Taco Heaven

So, as it turns out, there is something of a taco war going on over on the west side of Ann Arbor. I’m not sure that the two parties involved in the taco war realize that it is going on. I’m not sure the patrons of the parties involved in the taco war realize it is happening, either. Before this week, I didn’t realize that either of these two places existed, let alone that both existed and were right around the corner from each other.

The winner? Me, because I ate tacos twice this week and both times were delicious.

To backtrack: I’ve become obsessed with the idea of tacos since I met my friend David, who hails from LA. LA is apparently a magical land of food trucks and taco stands, and as I listened to David tell me about these things, my mouth began to water uncontrollably and I essentially made it my life’s mission to find a taco that did not have a hard shell, cheddar cheese or sour cream.

Enter Taco King and Chela’s. Taco King is located on West Liberty in a building that formerly housed a futon store. Chela’s is a short jaunt down the street, around the corner onto South Maple, in a strip mall. I read about both in the comments section of annarbor.com – NOT a place I normally look for worthwhile recommendations on anything, let alone restaurants. But I saw these places mentioned under an article about a different restaurant, and decided to check them out next time I was on that side of town.

I got my chance to try Taco King post-haircut on Wednesday afternoon. I was driving down Stadium headed back toward my office when I remembered – just in time to make a crazy turn on to W. Liberty – that tacos were in the vicinity. The man that flipped me the bird did nothing to dull my anticipation.

I was in a bit of a hurry, but the lunch counter located in the Tienda La Libertad market wasn’t busy and put together my order quickly. I chose the al pastor (marinated pork) and the chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage). I ordered two of each so I could take them back to David and get the LA opinion.

When I got back to the office and we opened the container, we were delighted to see the tacos packaged in doubled-up corn tortillas (no gluey flour here), bursting with meat, and covered with diced onions and cilantro (does anything smell better than cilantro…I think not). The restaurant had provided fresh limes and salsa verde.

Marinated pork and chorizo tacos at Taco King

The marinated pork was a bit sweeter than I expected, and my LA judge said it was a bit sweeter than he was accustomed to. Still quite tasty, however. The chorizo appeared to be ground rather than diced and had some nice heat on the finish. The cilantro cooled everything down a bit, and the salsa verde provided a but of a kick with the lime adding some zing.

All in all, for $1.50 per taco, we thought this was a pretty good find. Yet we still had to try Chela’s…

Chela’s definitely had a but more ambiance, not being attached to a grocery store. We once again chose chorizo and al pastor tacos, and also threw in some carne asada. According to my LA counterpart, these three taco meats would give us a good gauge on which to judge the restaurant. He also picked up several containers of not only salsa verde but of some spicy-looking red sauce as well.

We started with the Chorizo. This was diced into small cubes, not ground like Taco King’s. Once again, chorizo brought flavorful heat – accentuated by the red sauce we liberally poured over the meat.

Chorizo tacos at Chela’s

The al pastor was next, and in this I dare say we found a mutual favorite. Less sweet than Taco King, with a rich savoriness to the marinade that was perfectly complimented by the slightly tangy salsa verde, these were hands-down winners.

Carne asada was fine, but a bit “blah” after the warm, spicy sausage and richly-marinated pork. The steak was appropriately chewy and had a nice char, but it was by far the weakest of the three offerings.

At $1.85 per taco, Chela’s was ever-so-slightly more expensive, but we considered that $0.35 a relatively small price to pay for flavor profiles that fit our personal palates a bit better.

(Also, at Chela’s, David introduced me to Horchata, a rice-based cold beverage seasoned with cinnamon. WOW. It was milky and a bit sweet and just bursting with that warm, spicy cinnamon flavor. It had a cooling property that complimented the heat of the food extremely well. I loved it!)

Chela's tacos and horchata and our piles or hot sauces and salsas

Although I’d say we preferred Chela’s just a bit, either of these establishments is a solid choice for an inexpensive, flavorful lunch. Next time you’re on the west side, give one of them a try.

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