It began as a whimsical proposal: Let's drive around the central San Joaquin Valley to find the best tacos.
After thinking about it for a year, we finally took that taco journey. We endured a tummy-twisting tour of taco trucks, cook shacks and holes-in-the-wall. We wanted an adventure, so we nixed fancy restaurants. Boy, are we happy we didn't get food poisoning.
Maybe we were out there because the annual Great Taco Festival, usually held in downtown Fresno, disappeared last year. Maybe it was because Joan loves exploring food and culture. Maybe it was because Mike always hunts for hidden taco spots. Maybe we just really like tacos.
Something led us to navigate highways and dusty roads, looking for the best carne asada taco in the Valley.
Why carne asada (grilled beef)? Well, it's the chocolate ice cream of tacos, the least common denominator with which to compare taco stuffers.
Here are our top 10 tacos, and a nod to others we tried.
Tacos Mi Casita
Details: Three locations: 222 E. Houston Ave., Visalia. 1400 W. Houston Ave., Visalia. 266 Farmersville Blvd., Farmersville. No phone numbers.
Joan: The East Houston Avenue location has plenty of reasons to boast. The tender chuck roll was spicy and salty and had toppings of cilantro, onions and a kicky red salsa. But the store-bought tortillas kept it from ranking higher.
Co-owner Antonio Alvarado wouldn't reveal the spices, but he says these tacos are typical of Michoacan, Mexico. You also can try the green salsa, guacamole or pico de gallo. Rating: 7.75 out of 10.
Mike: My friends in Visalia rave about this place, and with good reason. It's a buzzing, lunch-hour hangout for people who know quality tacos.
The meat was tender, and the taco had a nice helping of cilantro. But it's the salsa that makes the taco great — not too hot, with plenty of flavor. Add some crisp cabbage, and it would rank higher. Rating: 8 out of 10.
Details: Selma Flea Market, 10951 E. Mountain View Ave., Selma. No phone number.
Joan:Who knew taco heaven was a little blue truck? Visitors can top spicy, tender chuck roll with yummy red salsa, pico de gallo, green salsa, cabbage, onions, cilantro, lemon or chopped tomato.
Go for the red salsa. The synergy between it and the meat elevated this meal to near nirvana. For an even better experience, ask for freshly made tortillas.
Alma Rodriguez, the chef from Brownsville, Texas, dished on the seasonings. Paprika, New Mexico chili and seasoning salt adorn the beef. The red salsa is a blend of garlic, salt, cilantro, Japones chili and fresh tomatoes. Rating: 8.5.
Mike: This place might be hard to find, but it's worth it. On weekdays, it's the only one at the flea market, but on the weekends, it's one of many.
This is the rico taco done to perfection. (Rico tacos are smaller-size tacos.) The meat is potently flavorful, the salsa is great, and the synergy between them — as Joan so aptly put it — is like peanut butter and chocolate. Plus, it's open 'til midnight. Rating: 8.5.
Raisin City Market
Details: 6234 W. Bowles Ave., Raisin City; (559) 264- 7645.
Joan: This was the heartiest taco, with lots of spiced chuck roll flavored with orange juice. It also had a red salsa that complemented the meat well. Japones chilies and green tomatillo are the secret to the sauce, says Abdusalam Ali, whose family owns the market.
Since there's so much meat, toppings of cilantro, cabbage, onions and lime may be inadequate. Ask for more if you need it. Rating: 7.5.
Mike: Who knew? I'd never even heard of Raisin City, let alone experienced a great taco in this tiny town.
The counter in the back of the market serves up an unusual yet delicious taco. What stands out is the pot-roast texture of the beef. It was quite dry by taco standards and tasted more like the end of a tri-tip. No complaints here.
Add a hot salsa and some toppings, and the whole thing was impressive. Rating: 7.5.
La Poblanita Restaurant No. 4
Details: Four locations: 490 N. Farmersville Blvd., Farmersville; (559) 747-3502. Taco truck near 40570 Road 128, Cutler. Taco truck near 12479 First Drive, Cutler. 40360 Road 128, Cutler (559) 305-1453.
Joan: The handmade tortillas at the Road 128 and Railroad Drive spot were the best. These sturdy tortillas didn't fall apart, despite the runny salsa.
The chuck roll was crispy, but you can order softer meat, server Daisy Maldonado says. With paprika and lime, it was tasty with green salsa, a blend of green tomatoes, jalapeños, onions and garlic.
With toppings of onions, cabbage and cilantro, this taco is typical of Puebla, Mexico, Maldonado says. Rating: 6.75.
Mike: Tortillas, tortillas, tortillas. The rest of this taco was average, but the tortilla was so good that it didn't matter.
The rubbery meat turned me off, so it's good to know cooks will make it tender for melt-in-your-mouth meat lovers. At least the salsa hit the spot. Skip the red, and go for the green. It's plenty good.
Did I mention the tortillas were great? They should sell them by the 50-pack. Rating: 6.5.
Details: Three locations: 3020 N. Weber Ave.; (559) 268-9528. 5650 N. Figarden Drive; (559) 277-3870. 5730 N. 1st St.; (559) 437-9614.
Joan: OK, two locations aren't cook shacks, but the original one on Weber still is a charming hole in the wall.
Almost everything about this taco was a winner. The meat was salty and tender. The secret is the cut of meat. Guadalajara uses softer top sirloin, not chuck roll, manager Jimmy Morales says.
You'll also get an unusual, chunky salsa. Cooks chop onion, cilantro, fresh tomatoes, salt, garlic, black pepper and jalapeño.
The tortillas weren't freshly made, but that's the only strike against this taco. Rating: 7.5.
Mike: Remember that melt-in-your-mouth meat I mentioned above? Say hello to the originators. Guadalajara's meat is flat-out amazing. And that's just one reason to love Guadalajara. There's the layer of cilantro covering the meat and the scrumptious yellow corn tortillas, too.
Plus, as someone who prefers runny to chunky salsa, Guadalajara's chunky is on-point. Rating: 8.5.
Chris Meat Market
Details: 1323 Kern St.; (559) 233-8134.
Mike: Simply put, Chris Meat Market has the best asada. It's tender and tasty, and the texture is different from that found at many other places, where meat tastes like it has been on the grill too long.
Each taco is loaded with so much meat, it's much bigger than other $1.25 tacos.
With cilantro, cabbage and salsa, it's an overflowing taco delight. Rating: 9.
Joan: I'm still trying to figure out how Chris gets that meat so soft — its chuck roll asada is far more tender than that of any other place we tried.
It's a good thing Chris' meat is excellent, because the rest of the taco needs work. Ask for extra salsa — the cooks give you so much beef that you'll need it. Cilantro and onions round it out, but again, you might need to ask for more.
Also, eat them quickly. They're wrapped in paper and foil, which makes the tortillas soggy. Rating: 7.
Tacos & Mariscos Tijuana
Details: Three locations: 4170 E. Belmont Ave; (559) 485-0971. 838 E Ventura Ave.; (559) 442-3022. 1474 E. Manning Ave., Reedley; (559) 638-1452.
Mike: Tacos Tijuana's Ventura Avenue shop is another favorite of the late-night crowd. Both the meat and salsa (get the red) had flavors not tasted anywhere else.
A word to the wise: Ask for the homemade tortilla. It turns an above-average taco into one you need to try. Rating: 8.
Joan: These tacos are like the ones at La Poblanita No. 4, except better. Freshly made tortillas didn't fall apart. The meat was tender and crunchy. And that red salsa, spiked with chilies de arbol, was unusual.
Leave off the guacamole, but go for the onions and cilantro, which pair well with the lime-marinated meat.
This location is busy, so you'll likely find curt cooks and servers. Viviana Cabrera, one of the Reedley servers, dished out some secrets to the salsa and meat. Rating: 7.25.
El Taco Rapido
Details: 3077 E Tulare St.; (559) 442-6088.
Mike: Rapido puts together a good package, enough to win many awards, including at the Great Taco Festival. But this taco isn't exceptional. It's like a B-average student. Still good enough for me.
All the elements work together. The meat is juicy and tasty, but could use more spices. The garnishes, cabbage and red and green salsa, all are yummy. Rating: 7.
Joan: Mike's right about this taco. But its ingredients aren't average. Instead of chuck roll, Rapido likes the more tender inside top round cut, co-owner Augustine Gaona says.
The red salsa also is thick and sweet. Rapido uses canned, stewed tomatoes instead of fresh tomatoes. When the stewed tomatoes are blended with onion, cilantro and jalapeños, the resulting salsa won't run all over your plate.
For extra kick, mix in some of the restaurant's hot, green salsa. Rating: 6.
Details: 4797 E. Clinton Ave.; (559) 456-0045.
Mike: Tacos Colima, a stationary taco truck at the northwest corner of Clinton and Chestnut avenues, executes the rico taco very well.
What makes these tacos great is the tasty, spicy green salsa. The red is average, so don't waste your time.
Flavorful meat and a nice portion of cilantro completes the package. Rating: 7.5.
Joan: This taco was a great surprise. The meat alone was too chewy and bland. But with green salsa, cilantro, onions and a squeeze of lime, it turned into something delicious.
This taco is typical of Colima, says Rosie Zamora, one of the owners. That means lots of tomatillos, jalapeños, cilantro and garlic in the green salsa, and meat marinated in lime juice. Rating: 6.75.
Details: Two locations: A sit-down at 1423 Kern St., (559) 497-5844 and a taco truck near the Fresno Pick-a-Part on Maple and Muscat avenues.
Mike: This is a big taco that does everything well. The meat is tender and delicious, and the red salsa is fiery and tasty.
This taco also is loaded with goodies: guacamole, tomato and crispy shredded cabbage. A little more cilantro would be nice, but it tastes so good that point's nearly moot. Rating: 9.
Joan: Make sure you've got napkins. With its runny, red salsa, this taco leaks.
"In Jalisco, [the salsa] is not chunky style," co-owner Abelardo Arenas says.
There's lots of flavor, from the garlic powder and seasoned salt on the meat to the red salsa's chili de arbol.
The tortillas aren't homemade, so expect to poke a hole in them. Otherwise, this taco is one of the best. Rating: 7.25.