by Marty Demarest

I did this so that you don't have to. Over the past few weeks, I've eaten tacos throughout Spokane. My mission was to find the perfect taco. What I found were so many good tacos that, were I inclined to conduct this experiment again, I could spend weeks enjoying the food from just three or four restaurants.

I left out fast-food tacos -- that's enough for another story all its own. The places I've written about are all restaurants that you can walk into, sit down, enjoy chips and salsa, and order a taco. And that's exactly what I ordered most of the time -- a plain old taco. Whether they served it in a soft shell or a hard shell, with ground beef or shredded beef, I simply asked for a beef taco and examined what was delivered. Because let's face it, the taco is to Mexican restaurants what the burger is to American diners: It's the baseline for the rest of the food. A good taco likely means a good all-around meal.

That said, let me clarify that in most cases, I did not try the beans and rice, nor I did not order the famous enchiladas or chimichangas. There are probably specials out there that would blow my mind. But I have eaten the tacos -- namely, most of the tacos in Spokane. Here are the best, in ascending order.

First, understand that Rancho Chico is right next to the Big Foot Tavern, which is where Madonna sang "Crazy for You" in Vision Quest. It's also decorated like crazy. The chairs each have carved backs with paintings; beautiful tiles cover every surface. The place is clearly a family favorite, and the staff is extremely attentive. When my taco arrived, I tucked the accompanying tomato wedge into the pile of lettuce and cheese that was spilling out of the shell and bit in. Everything fell onto my plate. As a result, I had to eat this taco with a fork. The ground beef, however, was uniformly saucy, and the sweet lettuce, while seeming a little out of place, conjured up a nostalgic childhood-taco comfort. Unfortunately, so did the breaking shell.

I primarily knew Puerto Vallarta as the place that offers Spokane the killer combo of margaritas and karaoke. I now know it as the fastest Mexican restaurant in Spokane, with one of the friendliest staffs. The taco was again sadly of the wedge-of-tomato variety, but it featured some of the freshest-tasting, not-too-sweet lettuce I experienced, and some nice big and chewy chunks of meat in the ground beef filling. The meat was not particularly spicy, but that was compensated for by the generous portion. All tacos should be this size -- able to be devoured in a few bites, but full bites.

At Casa de Oro, when you sit down, they not only bring you chips and salsa (the spiciest salsa of my adventure, by the way), but they also place a small bowl of warm refried beans in front of you. This is heavenly and rich, and I was tempted just to stay all afternoon and nosh on the complimentary foods. But the tacos beckoned. Shortly, a crisp-fried, folded shell arrived, stuffed with meat, lettuce, cheese and diced tomatoes. A brief word about tomatoes -- if you insist on putting them in a taco, do it like Casa de Oro, and make sure they're cut up. The tomato wedges leave you with one big bite of tomato, then nothing for the rest of the meal. The filling spilled again, but this time it wasn't due to the shell cracking -- there was just so much meat inside it couldn't contain itself. Fortunately, everything landed on the pile of lettuce, and I got to enjoy the extra meat on some of the tortilla chips. It was the spiciest meat, in terms of heat, that I found in Spokane.

Normally I tried to avoid any specials -- just give me a plain, ground beef taco. But I was hungry, and tempted by Fiesta Mexicana's combo-plate: Two tacos -- you pick the meat -- with beans, rice and cabbage salad. The meat, in both cases, was clearly fresh when I arrived, and you could taste beef with every bite. The ground beef was surprisingly red, which was fun, but unfortunately it seemed lacking in spices. The shredded beef, however, was much more flavorful. But some points were lost due to what tasted and looked like pre-fab, hard-shells; meat that good deserves softer, fresher goodness surrounding it.

Maybe it was the strange Mexican soda flavors being offered (grapefruit and non-alcoholic sangria among them), or maybe it was the Gonzaga students in for their Sunday after-church margaritas, but I wasn't prepared for the taco at Chapala. When it arrived, the shell was still warped and sizzling, having been cooked to order. When it was finally cool enough to handle, I explored the inside: two kinds of cheese, a touch of salsa, lettuce, cabbage (cabbage!) and shredded beef. That's their plain taco, and it's wonderful. The beef isn't overly spicy, but on the edges, where it was exposed to the oven, it was a reddish-chocolate color, and tasted like fresh chili. The rest of the meat was exquisitely moist.

Azteca has been a long-time Spokane favorite, and they deserve the reputation if for no other reason than their taco. The default is ground beef, although shredded beef is available. And while it wasn't sizzling, I'm guessing the tortilla shell was cooked shortly before I received it -- it had that "just fried" crunchy/tenderness to it. And the meat -- oh, the meat. This is dark, flavorful meat that's incredibly juicy. Surprisingly, it's not at all spicy-hot, even though the intoxicating aroma and taste of chilis comes through perfectly.

If you've never been to La Katrina before, be prepared to look. And when you find it, rest assured that yes, it is that little hole-in-the-wall-that's-packed-full-of-people. They're standing in line for a reason. This is where those-in-the-know go to get their taco groove on. Things are authentic here, which means that you choose your meat from a complicated-sounding list (the staff is incredibly helpful in describing everything). Then you wait. What you get is the meat lying on an open tortilla, topped with onions and plenty of cilantro. Squeeze the lime on it if you want. The meat is incredible -- it doesn't taste like spice, it tastes like meat. It's the simple presentation of a few key ingredients that yield the alluring flavor that is the La Katrina taco. This is taco heaven, and represents one of the two best taco interpretations in town.

The other one can be found out on Trent Avenue at Aracelia's, where the food is all about what you want to eat. Ask for a beef taco and they offer you the choice of shredded beef or ground beef. Once you've selected that, they ask how you want your tortilla done. Done?! Go for the semi-crispy; it's has crispy fried bubbles of cornmeal and curls up slightly, but it's soft enough to fold around the filling, which includes olives. The meat is astonishing -- it's so deeply flavored that you can smell it before you even pick up the taco. It's just moist enough, which is a nice touch, given the fresh lettuce and two varieties of cheese on top; not a single drop of oil leaked out of Aracelia's taco. But just in case you want a little moisture, they provide a side dish of sour cream. Without a doubt, these are Spokane's best tacos.

* Rancho Chico 9205 N. Division 467-0022 * 2023 Northwest Blvd. 327-2723

* Puerto Vallarta 6915 E. Sprague 922-2632

* Casa de Oro 1611 N. Mullan Rd. 921-2122 * 2820 E. 29th Ave. 532-8266 * 4111 N. Division 489-3630 * 445 Cherry Ln., CdA 208-666-9841

* Fiesta Mexicana 1227 S. Grand Blvd. 455-7117

* Chapala 1801 N. Hamilton St. 484-4534 * 2620 E. 29th Ave. 534-7388

* Azteca 14700 E. Indiana Ave. 228-9661 * 200 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. 456-0350 * 9738 N. Newport Hwy. 465-9101

* La Katrina Tacos 510 S. Freya St. 535-4263

* Aracelia's 7905 E. Trent Ave. 924-4304

Publication date: 10/23/03

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