At first glance, South Carolina’s taco prospects may seem bleak, but after some serious investigative work, Columbia proved to offer a surprisingly diverse array of taquerias.
While Moe’s and Salsarita’s might be closest to campus, try expanding your taco horizon — you may love what you find.
Located inside of a Mexican market, La Estrella feels the most authentic of the restaurants listed. The dining area is in the corner of the grocery store and offers many dishes beyond tacos, including traditional Mexican meals like molcajete and pozole, as well as the typical enchiladas and burritos.
Each taco comes on two small, yellow corn tortillas, and they’re offered in multiple varieties of meat, from carne asada and shredded pork to the more daring tripa (intestine) and lengua (tongue). The tacos are served plain, but brought out on a plate with every necessary topping — cilantro, grilled and fresh onion, lime wedges and slices of radish. The standout is the chorizo, a type of Mexican pork sausage. The vibrant red meat is juicy and tender, and is in its best form when garnished with cilantro, onion and a squeeze of lime.
La Estrella’s tacos are cheap at $1.75 apiece, and the tortilla chips that come with the meal are thick and golden brown, with a pure corn flavor that makes Moe’s attempt seem like cardboard in comparison.
Taquería Jalisco could be easy to pass by — located in a strip mall off Bush River Road, the restaurant doesn’t scream authenticity. But while it may look bland from the outside, the interior is decked out in vibrant colors, and the menu features everything from fajitasto chilaquiles.
There are a few different types of tacos, but the star is the barbacoa, or barbecue. The pork adaptation is very tender and marinated in a spicy red sauce. The tacos are served with cilantro, red onion and a lime wedge, and are brought to the table with a killer salsa verde and salsa roja, which both work great with the barbacoa.
Another must-try is the horchata. A traditional type of agua fresca, horchata is made by mixing rice milk with vanilla and cinnamon. Taquería Jalisco’s is thick, strong and refreshing, and is the perfect beverage to cool down with after ingesting too much of the spicy salsa verde. The tacos are $2 each, and are served on one small, yellow corn tortilla.
Parking in Real Mexico’s lot can be a challenge, which is indicative of both how small and how popular the restaurant is. The place gets packed at dinnertime, which is always a good sign.
Though it’s located about 15 minutes from downtown, the trip out to Real Mexico is worth it. Like La Estrella, Real Mexico serves its tacos on two white corn tortillas, and they come with cilantro, grilled onions and lime wedges on the side. When three or more are ordered, a whole, roasted jalapeño is included as well. There are a few different choices of meat, but the stand out is the taco al pastor. Literally meaning “in the style of the shepherd,” this pork is marinated with chiles and pineapple, and the combination of spicy and sweet is perfectly balanced.
Each taco is $2, which is a steal considering that just two make a filling meal. The salsa offered with the chips at Real Mexico is thick and chunky, and it’s the best of the bunch.
White Duck Taco Shop
White Duck is a small taco shop out of Asheville, North Carolina, and only just opened its local Whaley Street location in early February. Unlike the other restaurants on this list, White tacos aren’t aiming for authenticity. Popular flavors include Thai Peanut Chicken, Lamb Gyro and Korean Beef Bulgogi, but their signature is the Bangkok Shrimp taco, which is so popular and so frequently copied that White Duck has a trademark on the name. Lightly fried shrimp are tossed in a sesame glaze and a Sambal chili aioli, and are topped with curried cucumbers. The shrimp are small enough that a couple fit into each bite, and the coolness of the cucumber plays well off the spicy aioli. Though unconventional, the taco is divine.
While White Duck’s tacos are the most expensive out of the bunch at $3.25 each, only one makes a delicious meal. The service here is also the speediest — White Duck is better suited for a quick bite than a sit-down meal.