What makes a perfect taco? It starts with excellent tortillas made fresh and treated with respect. And then slow-cooked or quick-grilled meats are loaded on in just the right amount. But not every taco needs meat, so we also love rajas, nopales and seasonal veggies. Seasonings and salsas are key; we don't want a dull and lifeless bite — the taco should come alive with the flavor of chiles. But don't get too fancy on us — those squiggles of creamy stuff don't generally impress. Here's our list of the twelve best eateries in Denver for great tacos — from street-side trailers to posh establishments — listed alphabetically.
Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas8890 East Colfax Avenue
During busy hours at Tacos Acapulco, you practically need a shoehorn to get into the cramped front room that barely has space for four counter seats and an order window; even during slow hours, it's unusual to find an empty seat here. Tacos Acapulco hawks dishes from Mexico and El Salvador — tacos and burritos as well as authentic Salvadoran pupusas. The diminutive Colfax Avenue shack earns our respect for some of the best tacos al pastor in town, carved from a slowly spinning spit of dark-roasted pork basting itself in its own juices.
Beltran's Meat Market & Grill11920 Washingon Street, Northglenn
Great tacos start with the meat, and you know you're getting great meat at Beltran's because the butcher counter is right next to the grill. Whether quick-grilled specialties like carne asada, beef fajitas or alambres (beef with bacon and vegetables) or slow-roasted pastor and barbacoa, the tacos come out with the perfect flavor and texture. Several house salsas add a blast of chile heat, and corn tortillas come from a nearby tortilleria run by a family friend. Beltran's kitchen cooks up a wide range of Mexican specialties, so you can explore the menu of burritos, tortas and soups at breakfast, lunch and dinner; just make sure any meal includes an order of tacos.
Dos Santos Taqueria de Mexico1475 East 17th Avenue
Dos Santos rings in on the more upscale side of the Denver's taco scene, but brothers Kris and Jason Wallenta stay true to the spirit of the Mexican snack; after all, Kris opened his first restaurant in Cozumel. A saintly theme pervades this Uptown cantina, from the name to the religious iconography decorating the bar. But if people are worshiping anything here, it’s the high-quality tacos: the tinga, with chicken braised in a smoky tomato-chipotle broth; the arrachera, with grilled, marinated steak and salsa verde; and the Porky Lechon, with slow-roasted pork fragrant with cumin and orange. Don’t miss weekend brunch, the only time that ganache-filled churros and standout chilaquiles make an appearance.
El Taco de Mexico714 Santa Fe Drive
Perhaps no Mexican spot in the Mile High is as beloved as El Taco de Mexico, a no-frills joint that offers little in the way of ambience and even less in the way of service. But that hasn’t deterred the crowds that have been coming here since 1985, especially for plates of tacos topped simply with beef cheek, tongue or crispy fried carnitas, augmented with nothing but a pungent smattering of diced onions and cilantro. Belly up to the counter to place an order and then find a stool — or, better yet, a table on the patio, a good perch for people-watching in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe.
Garibaldi Mexican Bistro3298 South Broadway
Garibaldi Mexican Bistro shares a building with a Conoco service station; the little eatery is wedged between the gas station's convenience store and automated car wash. Of course, we wouldn't send you to a taqueria if it wasn't top-notch, and the food is the main attraction. Daily specials — lamb barbacoa, quesadillas with huitlacoche and squash blossoms — are worth investigating, or dig into the unique queka, which comes in somewhere between an oversized taco and a corn-tortilla quesadilla. A special Menu Azteca holds pre-Colombian treasures like blue-corn tortilla tacos topped with nopales and onions, and papazules, tacos loaded with potatoes, chiles, onions and Oaxacan cheese.
La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas1565 West Alameda Avenue
The Street — there’s no better name for this former bungalow that’s been transformed into an iglesia for the worship of tacos. Stand before the glossy, wall-mounted menu and behold more than a dozen preparations of beef, pork and goat in styles from all around Mexico. There’s cochinita pibil from the Yucatán, shredded pork mixed with pork rinds in the style of Campeche, carne al pastor to rival the D.F.’s, and plenty of offal — lengua, tripitas and buche — to please those looking for bold flavors. To top those off, there’s a salsa bar with myriad options: Each bowl of salsa and chopped or pickled veggies is meant to accompany a specific taco. You can go stand in la calle in the blazing sun or bitter cold waiting for some food-truck tacos, or you can head inside La Calle for something just as real and good.
Los Carboncitos3757 Pecos Street, 303-458-0880
15210 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora, 303-364-2606
722 Sheridan Boulevard, Lakewood, 303-573-1617
This small, family-friendly neighborhood cafe is warm and crowded during the day and loud and crowded after dark. The big kitchen bangs out order after order of superlative tacos al pastor, carnitas, lengua, cabeza and pescado, among many others. A quartet of salsas comes with your order; spoon on milder salsa verde or avocado salsa, or dare to dip into the blazing chile de arbol. After you've had your fill of tacos, variations on the tortilla theme are worth sampling, from the outsized huaraches to the tender tlacoyos stuffed with black beans.
Que Bueno Suerte1518 South Pearl Street
The sedate, upscale Platt Park neighborhood seems an unlikely place to find a satisfying plate of tacos, but Que Bueno Suerte has a secret weapon: chef Ivan Ceballos, whose unequaled knowledge of Mexican cuisine and passion to present the food of his country in the best light proves that tacos are not to be taken for granted. Ceballos is quick to point out that there's nothing simple or easy about Mexican cooking; his tortillas are handmade daily, the salsas prepared from multiple ingredients, the meats cooked using time-honored techniques. Que Bueno Suerte offers far more than tacos, but the kitchen treats them with the same respect as its platos fuertes. Lighter bites include tacos with mushrooms, nopales and corn, or another loaded with the freshest seasonal veggies, but don't miss the pancita tacos, made with slow-cooked pork belly, or the luscious barbacoa de res braised in guajillo sauce.
Tacos Selene15343 East Sixth Avenue, Aurora, 303-343-7879
5924 South Kipling Parkway, Littleton, 303-972-0905
The original Tacos Selene in far-east Aurora and its newer sibling in the southwest suburbs are built for budget-minded taco hunters. But that doesn't mean they skimp on flavor. Start with an order of barbacoa tacos for some of the richest, most flavorful beef you'll find anywhere. Or try the tripas, cooked crispy and served sizzling atop corn tortillas.
Tacos El Paisa1920 Federal Boulevard
This tidy little sit-down restaurant is decked out in a cool, underwater-blue interior paint job that somehow insulates it from the commotion outside on the asphalt that borders Mile High Stadium. Despite the table service, the tacos are pure street, with tiny tortillas that fold into what many other taquerias call taquitos. Braised goat glistening in the orange-brown sauce that makes up the birria stains the tortillas a near-Broncos orange, a telltale sign of the deep, earthy flavors of the dried chiles in the mix. Other favorites include rich and spicy barbacoa, lengua cooked to buttery softness, and adobada worthy of the most talented abuela.
Tacos Marlene679 South Federal Boulevard
Watch for a gathering crowd and smoke rising at the corner of South Federal Boulevard and West Exposition Avenue: That's the site of Tacos Marlene, a spot that cooks up some of the best street food in town. Take your place in line and peruse the display of bootleg DVDs for sale before placing your order; carne asada, lengua or pastor are good bets, but the adventurous shouldn't miss the tacos de tripa — not spongy tripe, but beef intestine diced into manageable, delicate pieces cooked to order. You'll be asked if you want them crispy or soft; we recommend crispy for beginners and soft for a wonderful (but more difficult) texture that's almost like broad egg noodles. Eat up as you enjoy the lowriders cruising the boulevard on a weekend night.
Villagran/La Villa Real1215 West Alameda Avenue
Villagran opened in 2017 as the brick-and-mortar version of popular west-side food truck Villa Real, serving a more upscale version of its original street-food menu. Thankfully, some of the food-truck favorites made the leap to dining-room status, including tacos with northern Mexican influence — so beef is one of the top picks here. If you're at the restaurant, go with crispy tacos dorados, flash fried and weighted with plenty of queso fresco, crema and beef or chicken. For a unique variation, try the suegras, two corn tortillas melded together with molten cheese and bulging with shredded beef, carne asada or carne al pastor. The lightly crisped handmade tortillas are what elevate the suegras, just like Villagran's tacos.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.