I grew up eating a kind of taco that is on the decline in Madison as its Mexican food scene improves. It featured ground beef (always) flavored by a spice blend from an envelope, shredded orange cheese, canned salsa and the contents of a restaurant salad bar stuffed into a bright yellow, crisp tortilla shell. I still love that kind of taco, because with good ingredients it can be excellent. This article, though, has nothing to do with that sort of taco.
The taco I'm looking at consists of two corn tortillas, a filling of cooked meat (with a few exceptions), topped with chopped yellow onion and chopped cilantro. It usually comes with a small side of salsa. Price is about $2. These are my picks for the best in town.
1318 S Midvale Blvd.
This taquería is next door to a carnicería (butcher shop) of the same name, so it makes sense that it takes pride in its meat. It advertises its patronage of Black Earth Meats prominently. (Though the staff member I talked to could not identify which meats were from Black Earth, it may have been due to a language barrier.)
The tortillas were very moist and substantial, but were starting to shred a little, making it difficult to contain the filling. A taco de lengua featured very tender tongue, chopped finely by hand, with no abrasive texture. A taco de chicharrÃn (fried pork rind) needed hotter oil while cooking to get a crisp rather than floppy texture. Both meats could have used a confident hand with seasoning; however, a standout feature of the restaurant is the salsa bar, with a selection of six salsas.
244 W. Gilman St.
I ordered two tacos, the pastor and the fresh cheese and avocado, but was served pastor and chorizo (sausage). My wife says I mumble, so I'll take the rap. It was a happy accident, because the chorizo was moist but not greasy - a perennial problem with that ingredient. The pastor was deeply flavorful. I give Los Gemelos top marks for care in cooking and seasoning its fillings.
4544 Monona Dr.
Located in the space formerly occupied by Emian's European Bakery, this is still primarily a bakery with some savory food offerings - tacos included. I ordered the taco de pollo, which I had been avoiding basically because chicken can be sort of a phone-in. This taco's freshness stood out immediately, though. Other places had sprinkled cilantro on the taco; this came with a small handful, including not only leaves but the chopped tender ends of the stems as well. The meat itself was marinating in a piquant red sauce, and I would be careful not to let it sit too long lest the tortilla disintegrate beyond repair. Both cilantro and onion had great snap, and each bite gave up three distinct layers of texture.
Taquería El Pastor
2010 S. Park St.
The list of tacos available is long, like the menu in general. I went with the taco de cabeza (head). El Pastor's version is soft and sumptuous, with a strong flavor showing the character of the meat to good effect. Tacos de cabeza may not be for everyone, but if you're feeling daring and want to check this filling out, do it here.
1033 S. Park St.
The carne asada taco I had was on a substantial tortilla crisped up by its brief ride on the grill. It was, like several other tacos, wrapped in paper and foil for transport, but this didn't kill the snap on the tortilla. Seasoning on the meat was not as assertive as at Los Gemelos or El Bolillo, but better than several others. The meat was lean but not tough or dry. If you're after a good taco and don't mind close quarters, this is where you need to go.