When pulled fresh and slightly puffy from a griddle, the tortilla is a workaday object, an ordinary beauty forged from little more than corn, water and salt. To many, a good tortilla, its earthy aroma perfuming every bite, needs nothing more than a pat of salted butter or a swipe of honey. The tortilla is bread. It’s vessel. It’s history.
For more years than I care to recall, taquerias in the D.C. area were content to stuff their fillings into tortillas pulled from a bag. Whenever I’d press about outsourcing what’s arguably the single most important element of a taco, owners would cry poverty or, conversely, crow about the quality of their particular third-party tortillas. The economics of U.S. taco culture, they’d argue, made it tough to hire an employee dedicated to nothing but tortillas. The expectation of cheap tacos, it seemed, had doomed us to commercial-grade wrappers.
No more. More than half the tacos on this list come swaddled in homemade tortillas. Some kitchens even go beyond making tortillas from masa harina, a corn flour widely available from restaurant wholesalers and suppliers. They import corn grown in Oaxaca (or other Mexican locales), nixtamalize and grind the kernels in house, then press the resulting masa into tortillas, whether white, blue or yellow, a wide spectrum of colors, textures and flavors.
Bagged versus homemade tortillas: Christian Irabién, executive chef at ¡Muchas Gracias! in Chevy Chase, calls it “the conversation of the year,” given the many kitchens that now make their own, including DC Corazon, Taqueria Xochi, Republic Cantina, Taqueria Picoso, Taqueria al Lado, Cielo Rojo and on and on.
I wouldn’t call Irabién dogmatic on the subject. He points out that Masienda, the company that sells heirloom corn to a number of D.C. taquerias, has moved into the bagged tortilla business. But, by and large, Irabién prefers tortillas hot off the comal. He’d also prefer to make masa in house, but he understands that kitchens such as the one at ¡Muchas Gracias! have limitations. Like space to store those pallets of Mexican corn before you process them into masa.
“In order to have a really good sandwich, the bread is really important,” Irabién says. “In order to have a really good pasta, your pasta is super important. So for us, it’s the same with the tortilla. Like, we could absolutely just, you know, Sysco it up and get our thousand tortillas in a giant box. But it’s just not the same.”
This list may have a bias for tacos wrapped in homemade tortillas, but it has other agendas, too: I wanted to showcase a wide variety of tacos, including ones that may be only loosely connected to Mexican street food. What’s more, I wanted to spread the love. With so many good-to-great tacos in the region, I saw no reason to limit my picks to a handful of taquerias, though that would have been easy to do and easy to justify.
No, I sampled dozens and dozens of tacos for this list. The only thing that stopped me from sampling more was, well, a deadline.