Best Global Taco: Melange
Rabbit tacos have been a staple at chef Lan Bradeen’s downtown eatery since it opened more than a decade ago, first under the name Lan and since 2012 as Melange. Take a bite, and that endurance makes immediate sense. The tortilla is a crispy wonton shaped like a classic hard shell. Inside you’ll find ultra-tender curry-braised rabbit meat and a slender strip of mango, while a zigzag of sour cream snakes across the dish. They’re on the small side (two-biters), but a plate of three is an ideal way to get your meal going at one of Sarasota’s best restaurants.
Honorable mentions: Asian barbecue short rib taco at Birdrock Taco Shack; ceviche taco at Tacos - To Go
Best Shrimp Taco: Tacos - To Go
This small Bee Ridge shop has changed hands and names multiple times in recent years, but we pray that Tacos - To Go sticks around. For starters, it’s one of the few places you’ll find Honduran baleadas—akin to a giant taco with a puffier tortilla—and it makes an excellent spicy shrimp taco. The crustacean concoction is topped with cabbage, pico de gallo, guacamole and a snowfall of Mexican cheese. Sometimes shrimp get lost amid taco toppings; not here, where the little guys stand out as a toothsome delight.
Honorable mentions: Birdrock Taco Shack; Eat Here
Best Breakfast Taco: Wicked Cantina
Tacos make a great lunch or dinner, sure, but they’re also ideal for a midnight snack, a mid-afternoon repast, brunch or even breakfast, and they pair just as nicely with a cauldron of black coffee as they do with an IPA. Breakfast is a star attraction at Wicked Cantina, where $6.95 will get you a plate of two egg tacos that you can trick out however you like, with a pick of add-ins like chorizo, avocado, bacon, cheese, pico de gallo and much more. Served in a flour tortilla striped with grill marks and doused with Cholula, they’ll wake you up in an instant.
Best Taco Al Pastor: El Tio Carlos
Middle Eastern immigrants introduced Mexico to lamb roasted on vertical spits in the 1920s, serving slices of meat on pitas that were called tacos al árabes, “Arab tacos,” according to food historian Jeffrey Pilcher. Later generations of Mexicans used pork instead of lamb and corn tortillas instead of pitas and, presto-change-o, tacos al pastor (“shepherd’s style tacos”) were born. Nobody does this classic global mashup better than El Tio Carlos, a popular stand inside Bradenton’s Red Barn Flea Market, formerly known as Maria’s Restaurant, where the pork is served in a sticky orange-red sauce atop a thicker-than-average tortilla.
Honorable mentions: Tacos - To Go; Taco Jalisco, inside the Texaco gas station, 6895 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 312-4754
Best Chicken Taco: Poppo’s Taqueria
A locally owned mini-chain, Poppo’s Taqueria serves fast casual burritos and tacos, with a plethora of ingredients and toppings you won’t find at most taquerias. Arugula? Tempeh? Pickled cabbage? You got it. While we normally don’t go for chicken tacos (too predictable, too dry), the chicken here has been simmered way down and flavored with ancho chili powder until it looks more like carnitas than bird. Another standout here: the tortillas, pressed out flat right after you order and then toasted on the flattop. Minutes later, at the table, they’re warm and aromatic—supple vessels that ferry that delicious chicken to your taste buds.
Honorable mentions: Taqueria Alexander; Brick’s Smoked Meats
Best Carnitas Taco: La Brisa Tacos Y Mariscos
This north 301 standby excels at carnitas—pork shoulder braised at long length with a smattering of fragrant spices and cooked down until the strands of meat crisp up around the edges. At many eateries, the carnitas comes out gelatinous and stringy; here’s it’s moist, but structured, just barely hanging together as it gets tossed inside a corn tortilla. The meat tastes even better when doused with any of La Brisa’s homemade sauces, which range from hot to creamy, and have the power to elevate whatever they touch.
Best Barbacoa Taco: Bitia’s Taqueria
Best known for its pupusas, a griddled corn pancake from El Salvador, Bitia’s Taqueria also excels at the art of the taco, but be sure to order it with beef. While the shop’s carnitas and pork belly tacos come out bland, the beef barbacoa (barbacoa refers to slow-cooked meat) is outstanding—tender but never goopy, rich but never salty or fatty. Colored a deep purple, the strands of shredded meat rest in a single corn tortilla blistered by the grill, with nothing but raw white onions and a shower of cilantro on top. Lime wedges and green and red salsas are the finishing touches. 3436 17th St., Sarasota, (941) 366-8081
Honorable mentions: El Tio Carlos; El Primo Taqueria
Best Fish Taco: Eat Here
The fish taco at Eat Here changes by the day, thanks to the whims of the tides and the chef alike, but every version we’ve tried is a winner. On one recent night, a pair of tortillas arrived loaded down with huge hunks of pearly mahi-mahi, the flavor punched up with nuggets of avocado, a Sriracha aioli and a crunchy slaw—the blend bright and acidic enough to sting your lips. Many fish tacos fail to impress because the mildness of the flesh can’t stand up to assertive condiments. At Eat Here, the seafood and flavorings lock arms in unshakeable solidarity.
Best Cochinita Pibil Taco: Screaming Goat Taqueria
Made with marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves before being roasted, cochinita pibil is a Yucatán specialty and one of the stars on the menu at Gulf Gate’s Screaming Goat Taqueria, which opened in February. The meat—a little sweet, a little spicy—is excellent all on its own, but it’s the restaurant’s inventive condiment bar that takes chef Malin Parker’s cochinita to the next level. Drench your taco with a roasted pineapple and scotch bonnet pepper sauce and house-made crema, top it with some cilantro and radishes, and settle in for an eye-popping adventure.
Best Vegetarian Taco: Birdrock Taco Shack
After Dave Shiplett closed his well-liked downtown Bradenton fine dining restaurant Soma Creekside in 2016, he brought a new focus to another venture of his—Birdrock Taco Shack, which he had opened earlier that same year. Early visits to the colorful Village of the Arts cottage that houses Birdrock left us unimpressed, but a recent trip surprised us. The menu is almost all-taco, divvied up into price points from $2 to $6. And while we enjoyed the “Bradentucky BLT,” a flour tortilla stuffed with a fried green tomato and duck bacon and drizzled with a Nashville hot sauce mayo, the vegetarian options (a rarity) stood out. A $2 “avocado bánh mì” taco features simple, fresh fruit, accented with jalapeño-pickled vegetables and crunchy toppings.
Best Miscellaneous Taco: Brick’s Smoked Meats
“Big Red,” as the giant J&R Oyler Pit smoker at Brick’s Smoked Meats is known, is famous for cranking out succulent brisket, but it also smokes up fabulous bacon that powers the restaurant’s addictive “bacon burnt ends” tacos. Thumb-sized hunks of pork belly rest in a flour tortilla rubbed with cheese before being toasted; candied jalapeños, Cotija cheese and crunchy slaw accentuate the deep smoke of the fatty meat. When happy hour rolls around, scarf down one (or three) with the restaurant’s house margarita or a pepino. It’s a marriage made in Tex-Mex border heaven.