If 2013 was the year of the upscale fried chicken for our dining editor, Robb Walsh, for me it was the year that the trite "gourmet street food" moniker was retired—allowing me to enjoy my favorite indulgence in peace: gussied-up, fancy-pants tacos (and I'm not talking Torchy's).
For me, 2013 was the year restaurants and food trucks alike experimented with unusual taco combinations without feeling the need to append any qualifying language onto what they were doing. It's a natural fit in a city like Houston, where tacos are as native a foodstuff as fried chicken, and where going against the grain is celebrated. Here are my top 5 atypical taco picks for the past year.
1. Taco Nuts
Chef L.J. Wiley broadened our notions of what Mexican food could (and should) be at his short-lived Yelapa Playa Mexicana, and he's back after a year-long hiatus to take his show on the road. His food truck, Taco Nuts, specializes in authentic Mexican flavors combined with modern techniques and ingredients. Witness his spicy-sweet Dr Pepper brisket paired with pickled onions and tangy Japanese-style mayonnaise or pork carnitas topped with salsa verde, lime crema, and chicharrones.
2. Fusion Taco
Here's one I was convinced wouldn't work: Market Square is a tough location for even seasoned restaurateurs, and Fusion Taco—formerly a food truck—wasn't my favorite food on wheels when it was still roaming the streets. Yet chef David Grossman, who sold his popular Branch Water Tavern to embark on the Fusion Taco adventure with co-owner/girlfriend Julia Sharaby, has made it work after all. True to its name, each of the tacos here is a fusion of at least two different cuisines: Chinese barbecue pork with roasted corn salsa and black beans, lamb keema with salsa verde, and agedashi tofu with wasabi aioli and crunchy Napa cabbage are three of my favorites.
While I despaired to see Nabi—and its talented chef, Ji Kang—depart after only a year in Montrose, the Lower Westheimer spot couldn't have nabbed a better replacement than Pistolero's. As with its predecessor, Pistolero's specializes in taking a familiar cuisine (Tex-Mex, in this case) and tweaking it until achieving a menu all its own. Where else can you find tacos filled with stewed rabbit and delicate pumpkin seeds, or fatty oxtail brightened up with a tart, smoky tomato jam and pickled red onions? Only at Pistolero's. (And if you find the $3.95 tacos a bit pricey, head to Pistolero's on Tuesday night—every taco is just $1.)
4. The Hay Merchant
While ostensibly a craft beer bar first and foremost, The Hay Merchant has—from its inception—also specialized in extraordinary, thoughtful dishes to match Kevin Floyd's extraordinary, thoughtful beer selection. First under chef Antoine Ware, and now under chef Dax McAnear, The Hay Merchant continues to turn out innovative dishes that make the bar worth a visit just to see what McAnear cooks up next. Right now, it's the pig ear tacos that have combined one of the bar's most perenially popular appetizers—addictively sweet, salty, crunchy pig ears—with fluffy flour tacos from El Real across the street into one terrific brunch item: pig ear tacos stuffed with scrambled eggs and hot sauce with a fiery, vinegar tang.
5. H-Town StrEATs
There's nothing new about the fried avocado tacos at H-Town StrEATS; that's what makes them so good. The recipe has been honed and refined over the years to crispy, oozy, buttery perfection. But if you want to try something new, H-Town StrEATS has got you covered there, too—the food truck is still creating new tacos every day, such as its recent selection of Crazy Ass Tacos: one with fried alligator in an orange-horseradish sauce, and another with Jamaican curry chicken, crispy rice, and fried peas. The truck is on vacation right now, but will be careening back into town on January 2.