Getting tacos on Pueblo’s Eastside may be grittier, less polished than most people are used to but that's where they derive their charm. (Photo PULP)
Taco crawls have grown in popularity throughout the country as a way to sample a wide variety of flavors without being tied down to a single restaurant all night. Here’s how they work: you start in a neighborhood that’s known for quality Mexican food, pick a spot to grab a few tacos, then wind your way through the neighborhood, sampling and comparing styles as you go.
In the bigger cities, like Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, you can pay to attend guided taco tours with a local fatass — I mean food connoisseur — who takes you through the trendiest spots in town to sample the latest styles. In Denver, you can even get a taco passport, which allows you to stuff your face at 21 different taquerias around the city while lending some support to local nonprofits.
But why should the big cities get to have all the fun? As a Pueblo native, precious few places up north quite live up to my expectations when it comes to authentic Mexican food, and I had little doubt that the taco game here could contend with just about any of those big-city scenes — and at a fraction of the price.
Now the question becomes: where to begin?
The junction of Fourth Street and Interstate 25 is the gateway to Pueblo’s East Side, a place many may not choose for a taco crawl. The taquerias you’ll find here may be grittier, less polished than most people are used to, but for me that’s where they derive their charm. They have a level of authenticity missing in the hyper-manicured world of big-city taco crawls. And there are more of them on this quarter-mile stretch of Fourth Street than anywhere else in Pueblo. So naturally, this was the place to start.
The first challenge was finding a place to park. Trying to avoid the construction going on nearby, I circled the block a number of times looking for a place where I could both keep an eye on the car and not puncture a tire on a discarded nail or screw. I drew some weird glances from the older couple sitting on the bench at the bus stop the second time I passed them by. By the third time, I was receiving open stares. Taking the hint, I decided to settle for a slice of street parking on Fourth, a little bit beyond my destination.
I walked into Tacqueria Marquez, immediately feeling a tropical vibe from the walls painted in technicolor shades of yellow and teal, and just one look at the menu told me I wasn’t in Cactus Flower anymore. Naturally, I ordered one of everything. Crispy chicharron, gooey al pastor, spicy barbacoa, earthy tripitas…each taco I sampled had its own unique flavor profile and character, and the hot red salsa that came with them was so good I pocketed the extra on the way out the door.
After saying my goodbyes to Marquez, I hung a left on my way out the door and walked less than a block to my next destination: Taco Stop. Pueblo’s eternal taco stand, Taco Stop has been slinging meat and tortillas around town for more than 30 years, and though the ingredients here are simple — the shells, shredded cheese and lettuce all bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones I buy at the supermarket — their fast, (usually) friendly service and affordable pricing makes them a perennial favorite. Much to my surprise, I actually found their ground beef taco — the simplest of the bunch — the most enjoyable.
The last stop on the night’s journey was Vazquez Taco Shop, an unassuming little storefront on the corner of Fourth and Erie. If the inside of Tacqueria Marquez evoked a tropical retreat, the smattering of triangles and other colorful shapes on the whitewashed walls of Vazquez reminded me more than anything of a birthday party for a sad clown (weird, I know). I spied the happily churning vats of aguas frescas, and eagerly ordered a large Jamaica to quench the thirst that had been building up since leaving Marquez. I grabbed a table near the window and settled in to wait for the next round of styrofoam-ensconced goodness.
When it arrived, I dug in with gusto once again. Vazquez’ fish tacos were lightly breaded and delicious with a generous dollop of sour cream, further improved by a liberal application of salsa verde. The carnitas came piled high with bits of flavorful marinated pork, and even the blandest of the bunch — the carne asada — was still a far cry from unpleasant. Doused in red salsa, it hardly tasted bland at all.
I left Vazquez and walked back to my car, my mouth still warm from the memory of salsas as the night closed in around me. Jumping in the car, I contented myself with the knowledge that Pueblo’s taco scene did, in fact, live up to expectations, though I knew my stomach and I would be having a long talk later that night.