Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012.
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Chef Jessica Joyce tasted her first traditional taco when she was 28 years old.
A Mexican line cook made her one with cilantro, onions and tender beef cheek after an evening shift at an Omaha restaurant.
As a child in Lincoln, World-Herald reporter Juan “Johnny” Perez Jr. watched his elderly Mexican baby sitter make tortillas in her kitchen. His parents, both from South America, often served Mexican-inspired dishes at their dinner table.
For different reasons, both Johnny and Jessica love tacos. And they both helped me find the best one in Omaha as part of my June Food Prowl.
Add Paul Urban, lover of all things street food and Joyce’s partner in life and in their business, Block 16, and you have a panel that knows a lot about good Mexican food.
We had a tough time narrowing down Prowl spots. Our original list included more than 10 taquerias.
We found two main types of tacos: Americanized, with lettuce, yellow cheese and varied fried shells; and tiny traditional-style Mexican tacos, often served in duos or trios and filled with more unusual ingredients such as lengua (tongue) or tripe (stomach lining).
The prowl came down to a difficult battle between two places: One we expected and one that surprised us.
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We started at California Tacos and More, a local institution on the corner of 33rd and California Streets.
The restaurant became wildly popular after its appearance on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
We tried beef tacos and tilapia tacos. Cali also serves fish tacos with fried cod.
A slender white fish filet, a handful of lettuce and a pile of shredded cheddar cheese filled the bulky fried shell in my basket. The shells are made of soft dough and have a thick, flaky appearance. The fried dough flavor dominated. I decided not to use the tartar sauce that came with the taco and went for a hot and sour tomatillo green salsa that was especially good.
One fish taco of the three we ordered wasn’t great. The bloodline — a strong, sometimes bad-tasting portion down the center of many white fish — hadn’t been removed, and none of us wanted to eat the overpoweringly fishy cut. One beef taco was too greasy: It saturated the paper in the bottom of the basket.
We all agreed that the tacos were good, especially as late night, after-bar food, but we weren’t sure they were the best we could find. We decided on our next stop: a South Omaha hole-in-the-wall.
We reconvened at La Choza for Sunday afternoon lunch. Both Johnny and Paul insisted it be on the list. Tacos here are cheap — just a few dollars each — and the restaurant takes only cash.
We ordered a wide array: al pastor, marinated pork chunks cooked on a hot grill; shredded chicken; carnitas steak; and barbacoa, fragrant Mexican barbecued beef.
Instead of fried shells, each taco had two petite, hand-pressed tortillas. The meat filled the bottom and most were topped with chopped raw white onion and cilantro leaves.
The al pastor stood out. The incredibly tender meat came topped with petite slices of pineapple — a tart and sweet counterpart to the chewy tortilla, tangy cilantro and subtly spicy meat.
No one had any funky chunks or fatty bits in their tacos. None of the meats we tried were greasy or oily. We all agreed that the al pastor taco was the taco to beat.
A few days later, we met at the Taqueria el Rey taco truck in the Avanza supermarket parking lot. The menu includes carnitas, cheek, tongue, chorizo, chicken, steak, al pastor and buche, which is pig stomach.
We didn’t like the al pastor at el Rey as much. It was missing the delicious pineapple chunks.
We all liked the bites of cheek taco — the meat was tender, smoky and juicy — but some of the taco meat, including the tongue, wasn’t cut and cleaned well enough for us.
We moved on.
None of us had been to Maria’s, in Ralston, but because of my emails, we included it.
I’d heard of their “puffy” tacos, and when our big plates — platters, really — of tacos, gravy burritos, rice and beans arrived, we realized puffy was the perfect descriptor.
This version of Americanized taco was crumblier, less greasy and definitely puffier than its Cali counterpart. Mine was full of finely chopped fish. The beef inside some of the tacos wasn’t as deeply seasoned as at Cali taco, but it was less greasy, a benefit in our eyes. All the tacos needed some salsa to moisten things up.
Of the Americanized tacos we liked, the majority of our group liked Maria’s the best.
I chose our final destination because an acquaintance described it to me as “the most underrated Mexican food in Omaha.”
As soon as I heard him say that, I knew Rivera’s, in an unassuming strip mall off 120th and Blondo Streets, had to be on our list.
At lunch, we each tried one of the four tacos on the menu: al pastor, steak, fish and one we hadn’t seen anywhere else, norteños, a Northern Mexican version of carne asada.
The fish taco was packed with chunks of lightly seasoned grilled mahi mahi. Spicy ranch dressing added the right amount of moisture and the homemade corn tortillas held everything together. The flavors went together perfectly. It’s the best fish taco I’ve ever had.
We knew a few bites in that we faced a tough decision.
Johnny liked his norteños: He said it was juicy, spicy after he swallowed and “really imaginative.”
Paul and Jessica, too, were impressed. Paul’s skirt steak was tender instead of tough, as the cut can sometimes be.
“At 2 a.m.,” Paul said, “this is the plate of food I want to eat.”
We were done prowling and forced to vote.
I’d written down Jessica’s name first in my notebook, so I made her start.
“If I had to go to one place for tacos,” she said, “It would be La Choza. The flavor of the tortilla, the seasoning on the meat, the pineapple. All of it.”
I went next, and voted for the place that most surprised me: Rivera’s. I can’t get its fish taco out of my head.
Paul and Johnny both struggled, but ultimately, both voted for La Choza.
“I think the overall experience at Rivera’s is amazing. Even the chips are great,” Paul said. “But for me, the great meat at La Choza tipped the scale.”
Johnny chose La Choza for another reason.
“It’s not just the plate we’re eating that defines the experience,” he said. “It’s the feel of the place. Something about a dank hole adds an intangible to it. It just feels better in South Omaha.”