Tournament of Tacos Critic's Bracket: And the winner is ... La Cabana Del Tio

A Taco Tournament champion is declared.

click to enlarge Starting at top left: Pastor tacos from El Taconazo, judge Grayson West chowing on Red Mesa's fish taco, a variety of sections from La Cabana, judge Katie Machol sampling Acapulco's salsa. - Alex Valle
Alex Valle
Starting at top left: Pastor tacos from El Taconazo, judge Grayson West chowing on Red Mesa's fish taco, a variety of sections from La Cabana, judge Katie Machol sampling Acapulco's salsa.

(Check here for the latest results in the Tournament of Tacos Readers' Poll Bracket.)

Taco construction isn't rocket science. Take a tortilla, slap on some meat, throw in a few condiments, serve and enjoy. But hidden within those folds is a complexity that defies the short ingredients list. Making a taco is child's play; making a great taco is another thing entirely.

Over the past four weeks, Creative Loafing challenged 32 of the Bay area's best taco joints to go taco-a-taco in a showdown of culinary combat. Some fell easily by the wayside, either due to inferior skills or simply because they faced a superior opponent. Almost across the board, favorites dominated their matches, seemingly unstoppable juggernauts of the taco arts. This year there were no dark horses or Cinderella stories, just four taco titans meeting in a titanic semi-final showdown.

In the Pinellas brackets, La Cabana Del Tio never came across a competitor that could challenge its number one ranking in the brackets. This tiny, hole-in-a-strip-mall Mexican lunch counter smashed Carambas Carmelitas and Casa Tina with little effort (or even noticing the competition at all, to be brutally honest).

Why? Some of Cabana's success lies in the tortillas. A vat of dough sits behind the counter, with one lady tasked to grabbing gobs of the lard and cornmeal, pressing them in an ancient metal vise, then throwing the flattened discs straight onto the griddle. Much of that is for the customers who buy stacks of these warm wonders by the pound, but when you order a taco it comes straight from the griddle onto your plate.

The meat is also spectacular, especially decadent, fatty cabeza (beef cheeks), elegant pastor and the seriously spiced bistek con nopales (beef and cactus).

Down South, Red Mesa had a harder time of it. After cruising through the first round, St. Pete's famed modern Mexican restaurant faced a tough Zapata's, then an even tougher Zurritos. Only an excellent hand in the kitchen — and an overwhelming dose of salt at Zurritos — allowed Red Mesa's grilled beef and shrimp to make it into the Final Four.

Those shrimp are Red Mesa's saving grace, the large shellfish given good caramelization and doused in a creamy, spicy sauce before being thrown into competent tortillas. If this restaurant could tone down its use of sauces in all of its tacos, it could have a chance at greatness.

On the other side of the Bay, relative unknown Acapulco Grocery was never seriously challenged in the first three rounds of the tournament. Basically a bodega with a kitchen, Acapulco easily overcame a string of sub-par or Americanized tacos that never came close to Acapulco's traditional skills.

This bodega starts with some very tasty stewed and roasted meats, then takes the time to throw everything on a blazing-hot flattop just before serving. Just for a minute, though. That lends a massive hit of caramelized flavor and griddled crunch to the moist meat, giving it an edge over most in the Bay area.

Number one seed and perennial Tampa favorite El Taconazo had a more difficult time of it. But, even when one aspect of their competitors might top the Taco Bus (like Cali Tacos To Go's excellent fried fish), none could muster the complete game that Taconazo brings to the table.

The Taco Bus' fried fish tacos (for Lent) and tofu tacos are astoundingly tasty, and everything else — from pastor to lengua — is good enough to beat most of what Tampa has to offer. Their only weakness are tortillas that are never more than adequate. Those are not made on the Bus.

I assembled a team of CL's food contributors — including recipe maven Katie Machol, GNATV dudes Alex Valle and Grayson West, librarian-in-training Dave Davisson, beer maven Bethany Sherwin and our own Taylor Eason — to visit the Final Four and give me their thoughts. Here's the outcome:

Red Mesa did not bring its A game. Maybe it was performance anxiety, since I pre-arranged the visit. Maybe its previous performances were flukes. No matter the reason, though, only the shrimp tacos elicited anything approaching accolades from the judges. And even then, almost everything on the table at Cabana was better than that single hit from Red Mesa.

Thankfully, the battle between Taconazo and Acapulco was the titanic showdown the fans were expecting. Like I said above, the fish and tofu were exceptional at the Taco Bus, the barbacoa and carnitas were moist and well-seasoned, and everything easily would have made for a better than average nosh. At Acapulco, feelings were more varied. There were great highs — mostly from beef and pork given a great crust on the griddle — and surprising lows. In the final equation, though, the Taco Bus moved on.

Cabana Del Tio vs. El Taconazo: How to decide? Both are fabulous examples of the taco art. Both are well worth the meager amount of money it takes to eat their exceptional food. At Cabana you have great tortillas and incredible traditional fillings. At Taconazo, you have wider selection and great quality. The judges' opinions were mixed, but we came to a decision.

For most of the judges, it came down to the basics: tortilla and traditional meats. Which means that you'll have to drive to Clearwater to get the best tacos in the Bay area.

La Cabana Del Tio wins the CL's 2009 Tournament of Tacos.

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