicana, by its taut eggs, a comforter of yellow and white, by the day-old tortilla bits happily fried to the sweet spot between shatteringly crispy and wet, by queso fresco that imparted all the salt needed, and by the diced red onion that added further crunch.”
That wasn’t what I remember him saying. My notes distinctly indicate that Jose R. Ralat declared, out loud and in public in a low, soft, satisfied tone, “You want to get in bed with this dish.”
You learn a lot on the Taco Trail. You learn that it isn’t the destination that matters. It’s the journey. Having tacos along for the ride only makes it better.