Tacos of West Gate City Boulevard
The story of a tortilla wrapped month
Tacos… a topic I never imagined myself writing high praise about not even ten years ago. As upsetting as this may be for you to read, tacos were a food I mostly avoided for the large majority of my life. To me, tacos only came from Old El Paso boxes. You know, the kits with those hard shell tortillas that seemed able to sit in a pantry for several lifetimes. The ground beef seasoned with a whisper of chili and cumin. The bright orange Kraft shredded cheese, iceberg lettuce, and canned black olives. Yes, there was also tomato and sour cream, but I had an irrationally strong opposition to those foods growing up. Even today tomatoes and sour cream have a strict criteria for acceptable consumption, but let’s not venture down the rabbit hole of my bizarre food rules. The point is, I spent most of my life thinking tacos only came from a box, or at least only in that one style. Yes, I was aware of Taco Bell, but I never ate there until sometime after I had my first great taco.
I remember that day clearly enough to tell as a relatively fun anecdote or something like that. It was July 2013, about a month after I moved to Greensboro on a slight impulse. I sat at the bar of Crafted – The Art of The Taco, drinking a vodka tonic from a mason jar, reading and re-reading the menu for who knows how long. There were so many options; I didn’t know this was possible... plus, I'm frustratingly indecisive. It took my server three times of I was asking if I was ready to order before I made a decision. I wasn’t actually ready but pretended I was by frantically scanning the menu in search for the first words I could recognize: a black bean & corn and a “chofu” taco.
“Would you like those traditional style?”
“Yes,” I responded completely forgetting what that meant despite having read the menu at least a dozen times. In case you don't know, traditional style means the tacos were served on corn tortilla with radishes, onion, cilantro, avocado, and a lime wedge.
I wouldn’t say it was a life-changing experience or any other superfluous cliché. I simply ate my tacos and thought something like “wow, who knew tacos could be so good?” That story was incredibly compelling, huh? Luckily, I’m not writing about Crafted today, not that I dislike their tacos. The restaurant simply doesn’t meet the criteria I set for this post. However, if you feel a need to be emotionally moved by a paragraph to get a taco from Crafted, I’m certain someone on Yelp has you covered. To make the story of my first great taco a bit more worthwhile, that meal at Crafted sent me on a journey to explore tacos all over town. A month later, I was trying tripa for the first time in a taco. So if it weren't for that day, I wouldn't be able to write this post. Thanks, Crafted.
I said criteria, but it’s not based on some extreme rules of authenticity. I could go on a ramble about "what is authenticity;" "why does tradition matter so much," and so on, but it'd just sound like I recently watched David Chang's Ugly Delicious... which, yes, I did watch, and yes, I may own a Momofuku cookbook, but I am my own person, I swear! Getting back on topic, Greensboro has a lot of tacos. I imagine I could spend 2 months eating tacos from a different place every week and still not have tried half the tacos in town. So, to save myself from taco-induced madness, today I am only talking about tacos in the culinary wonderland known as West Gate City Boulevard.
Vaquero's Diner Mexican Grill
3738 West Gate City Blvd Suite A
Vaquero's was the first stop on my taco binge tour. Coincidentally, it was my first time visiting this restaurant. That's not really too important. What is important is what brought me to their door on a quiet Sunday evening (important is probably a relative term here). Vaquero's is a newer restaurant, opening at the end of October last year, at least according to a newspaper article I read. I had heard about them before, but would always forget. I have this bad habit of forgetting recommendations and names almost immediately after being told. Strangely, I remember everything else. Everything.
At some point, I heard I could order diner-style breakfast foods at Vaquero's in addition to Mexican dishes. I was beyond intrigued. I've had chicken and waffles, why not carnitas and waffles? I'll go ahead and just break the news: they no longer have breakfast food on the menu. That's okay though! It really is. You can't expect beautiful things to be perfect - beauty hides, and for Vaquero's, that beauty hides at the end of a small strip of businesses. It's easy to drive past, but slow down and look. It's worth it. I suppose I could say that for all of West Gate City Boulevard, but let's keep this sentiment special and personal to this moment.
Going back to the Sunday evening, I was having the always riveting "what should we do for dinner?" conversation. In an amazing feat of decisiveness, I exclaimed "Wait! No, I got this! I'm writing another thing, and I need to eat a taco. But listen, I've heard of a place. I think there may be waffles." I paused for maybe half a second, "No! Hold on. Maybe not. Let me check."
I opened my laptop to check the hours. It was a quarter til 8 pm on a Sunday after all. Sunday hours are always a mystery. I looked up their Facebook page, and my enthusiasm for eating at Vaquero's may have risen to an unreasonable level. There's a video that completely convinced me, especially at the 20-second mark. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a good pineapple toss. I encourage you to watch it, not just for that perfect pineapple moment, but it shows the food, environment, everything. Seriously, props to whoever filmed it.
Off to Vaquero's Captain Spoonhands (my trusty companion) and I went. It was mostly empty when we arrived. The only other guests were a family of maybe 8. I don't know. I didn't actually count them; I've been told it's strange to count people. We sat in a booth near the family, allowing two young boys, aged somewhere in the range of 3 to 5, to start up a on-going game of "peek-a-boo" of some variety. I'm not an expert on the titles of such games, but this is a fairly common trend in my life. Young children seem to enjoy poking their heads up from behind booths, around corners, or some form of physical divider and stare at me while making a goofy face. I make a face back, and they giggle and vanish back behind, in this case, the booth, only to pop up moments later with a new facial expression. I find it endearing, but I'm always amazed by how long the game can last and still be amusing for the kids. From what I've heard, my affect display is a bit limited, so the fact I can pull enough silly faces to keep the game entertaining is downright impressive. Or maybe I'm just making the same face and they don't mind, but instead are just glad I'm participating in the fun.
I still haven't talked about the tacos yet. I'm so sorry.
So, yes, the usual, we were seated by a friendly sever, asked what we'd like to drink, and all that standard procedure. I inquired about a drink menu, since why not have some tequila based drink when eating tacos? The drink menus were in the process of being created or printed, but the server, whose name escapes me (assuming she told us her name), excitedly told us about their beverage options. The classic lime and standard fruit flavored blended margaritas were all there, but then she explained their blackberry margarita, made with freshly muddled blackberries. Usually I'm a purist when it comes to margaritas - tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice, and salt, on the rocks, but I ventured out. Perhaps all the dynamic displays of facial contortion had freed me of the limitations of habit. What a great decision that was, the margarita wasn't overly sweet like most flavored ones. It was the perfect balance of sweet and sour, and... just try it, it's great.
I glanced over the menu a little, but I was mainly focused on the tacos. There were some specialty tacos such as fish and mango habanero shrimp, but for some reason I felt compelled to stick to the basics, such as al pastor, carnitas, asada, pollo, and so on. Vaquero's has all those and some others. What initially caught my eye was the borrego (lamb); I've never had a lamb taco before. Then I read a little further and thanks to the small amount of Spanish I remember from college, I found the... well, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's a hidden gem (or some other idiom), or just something that interested me more than borrego.
"Prueba nuestros exquistos tacos de trompo! (Servidos el fin de semana, preguntar al mesero(a))"
They have a trompo, a vertical rotisserie, similar to ones used for shawarma. I've never seen this at any other restaurant in Greensboro, so once I noticed it was a weekend special, my mind was set. I didn't even care what kind of meat it was. Turns out it was al pastor, and it may have been one of the best tacos I've eaten. The taco meals are 4 tacos for $9.99 and come with rice and beans. The trompo special was a dollar or two extra, but well worth it.
I'll be back for the tacos de borrego. Some day. After I recover from the amount of tacos I've consumed in the past month. Since you probably haven't eaten your weight in tacos, I'd say go to Vaquero's this weekend for tacos de trompo.
Taqueria el Torito
2906 West Gate City Blvd
$1 tacos. That should be enough to convince you. The image of El Chapo's third arrest depicting him thinking about Taqueria El Torito's tacos on the side of the truck should fully sell you if the price is just not quite enough.
Now before I go on, yes, I am fully aware there are other locations of this taco truck and even a new brick and mortar location. However, this one is on the right boulevard. Again, yes, there may be another one further down Gate City, but this is the one I've always gone to. I used to live close by, and now I work even closer.
Back to the fun, my last visit was on July 5, 2018, if you were curious about the exact date. I went to lunch with a co-worker and attempted to learn the art of taking pictures of food. I've heard about how difficult this type of photography is, but I didn't imagine I'd have this much trouble with it... which was silly of me considering I usually don't take pictures of anything.
When we arrived there were several cars in the parking lot of the convenience store where the taco truck seems to live, at least for a portion of the day. The cars left and several more arrived in the course of our lunch, a pretty standard afternoon. Despite how busy it gets, I've never had to wait long. Five minutes may be the maximum. The speed of the cooks is superhuman.
Walking up the the bright yellow truck, first, be sure to enjoy the picture of El Chapo and then start reading for the menu. The meat options are listed next to the front window and the menu items are along the bottom of the truck. It's usual Mexican street food, tacos, quesadillas, sopes, tortas, gorditas, etc. Oh, and be sure to have cash. No cards.
I opted for one tripa and two al pastor tacos, and sat on the curb enjoying watching cars drive by as I ate my tacos. Most people seem to eat in their car or to go, but there's something almost spellbinding about watching traffic, or maybe that's just me.
Carnicería El Mercadito 2
3821 West Gate City Blvd Suite A
Walking into Carnicería El Mercadito 2 can be overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Opening the front door greets you with an unhealthily enticing aroma of everything cooking on the grill... The side entrance greets you similarly, only with freshly baked bread. I say unhealthy, but really it's just a personal battle with my self-control to not order the entire menu. I prefer displacing the blame though. Luckily, I have a 100% success rate of not ordering the full menu, a streak which continued with my last visit on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I ordered... tacos. Four tacos for just $6, plus the option to pick a different meat for each one. It's nearly impossible to say no to that. I chose lengua, tripa, and two al pastor... at this point in my taco marathon, I felt a need for consistency by always getting at least some al pastor. I may have some regrets about that, but I'm sure I'll begin crave tacos al pastor again soon enough.
I'm going to give a brief run-down of the ordering process, since it can be a bit confusing. The first time I came here, I walked right past the register and looked around in a state of confusion for long enough to prompt a "can I help you?" The register is right next to the front door, with the menu posted at the register. When it's busy, the line to order may block the door and then you have to go through the whole process of weaving through people and repeating "excuse me." This is part of why I prefer using the side entrance. The other reason is my aggressive sweet tooth; I can never leave without buying a pastry. Similar to Taqueria El Torito, there's a list of meat options and you can get those in the various menu items. You will be handed a ticket with a number after you order, keep that ticket and know that number. In my experience, the numbers are always called out in Spanish, so I'd recommend looking up your number in Spanish while you wait if you already don't know Spanish. I said Spanish way too much in that. I'm keeping it though.
Going back to the actual experience, Captain Spoonhands and I placed our order, and I left him to listen for our number so I could stare at desserts and, of course, buy one. I purchased two Manzanita Sols (it's a delicious apple soda), two bolillios (crusty rolls, like a smaller, better baguette), and a slice of mocha tres leches cake.
I returned to the seating area with my loot and sat down with Spoonhands to enjoy our lunch. He ate as I tried to take a decent picture... I'm fairly sure the two men in paint stained clothing in the booth next to me were judging me for it, but this is all for a good cause - telling you about tacos. I slowly ate my tacos and took in all the sights, sounds, and smells of Carnicería El Mercadito 2. Several families came in and out for lunch, more paint covered workers on their break. Music played softly under the tables of different conversations, sizzling grills, butcher's chopping block, and opening and closing door, all blending together to form a symphony you can't hear anywhere else.
*Yes, there is another Carnicería El Mercadito.
El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant Bar & Grill
4623 West Gate City Boulevard
A Mariachi band played "Ring of Fire" on a Sunday evening as Captain Spoonhands and I walked into El Mariachi. I was surprised to hear them playing. I thought a live Mariachi band only played on Friday nights, so this was a pleasant surprise since I was meaning to come here on a Friday, but just couldn't work it out.
There were several families seated when we arrived, but it seemed almost empty. The whole experience felt strange to me, but I think that has more to do with the sleep deprivation I had. A fact illustrated by me holding a tortilla chip and staring at the bowl of salsa, uncertain of what to do for a moment. I eventually figured it out. On the note of salsa, according to Spoonhands, they have the best salsa. I can't agree or disagree, but my salsa opinions shouldn't be trusted anyway. I have tomato issues in addition to an aversion to saying anything is the best... for me it's always "one of the best."
I didn't look as much at the menu as I usually would have, especially since it appeared different than the last time I ate at El Mariachi. I was only focused on finding the tacos. I read the options of meat and debated the al pastor dilemma out loud to myself. I decided to rebel against this rule that I completely made up and decided to get tacos de carnitas instead. However, when the sever was taking my order I said al pastor. It became ingrained. I do hope I will be able to order different tacos some day. Don't get me wrong, I love al pastor, but I've learned I have a limit to how much I can eat something without getting tired of it. Apparently, that limit is four weeks of tacos al pastor.
Even though I meant to order carnitas, the al pastor was still delicious. It always is.
This entire time the Mariachis were singing songs from table to table, and inevitably they came to our table. They asked if we had a song request or if "La Bamba" was okay. We went with "La Bamba," and they performed it with captivating fervor. I've never seen someone dance while playing the accordion in such a way before. I wish I could describe it, but it's truly something you have to experience yourself on a Friday or Sunday evening.
Mi Casita Mexican Antojitos
4411 West Gate City Blvd Suite 119
Mi Casita... my heart breaks to not fully include this amazing restaurant. However, I'd always want to go on a Tuesday, the one day they're closed, and then an attempted visit on a Sunday for dinner was met with a piece of paper taped to the door: "Closed."
What I can say is that Mi Casita is excellent and has such a wide array of Mexican street food, or antojitos. Their tacos are worth the visit.