Photos: SmSh Photographers
The state of the Shanghai taco, in 20 acts.
Shanghai is a taco town. I know this because I've spent weeks scouring the cantinas, diners and food stands for them. Set before you is the culmination of that research. I haven't sampled all the tacos that the city has to offer, but I’ve probably come closer than any other person. All my other achievements pale in comparison to this.
A couple of rules: if it's a chain, I picked one. I’ve only mentioned tacos that are available to the public, at the time of writing (so exempting specials), in brick-and-mortar establishments.
I avoid discussion of ‘authenticity’. The point is moot: in Shanghai, our melting pot of migrants and immigrants, it's merit and not origins that should determine success.
Here, in no particular order, is the fruit of my labor.
Of the four Pistoleras, I prefer the one on Nanyang Lu for its downtown location and leafy terrace, which blocks out the traffic noise. The food's consistent across the venues and reasonably well put together, and it's as good for team building as date night. The menu's big: grab a large enough group so that you can experience the entire range, then reorder. Go on Tuesdays, when tacos at all locations are 25rmb from 4-9pm.
: The carnitas (70rmb for two) and the al pastor.
Cantina needs little introduction. It's famous for the three hard shell tacos with seasoned ground beef, sour cream and lettuce, but also falafel with the cucumber tomato salsa and tahini sauce (60rmb for two), and the al pastor with pineapple salsa. 20rmb for one or 50rmb for three for the soft corn tortilla; double shell or chicken shell options cost extra. Frank, the fellow in the kitchen, has skill.
And can we talk about the salsa bar? Eight salsas on offer, including a yummy pumpkin salsa, all made in-house. Mix the Diablo with the Verde, which is Pretty Damn Good. Why doesn't Shanghai have more of these?
: The beef hard shell tacos (20rmb for one, 55rmb for three).
A hole in the wall created by Gabriela, who helped popularize Mexican cuisine in Shanghai way back during the Expo. Her daughter Grecia has since taken over the shop. La Coyota might be a hole in the wall, but their cochinita taco (slow roasted pork and chili blend) is all kinds of beautiful. It is delicious, uses good ingredients, comes quickly, and costs 40rmb for two. The menu doesn’t go into much detail about the tacos, which is a missed opportunity, but the tacos are hearty, served on flour tortillas, and affordable.
: If you can distract yourself from the saucy cochinita taco I suggest the beef steak aka taco de bistec (40rmb for two).
Hongqiao residents get passable flour tortilla or corn hard shell tacos for 25-30rmb each, and strong drinks. The beef brisket with chimichurri and mango salsa is just all right. The tequila-battered sea bass with garlic chips, cabbage slaw, avocado aioli and jalapeño does better. The batter is a nice touch. The grilled marinated pork with pepperoni, apple chili jam, and spinach packed a bit of heat, which I wasn’t expecting, and the sweet crunch of the apple slivers was nice. Worth a visit for taco fans.
Side-note: drinks are strong, exuberant and served in hefty glasses. Could do with a better job on the rim. More salt please.
: The mushroom and blue cheese (25rmb for one). The deep-fried cheese was a gluttonous wonder.
Creative little shop with a nice terrace. All the tacos here come with a double shell (corn hard shell and flour tortilla held together with cheese), unless you ask for the tortilla to be, for example, made entirely of cheese. They do things a little differently than most spots: for instance, their Tuesday chef specials are announced morning-of via wechat (ID:tacolicious-SH), hinge on customer suggestions and can be altered to suit your taste.
: The saucy brisket with the 10rmb poached egg, and the “sweet heat” fried chicken (65rmb for any two tacos). For Sunday brunch (40rmb for two) I opt for the gooey pulled pork.
Yeah, we're doing Taco Bell. The seasonal crayfish taco in corn hard shell (29rmb each) is light yet punchy and keeps it simple with a tangy sauce and ample crayfish. If you want the polar opposite, try the beef double decker with its dense flour tortilla and a corn shell glued together with that infamous yellow liquid cheese (32rmb each). Remove the mountain of lettuce and slather on the hot sauce for any actual flavor. The beef was flavorless and the tortilla doughy. I struggled to finish it. The chicken taco (29rmb each) is pedestrian. Pedestrian, I say! When you get down to it, Taco Bell only has, what, three tacos?
: A taxi somewhere else.
The team at Maya do a good job. It's as good a family-friendly spot as a date night, like a cross between Sir Elly's and Inferno. Pick any taco here and you can't go wrong. Standouts are the Berkshire pork belly taco with mango slaw and chipotle cream (34rmb each), and the beef and cheese (32rmb each), especially when you ask for added chorizo. The crispy fish tacos with batter shells are diminutive but impressive. From their separate vegan and vegetarian menus, the calabaza and garbanzo bean taco (28rmb each) stands up to its meatier counterparts. Another high note? The queso fundido (45rmb). Use the flour tortillas to create queso tacos. You're welcome.
I should mention the blackened codfish at its sister spot, Mayita. Get the corn tortilla. It's my favorite fish taco in Shanghai. While you're there, try the chili-roasted pumpkin (ask for the flour tortilla). The slow roasted pork belly with itty-bitty cubes of mango and mango slaw (flour tortilla) — someone give me the recipe for this, please. Sets of three tacos available at 88rmb or single tacos ranging in price from 28rmb to 34rmb.
Barrio is barely two months old, but its fare belies its age. It's from the Bombay Bistro people, with chefs Sidd Cadena (Naked Castle) and Edgar Herdez (Azul, Taco Laoban) in the kitchen. It's in Qingpu, on a pedestrian street reminiscent of suburban North America. Great spot to visit with a group, inhaling tacos and flautas and drinking strong margaritas.
The chorizo taco and barbacoa taco come recommended, but the standout for me is the carnita. Avoid the fried fish. It's basically a blocky fish finger. The tortillas are made from masa, and it's the only place in Shanghai to make them in-house.
: Carnita (50rmb for two).
Cactus is your friendly neighborhood taqueria: tacos are decent and the margaritas are strong. I enjoy their battered fish hard shells. Jerry (ex-Pistolera) has been lead in the kitchen since they opened two years ago, and a quick overview of the menu shows he has brought a lot from that establishment. Not just the flavor and presentation, but the "true legend burrito" *ahem.* People flock here for the convenient location: there's a community vibe during the evenings and the prices are relatively low.
: The costra (68rmb for two) which is a carne asada smothered in cheese. It's as good as it sounds.
The little taco shop that could. Originally Ken Walker was involved, but his partners apparently pulled a fast one. I went there with a friend before I heard that Ken had been ousted, and while they are still using all of Walker's creations, it’s all gone a bit to shit, really, with declining quality, smaller portion sizes and missing ingredients. Standard Shanghai F&B story: greedy businesses partners, and broken promises.
Ken Walker and Chef Frisco were doing whatever they wanted, and that was a good thing because it meant we got novel yet yummy experiments such as 'the boner' taco (slow cooked pork rib with pineapple salsa and sour cream, 38rmb each) and the return of the matador (beef and hash brown, topped with fried egg, 28rmb each). Plus arepas and empanadas. A number of other tacos are available; notable among them is the lengua (beef tongue) taco, which is simple and all the better for it. There’s some novelty too, with things like “frito pie” and a pork belly and kimchi taco. I imagine this new development is the last new thing we’ll see from La Mesa anytime soon.
: The Matador (28rmb).
Rastaco, basically a taco cart, has very recently relocated to Specters from TY7 and now does an abridged selection of tacos from 10.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Slow cooked chicken, slow cooked lamb, soft-boiled egg and tuna, and beans and cheese, all 20rmb. I'm non-plussed by the others but the Mongolian slow cooked lamb is divine, with its unorthodox but welcome inclusion of chickpeas. It towers over the others.
: Go for the 20rmb lamb, and then maybe lamb once more, then one of their 30rmb Rekorderlig ciders. But don't go just yet. Rastaco is on hiatus for about another month.
Interesting flavor combinations at Cin Cin Cantina and Bar. Let's say interesting. Pan-cooked mushrooms and black beans, a sliver of avocado and a dab of sour cream (18rmb each) on a flour tortilla, a down-at-heel chorizo taco (flour tortilla) which came with a sausage that was a little gristly and a lot unnecessary (25rmb each). I ran into some friends who asked me not to give this place a glowing review for fear it would flood their favorite neighborhood spot. No problem! The tacos are rubbish.
: 10rmb shots of Jameson and tequila to dull the pain of sub-par tacos.
The taco selection at The Cannery is small and mighty. People often think of tacos as fast food bordering on junk food; the adage that you 'can put anything into a taco'. It works both ways. You can
put anything in a taco, high-quality or low. I like tacos because they're egalitarian: it's hard to put on airs and graces when you eat with your hands and juggle the threat of food dripping down your arm or chin.
Anyway, I digress. Sean J. and his team are doing a fine job. Every taco here is a winner, simple yet sophisticated.
: The 'surfs up!' fish taco (78rmb for two), the vegetarian 'three sisters succotash' (68rmb per two), the '12 hour brisket' with pineapple and salsa verde (88rmb per two) or even the warm lobster and sea urchin taco at 128rmb (for three).
Apollo gets top marks for effusive and friendly service. Their delicate tacos fit with the menu and the tenor of the space. I went for the soft-shell crab taco (with chili mayo, avocado cream, diced mango and lots of cabbage), which is good. I preferred the fried chicken taco (tartar, radish slices and iceberg lettuce) more. The high-quality ingredients come at a premium: 45rmb for one crab taco or 35rmb for a fried chicken taco.
Would I go back? Possibly for Taco Tuesdays, when they offer a wider selection, including duck tacos. A good duck dish is my Camelot.
: Fried chicken! (35rmb)
Drinks, merriment, an affable atmosphere - The Rooster does a number of things well. Alas, their pulled pork taco is not really one of them. The tortilla falls apart, and while there is ample filling of Rooster’s signature pulled pork, it's marred by too much diced raw onion. It’s meant to come out with slaw and pickled jalapeños, but I got a dollop of plain mayonnaise instead of sour cream (I asked, they said they picked the wrong ‘white stuff’ bottle). Envisioned by a named chef and mangled by whoever sent it out, something has definitely gotten lost along the way. There is also a fried chicken taco available but I haven't tried it yet. It could only be better.
: A stiff drink.
Peter's has a homey mom and pop vibe. They also have what I believe is the cheapest taco deal in all of Shanghai: the pork al pastor at 39rmb for three. More meat than the price suggests, the seasoning is decent and the thin tortilla holds up. Forego other tacos on offer. The best of the trio (60rmb) was the vegetable (broccoli, onions, carrot) in a hard shell. The chicken in a soft shell tasted like nothing, as in I genuinely couldn’t detect any flavor, and beef in a hard shell was just unseasoned ground beef.
: Get the pork al pastor (39rmb for three), leave the rest.
El Santo puts out new tacos every month. Sadly, that means the soft-shell crab has departed the taco-verse, but the most popular (and my favorite), is the al pastor with the pineapple salsa (118rmb for three). You get your money's worth. The shrimp goobernader (35rmb each) is a win for fans of seafood, with hazelnut butter, guacamole and chipotle aioli.
Quick mention of El Luchador in Xintiandi. I think it's pretty neat, with that upscale yet playful Mexican vibe that caters to both local and international tastes. You can get sets of three tacos from 98rmb (chorizo) to 128rmb (arrachera), which you can mix and match, or get individual tacos (40rmb). I usually plump for the robust arrachera steak taco, unfettered with only guacamole and salsa Mexicana (aka pico de gallo), and the baja fish, with a riot of colors and tastes. These tacos are massive. As with its brethren El Santo, you’re getting high-quality ingredients.
: Al pastor with pineapple salsa at El Santo (118rmb for three), arrachera steak and baja fish at El Luchador Xintiandi (40rmb each).
Tacos and mimosas over girly chat, al fresco! That's Stone for me. It's basically a pregame for The Cannery. I suspect they have actual hens laying eggs out in the back at the brewhouse, because my brunch tacos took 65 minutes to arrive. When they did, they were simple and quite good: cheese, bacon and eggs in warm flour tortillas.
: Brunch tacos (58rmb for two).
Cages is a big slice of American culture, one that is deploying Jason Oakley’s magic touch with meat to conjure up some mean tacos. The pulled pork taco is delicious, and the newer brisket taco (available since mid-August) is also a home-run. Tender and flavorful pulled pork served with slaw and a pickle length, your sauce of choice (Texas Red) and three flour tortillas. DIY style. Cram the pork in the tortilla, add a sliver of pickle to add some tartness and eat. I’m also waiting for the day that the BBQ is available every day and not just Thursdays. I usually go pick up a kilo of meat to last me the week.
: The pulled pork taco (78rmb for three) but only on Thursdays from 5pm until it sells out.
Solana is the very recent joint from the people behind Hot Chick
, hewing to Southern American fare and a large enough selection of tacos to pique the interest of this taco-princess. Tacos come in sets on two, one on a spinach tortilla, and one on a whole wheat tortilla. They're made in-house. A bit on the stodgy side, unfortunately, but they get points for trying. The pork-rib-with-coconut taco (coconut pork ribs, mango-jicama salsa, basil, toasted coconut, 48rmb for two) was the highlight of this trip. Melt-in-your-mouth pork, tropical flavors, and toasted coconut providing balance.
Their steak chimchurri (Argentinean hanger steak chimichurri with Manchego and micro greens, 58rmb for a set of two) is also delicious, but excuse me, what are micro greens? Don’t diminish these greens, and put them at the bottom of your list just because of their size. That’s mean. Points for the wee hot sauce station.
: The pork rib with coconut taco (48rmb for two).