The first thing my family did after we settled into our new Central Florida house almost a decade ago was look for the one thing that reminded us of home – tacos.
We had left the comfort of Los Angeles and its elote carts, Cal-Mex burritos and King Taco for a strange land where there were few paisanos and afternoons were ruined by every-single-day rain showers and insect barrages. Florida seemed impossibly green and humid compared to semi-arid L.A., but it was barren in terms of street tacos, those greased double-corn tortilla pockets filled with carne asada, carnitas, pork al pastor, lengua, cabeza or maybe sesos (brains!), topped with finely chopped cilantro, onions and that radioactive-colored salsa that leaves you moqueando, wiping your boogers with tiny, inadequate napkins.
What we did find in those early years was interesting, to say the least. There was of course the Mexican™ experience of Taco Bell, which has since surpassed its stereotypical Chihuahua dog with bigger and grander things like the Quesarito or the Quesalupa or whatever other concoction of ground beef, sour cream, iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese they've decided to hawk this month. Those who need a fourthmeal fix probably appreciate the quasi-Mexican restaurant chain's food antics, but they fall far short when you have a street taco craving.
The same goes for the group of Mexican-inspired restaurants that tend to congregate around colleges and universities. The Chipotles, Tijuana Flats and drinking holes of the world serve you tacos on flour tortillas accompanied by an inordinate amount of 2-for-1 margaritas amid a backdrop that includes a sombrero or the latest cultural appropriation trend, a Dia de Los Muertos skull. White Americans have progressed from supermarket taco kits to chain restaurants to, now, restaurants that specialize in designer tacos serving the most "authentic" Mexican cuisine. Designer tacos are $4.50 each (!), but damn it if they don't look Instagram-worthy placed on a wooden cutting board with a kale garnish.
Spaces for "authentic" Mexican food seem to be reserved for white people, though, as Gustavo Arellano, the writer of the ¡Ask a Mexican! column at OC Weekly, details in his book Taco USA: "A succession of white authors and acolytes have prodded Americans out of their Mexican-food comfort zone, challenging the public to not only taste new dishes but also to prepare them themselves," he writes. "In the process they introduced a fraudulent concept to the question of Mexican cuisine in this country: the idea that the food they documented was 'authentic,' while the dishes offered at your neighborhood taco stand or sit-down restaurant were pretenders to be shunned."
The food at all the restaurants above can be good, sometimes delicious and even innovative, but once you've tasted the manna from taco heaven, you're just not content with anything else. Taco heaven in our case includes $1.50 tacos, "seedy" street corners, aguas frescas, a shrine to la Virgen de Guadalupe near the cash register, people who've just finished clubbing and bad Yelp reviews about the decor.
Eventually my family did find the perfect street taco – 45 minutes away from our house, in a small community called Wahneta near Winter Haven. At our favorite place you sit outside on worn wooden benches and the vendor doesn't even have a name for the business, but I'd wager they're the best tacos in Central Florida. People drive hours to sit in the shade of the white tarp to get a taste of home.
As Arellano tells the Los Angeles Times, traditional street tacos, Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex inventions, and designer tacos are part of a "big, inclusive kitchen" and "all are welcome who add something to the melting pot." But when you get a chance, head down to get street tacos at local spots like Tortas El Rey on OBT (like the carne asada tacos con todo pictured below) or the Ocoee Taco Company. Once you enter the gates of taco heaven, you won't be able disentangle yourself from the warm embrace of those corn-tortilla angels.