Talking Tippecanoe tacos with local aficionados
Where do you go when you want the best tacos you can find in Greater Lafayette? Five fans tell us their go-to spots. Next up: What are yours?
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A couple of notes before jumping in:
We’re coming up on the first anniversary of the first Based in Lafayette reporting project story. Next week, can you believe it? Thanks to everyone here who reads, tells their friends and subscribes. You make this work, including allowing me to say …
Please welcome, again, Tim Brouk, my old J&C colleague. This time, he’s talking tacos and the people who love them. After Tim’s done, I’ll add a handful of other notes.
TALKING ABOUT THE BEST TACOS AROUND HERE
By Tim Brouk for Based in Lafayette
Per capita, the Mexican restaurant scene in Greater Lafayette is tough to beat. There are dozens of spots of varying sizes and styles. We polled five taco experts to pick some of their favorites, just in time for Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
There is much more to tacos than meat, cheese and lettuce or even cilantro, onion and lime, according to Lafayette’s Ricky Covarrubias.
The 27-year-old, who has been cooking since he was a teenager, is a firm believer that the best taco ingredient is not found in a market or grocery store.
“It’s the love that’s put into it,” Covarrubias said. “You can have all of the components of good tacos, but if your soul’s not into it, it’s not going to taste the same as somebody’s who really, really cares about it. You have to have a passion for cooking.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Covarrubias created his own brand of birria tacos. The traditional stew is slow cooked with goat meat, but he and his lucky family and friends prefer beef in the mix with garlic, cumin, bay leaves and thyme. After years of trial and error in making his own birria, Covarrubias revealed that having an authentic, purified broth enhances the tender birria meat. When his family’s reaction is “eye-bulging,” he knows he’s concocted another quality batch of birria.
When he’s not in his own kitchen, Covarrubias said Greater Lafayette has an impressive array of tacos to choose from. His favorites are chorizo or carne asada tacos from Señor Tacos. Covarrubias can taste the passion and work that goes into the food there. He recommends other Greater Lafayette taco aficionados to do the same — find a restaurant, truck or market that treats each taco like its own.
‘Hold the Lime’
Vanessa Bores believes the best tacos contain the best meat. So much so that she forgoes the lime wedges that accompany most traditional tacos in Greater Lafayette restaurants.
“The meat has to be good, not gristly,” Bores said. “It can’t be bland. It has to have the right amount of flavor. I feel like the lime takes away from the flavor of the taco. It’s overpowering. Don’t get me wrong, I love lime on some things, but when it comes to tacos, you want that meat flavor.”
Bores enjoys the tacos at Riviera Maya Grill for the flavorful steak and carnitas. The Lafayette nurse also appreciates the friendly staff and the can’t-miss menu that her whole family – which includes 7-year-old daughter Stella and 8-year-old son Chadwick – can enjoy.
While she forgoes the lime, Bores recommends the spicy taco sauces that accompany an order of three tacos.
“It’s not overwhelming. It’s got just the right kick to it,” she said.
From bus to brick and mortar
Mike Smith has tried just about every taco in Tippecanoe County. When a small food truck looking like a yellow school bus showed up in the parking lot of his former employer, Home Depot, his interest was piqued. The steak tacos from Los Chaparritos won him over instantly, along with the food truck’s signature tortas and horchata.
After a couple of years of consistent quality in that Lafayette parking lot, Los Chaparritos opened its West Lafayette location in April. With a larger menu, Smith found the same flavors inside as he did outside during his lunch breaks.
“Sometimes tacos can be dry, but you don’t want them greasy,” Smith said. “They’re so simple, so I’ve been to places that where the tacos taste like nothing, where I’m dousing it in sauce, so it tastes good. But here, their steak got me pretty hooked.”
Lafayette occupational therapy assistant Nicki Daniels has had a meatless diet since her 20s. Like most local vegetarians and vegans, finding meat- and dairy-free eats can sometimes be a challenge, especially when she has the taste for tacos.
Many local Mexican restaurants are meat heavy. Even the refried beans are often cooked with lard, but that hasn’t stopped Daniels from finding some delicious meatless tacos around Greater Lafayette.
Daniels’ newest stop is Nom Nom Tacos and Tequila, which opened in February in downtown Lafayette. The restaurant offers a vegetarian and a vegan taco. The vegetarian option comes with asadero shredded cheese atop a flavorful mix of grilled portobello mushroom, bell peppers, grilled onions and guacamole. The cheese can be omitted for a vegan experience, which Daniels does. She crumbles tortilla chips on top for a delightful crunch.
“They put in a lot of different flavors and textures together, interesting combinations,” said Daniels, who also works as a caregiver for Hoosiers at Home. “And the atmosphere here is really fun.”
Nom Nom’s vegan taco, Rajas Poblanas, contains roasted onion, corn, pico de gallo, zucchini squash, avocado, verde sauce and poblano pepper. It’s a symphony of flavor with a slight kick.
Daniels’ quest for meatless tacos has taken her to a variety of establishments. She recommends Legacy Pub’s vegetarian and vegan menu, which offers the Tippe Tacos plate. She substitutes Impossible Burger for her protein instead of the standard Gardein Chick’n. Escape Velocity Brewing Company has an entirely vegetarian and vegan menu. For tacos, she’s tried the local brewery’s TVP (textured vegetarian protein) “Beef” Tacos and the Maple Buffalo Jackfruit Tacos. Then there’s the spicy Soyrizo tacos at Ripple and Company and the soy-based al pastor tacos from La Fiesta Burrito.
“Places are getting better in general in providing a vegetarian and vegan menu,” Daniels said. “There’s usually at least a few vegetarian if not vegan options. You can usually customize things.”
‘Off the spit’
Patrick Kofi Austin has tasted tacos from Los Angeles to Atlanta, but it’s his hometown of Lafayette that he has discovered some of the best al pastor tacos he’s had in his life. Las Brazas Taqueria is a small restaurant famously attached to Holt Automotive repair shop, but to Austin, that just adds to the appeal.
“The more obscure the place is, the better the taco, usually,” Austin said. “If the place is busy and some older women working in the back, you know that food is fire.”
Austin said Las Brazas’ al pastor wins over the competition because the taqueria shaves its marinated slow-cooked pork from a spit, just like traditional taquerias he remembers from his time living in LA.
“They are epic — hands down, no question, right off the spit,” said Austin, describing the tacos which comes with pineapple and pork cooked to an almost shade of red. “I eat a lot of tacos and lived a lot of places, and these are definitely, I would say, top-three in the state.”
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE?: Who has the best tacos around here? And what sets them apart? Hit the comment button to tell all.
This and that…
… notes from Dave Bangert
AS SEEN AT GREENBUSH CEMETERY: After her Democratic primary on Tuesday, one that ended Fairfield Township Trustee Taletha Coles’ bid for re-election, Monica Casanova talked about how much work it was going to take for the next trustee to fix the financial issues and reputation of the township office. Still, Casanova said, “You have to admit, Taletha took care of Greenbush Cemetery.”
That was a fact Coles tried to make clear in recent days, when a banner went up at the corner of Ninth and Greenbush streets, on the fence of the township-owned cemetery that touts: “Here rest our old settlers.”
The banner runs down the progression of local and national historic designations – as the banner says, “City’s first for a Lafayette cemetery” – for the graveyard since Coles took office. And it takes credit this way: “Granted under Fairfield Twp. Trustee Taletha Coles Administration.”
A laminated portrait of Coles’ face was attached to the banner, after the fact.
The cemetery was established in the 1840s on what was then the outskirts of Lafayette. Lafayette founder William Digby is buried there. Fairfield Township took over maintenance of the 10-acre cemetery when the trust that did it previously ran out of cash more than a dozen years ago. The process to make Greenbush Cemetery a local historic district finished in 2020, with the process to be on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021. (The banner is a bit off, giving the impression that the cemetery is a National Historic Landmark, which is a different and higher designation.)
Here's the sign, in case you drive by and wonder what it says …
IN COURT: Details about grand jury indictments filed last week for Menashi Cohen, a former Purdue professor and Greater Lafayette business owner, were released Wednesday, accusing him of money laundering, receiving stolen goods from more than a dozen stores and reselling it through CD Land and Deal Zone in Lafayette between May 2017 and September 2020. Cohen was arrested this week and was in court looking to get his bond reduced. For a solid look at the case police and prosecutors built against Cohen, here’s reporting from the Purdue Exponent’s Joe Duhownik from court Wednesday and more on the background on Cohen’s business dealings and a March 2021 raid at Deal Zone that was tied to the investigation. Cohen is due back in court May 11 for a bond reduction hearing, with a jury trial initially set for Sept. 27, according to court records.
BANNER UP: Purdue established the go-to stop during alumni weekends in the future for one group on campus, when President Mitch Daniels unveiled a national championship banner to honor the Boilermaker team that won the National Club Basketball Association championship in April. The team beat Notre Dame, 53-48, in the NCBA tournament at Gannon University in Pennsylvania. Daniels presented the banner to the team, including Zack Hodgin (pictured above with Daniels), Tuesday at the Co-Rec. More power to all the future spouses and kids of this year’s national champs as they stop by the Co-Rec on the way to a Ross-Ade tailgate to hear about that tournament run in 2022 … one more time.
Thanks, again, to sponsor Little Engine Ventures for the help to make this edition possible. Take a few minutes to learn more about their Lafayette-based businesses.
NEXT WEEK MARKS ONE YEAR FOR THE BASED IN LAFAYETTE REPORTING PROJECT … IN CASE YOU WERE HOLDING OUT TO SEE WHETHER IT WOULD STICK AROUND BEFORE SUBSCRIBING.