The tao of tacos

From hip taquerias to hard-to-find neighborhood joints, tacos are having a moment in West Michigan. John Rumery shares some uber-local spots where you can find the real deal.
Grand Rapids is in the midst of a taco renaissance.

This past summer multiple food trucks were slinging Kogi BBQ-inspired fusion tacos throughout the city. The infamous “walking taco” has been re-imagined by a local entrepreneur as a “Woking Taco,” and the once-exotic fish taco is seemingly on every menu in West Michigan. Most recently, The Winchester’s Paul Lee opened up his modern take on a taco stand, Donkey Taqueria, in East Hills to great reviews.

Tacos have never been cooler, hipper or more creative. But sometimes the soul craves a little more than cool, hip and creative. Sometimes the soul just needs an honest, simple, authentic taco. 

Luckily, Grand Rapids has that too, thanks in part to a few taco evangelists: Mario Cascante, Carlos Sanchez, and Chris Freemen - individuals who are familiar with the incredible, hyper-local neighborhood network of taco restaurants; individuals who share their experiences and insights about the essence of what makes an honest, simple, authentic taco…great.  

Mario Cascante
When I first moved to here a lot of people told me there aren’t any good tacos in Grand Rapids. But you are just not looking. You have to know where to look, who to talk to and be willing to explore. There are so many places to go.”

Mario Cascante is a native of Costa Rica. Before moving to Grand Rapids he lived in Southern California for several years. He is a local attorney and owner (along with Hector Lopez) of Tacos El Cunado at the Downtown Market. He knows and loves tacos.

Cascante’s opinion on what makes great tacos would make a minimalist happy.   “If there is no cilantro and onion, it is not a taco,” he says. “Tacos are a very honest food. Honest ingredients. It is quite possibly the perfect food.”

And don’t mess with those ingredients too much, either. “When people try to do too much to a taco, it goes south and stops being a taco,” says Cascante. “To me, a taco is a corn tortilla, (not flour and no sweetness in the corn tortilla), some protein, (it does not have to be meat; in Latin America, sometimes it is not meat), cilantro and onions. That is it. It doesn’t mean you can’t have other toppings but what should be presented to you should be tortillas, meat, cilantro and onions.  After that, go to town.“

And when you “go to town,” make sure you bring the sauces, salsas and your personal taste. Cascante’s rough guide: chicken and pork = green sauce. Steak and fish = red sauce. Simple.

Besides his own taqueria at the Downtown Market and the other locations in the Taco Cunado family, Cascante is effusive in his praise for the taco scene in West Michigan. “There are so many great tacos in town. I frequent so many other locations.”

His personal recommendations include La Vencedora near the corner of Burton and Division (“It’s open only Friday through Sunday. Cash only. Best green salsa ever.”); Garibaldi Restaurant, inside the 34th Street "mall" (“Hard to find. Reasonably good.”); and Carniceria Bedolla on Division (“This is a butcher shop that sells tacos inside, though not always”).

Carlos Sanchez
 “NO, absolutely, NO jack cheese!“

Carlos Sanchez is the Director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University. He was born and raised in Mexico City, living there until his third year in college.

He easily recalls his first taco. “I would have been 10 or 11. There was a farmer's market, a Mexican version called tianguis; they had a wide variety of tacos, made of beef, pork, and a dish like chicharrón (pork skin) in salsa verde. I must have eaten five or six.“

Sanchez is very bullish on the taco scene in West Michigan. “I am biased to Grand Rapids, I haven't found good ones elsewhere,” he says. “The places I like use corn tortillas, warmed over a flat grill lightly oiled; same one used to cook the ingredients. The tortilla is warm, moist, a bit oily and has the combined flavors of what's been cooked on the grill.”

An ideal taco, for Sanchez, is a combination of things. “Toppings and salsa are keys for a great taco. NO, absolutely, NO jack cheese! A few drops of lime and salsa are just what a good taco needs.”  As for the protein, Sanchez says it is pork, “hands down.” If he were to add cheese to the taco, it would be the tangy queso fresco.

Sanchez is very complimentary about many taco places but when pressed for a couple of hidden gems, he lists Taquería San José on S. Division by St. Vincent De Paul and El Globo Restaurant inside El Gigante Super Mall on 28th and Madison as favorites.

Chris Freeman
You have to travel to get the authentic tacos in town.”

Chris Freeman is a lover of tacos and food. He parlayed his vocation and avocation to start the EatGR Facebook group in April 2012, an online community of food reviewers and picture-takers. “My day job as a Realtor takes me all over town and I started to realize how many cool local eateries there were. So I just started taking photos of my food and posting them,” he says. Membership at EatGR is approaching 1,500 and trending north.

Freeman estimates that in the last 18 months he has eaten at between “40 and 50 taco places,” which helps to shape his worldview of tacos in Grand Rapids.  He describes the taco scene as being dominated by three corridors: South Division, Bridge St. and Chicago Drive, with few outliers like Plainfield Avenue’s La Huasteca.

Much like Cascante and Sanchez, Freeman is enamored with traditional tacos. ”I love tacos. A ton of flavor that you can fit in one hand.” His personal favorites are the Mexican tacos with “cilantro, onions and a tomatillo hot sauce.”

In his travels, Freeman has identified a couple of off-the-grid taco stands that he says are a few of his favorites: “La Lavanderia Jalisco on Division and the Super Mercado Mexico on Chicago Drive - two places that you would not suspect even sold tacos but they both sell great tacos.”

For an amazing visual tour of Freeman’s taco scene, go to the EatGR Facebook group and type “tacos” in the search box.

“Be willing to explore.”
Cascante, Sanchez and Freeman all seem to agree: the best tacos in Grand Rapids can sometimes be found where you’d least expect them, and no list is conclusive. This local list comes from personal experience and recommendations from trusted others, including Jonathan Berrera Mikulich, co-founder at Vias Latio Market Consultants, and Dallas McCulloch. For those who are willing to explore, a simple Google search will provide addresses and hours for these interesting favorites.

·      Carniceria Bedolla (Hard to find! Good luck)
·      El Globo Restaurant
·      El Granjero Mexican Grill 
·      El Kiosko
·      La Lavanderia Jalisco
·      La Vencedora
·      Maggie’s Kitchen
·      Plaza Garibaldi
·      Super Mercado Mexico
·      Tacos El Cuñado (all four locations)
·      Tacos El Caporal
·      Tacos El Ranchero
·      Taquería San José
How about you? Where - and how - do you like your tacos?  

John Rumery is the Innovation and Jobs News editor for Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

Signup for Email Alerts