The phrase “street tacos” doesn’t leave much wiggle room for interpretation: It signifies tacos served on the street from carts, trucks, kiosks, market stalls or trailers. But even inside Denver’s top taquerias, which put a wall or a window between you and the frost-fractured sidewalks and the roar of traffic, you can still find unadorned street food. As with street vendors, ambience at these sit-down spots takes a back seat to the rhythm of spatulas clanging on the flat top, the table-shaking oompah of Mexican music and the cacophony of telenovelas cranked up to high decibels. Most important, though, are the tacos themselves — simple masterpieces of meat and masa, perhaps dressed in a gaudy bangle of emerald and pearl cilantro and onion. Served flat or folded, with pork or beef strewn recklessly or packed like muzzle-loader wadding, they'e devoured in two bites — with elbow held high and head tilted — before we move on to the next. And the next.
Here are our favorite taquerias serving street tacos, grouped by the best on Denver’s east and west sides.
5) Los Dos Hermanos
Colfax Avenue at Xanthia Street
What to order: Tacos al vapor
Steaming is a less common method than grilling for cooking tacos in Mexican restaurants and trucks in Denver, but the result, called tacos al vapor, can be just as sublime. If you're looking for tacos al vapor in the metro area, head to the corner of Colfax and Xanthia and wait your turn at Los Dos Hermanos, a truck that parks in the lot next to Sheyla's nightclub from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. Slow-cooked meats are the filling of choice; the food truck uses finely chopped lengua or soft, shredded barbacoa. Each tortilla gets a mound of meat before being steamed over a perforated stove top, folded and layered onto a styrofoam plate. The lengua tacos come with a side of chunky salsa, but additional salsas are available at the serving counter on the side of the truck. Four tacos and a soda make a quick and tasty meal — and a cheap one, too, at only $6.
4) Tacos Acapulco
8890 East Colfax Avenue
What to order: Tacos al pastor
Sure, Tacos Acapulco griddles up some of the best Salvadorian pupusas in town, but the tacos are just as good at this tiny eatery that's little bigger than a shack. (Hint: Go during warm weather so you can eat on the patio.) The turning vertical spit behind the counter is an obvious visual clue that tacos al pastor are the way to go here. Tangy, lightly charred, and sided with pencils of pineapple, these are what street tacos are meant to be — especially with the breeze from Colfax Avenue traffic to keep you cool.
3) Tacos DF
2020 South Parker Road
What to order: Tacos — with a side of tortas
South Parker Road, especially the stretch in east Denver before it crosses into Aurora, isn't exactly one of the city's focal points for Mexican eateries. A notable exception, though, is Tacos DF, which actually started as a food cart, adding bona fide street cred. Tacos DF does iconic Chilango (what the residents of Mexico City call themselves) street eats like tortas and tacos al pastor, the latter made with slow-roasted and sizzling meat with a deep char and a potent marinade that stains everything it touches (tortillas, napkins, fingertips, shirt fronts) a bright marigold orange. Start with a set of these pork tacos before moving on to a torta with the same filling for a healthy dose of pastor "two ways" — as chef-y folks say.
2) Taco Mex
7840 East Colfax Avenue
What to order: Longaniza or cabeza
Taco Mex is a great stop for lunch, but the place really comes alive later in the day, when additional meats, like a powerful longaniza sausage, are offered after 5 p.m. But if you can't wait until dinner, the chorizo is a decent substitute, and succulent shreds of cabeza offer stong, beefy flavor that stands up well against the house salsas. On weekends, the party can keep going until 4 a.m., when Taco Mex finally closes — but not before the outdoor grill has cranked out plenty of street fare for night owls hanging out for some of Colfax Avenue's best late-night comida.
1) Taqueria El Trompito
10021 East Hampden Avenue
What to order: Barbacoa de borrego or cabeza
El Trompito offers more than twenty different types of tacos, but the barbacoa de borrego and cabeza are our favorites. The first offers toothsome shreds of mild lamb, only slightly fatty and great just as the kitchen serves it — completely unadorned. Still, El Trompito sports a tempting salsa bar, and a smattering of minced onion and cilantro and a dash of bright salsa verde brings out the best in the lamb. But the tacos de cabeza burst with so much meaty goodness you'll forget about everything else on the menu. Slow-cooked until the meat almost melts with a melange of chiles and spices (make sure you check for stray bay leaves before your first bite), the cabeza (mostly cheek meat) is dark, rich and unctuous with fat and collagen. The bright -orange salsa made from chiles de arbol is a better accompaniment, with enough heat and roasty flavor to stand up to the beef. You'll thank your taquero for doubling up the tortillas: The juices soak right through the first layer.
5) La Torteria
9165 Lowell Boulevard, Westminster
What to order: Carnitas
La Torteria just moved from the depressing Regis Square strip mall just north of Interstate 70 on Federal Boulevard to a new home in Westminster (so recently that the list in this week's print edition shows the old address). While the new location isn't any easier to find, La Torteria still has a penchant for pork. In fact, the kitchen goes through so much, mostly in the making of slow-cooked carnitas, that it renders and sells the excess lard to customers. While the tiny dive’s name gives away its specialty, the tacos are every bit as good as the tortas, especially if you stick with the juicy, shredded shoulder that gains its toothsome qualities from cooking submerged in its own fat. Make a stop at the salsa bar to drizzle a blazing trail of chiles across your plate.
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4) Tacos el Paisa
1920 Federal Boulevard
What to order: Tacos de birria
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 Sports Authority Field. 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.
3) Tacos y Salsas
910 South Federal Boulevard
What to order: Tacos de lengua
This Tacos y Salsas is garish and loud, with a continuous churn of customers destroying the ample salsa bar every half-hour or so. Hit the place at just the right time and you’ll get a freshly stocked and tidy condiment station, but between rounds it often looks like someone lobbed a pipe bomb in the vicinity. No matter: Amid the squawk of toddlers and the tinny banter of fútbol announcers, you can sit down with a cold Negra Modelo and a basket of tacos de lengua and marvel at how housemade tortillas and unctuous tongue can erase the chaos. On the way out, peruse the bootleg CDs and DVDs outside the door for something new.
2) Taqueria 7 Salsas
1350 South Sheridan Boulevard
4460 Morrison Road, 303-934-2564
What to order: Slow-cooked meats
Taqueria 7 Salsas (say “siete,” not “seven”) on South Sheridan Boulevard is always packed with diners with their heads down — not checking their smartphones, but diving into piles of guisados (stewed meats) atop tender tortillas. You can order a plate of carne asada tacos here, but the slow-cooked beef and pork varieties, threaded with soft onions and wet with braising juices, are your best bets. Unless you count the salsa bar, which offers the best concoctions in town. Although it makes for a messy meal, slathering your already saucy tacos in a layer of angry red salsa made with toasted chiles de arbol turns the street-food favorites into fork-and-knife fare. And a new outpost on Morrison Road means more seats for hungry taco hunters.
1) La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas
1565 West Alameda Avenue
What to order: Your choice — La Calle has it all.
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 the dozen or so 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 a bite from a food truck, or you can head inside La Calle for something just as real and good.