For some people, tacos are a childhood memory of crunchy shells and lettuce. For the rest of us, tacos are proof of a divine presence on earth. Tacos have been a very trendy foodie staple recently, but a truly magnificent taco experience involves more than a fancy spot and tortillas. I set off to find the best tacos in Ottawa, and although it was a gruelling task, I am confident that I can steer you towards the authentic tacos experience you’re after.
Beechwood (62 Barrette St.)
This joint is a funky, open kitchen 24-seater tucked into Beechwood that smells like all the Mexican food I’ve ever dreamt of. The menu is an excellent cross section of delicious Mexican staples combined with updated ingredients and combinations. The service is very friendly, laid back, and helpful. Tacos are $4 each, and three or four tacos is a fair amount for dinner. The Al Pastor, and Cochinita Pibil tacos are classic Mexican recipes and do not disappoint. Their cod taco is unlike any other fish taco in Ottawa; hearty and flavourful and crunchy – nothing like the “Baja” tacos of limp fish and coleslaw that have become de rigueur on bar menus. We sampled nine of the 16 tacos and all were sublime. The pork belly and duck confit are excellent examples of contemporary ingredients prepared in a truly delicious and authentic way. Saving the chorizo taco for last was a piece of accidental magic. Bring everyone you know.
El Corazón de Maiz
ByWard Market (55 ByWard Market Square)
A simple lunch counter resto in the ByWard Market Square, El Corazón de Maiz has been highly recommended to me by friends who work downtown and love a good taco. It’s only open from 11am–6pm between Saturday and Wednesday, and until 7:30pm on Thursdays and Fridays. So go early, and go often. The taco options are chicken, pork, steak, or vegetarian. A platter of three tacos costs $10.50 before tax, and is a filling meal. They dress all the tacos with fresh pico de gallo and cremas, with a side of guacamole included. Read: guac is NOT extra. Water and house-made hot sauces are on the sideboard so you can add all the spice you need. The meats are obviously fresh, grilled and flavourful, and the corn tortillas are beautifully soft. Service is fast, friendly and efficient, so you can be in and out quickly, despite long lineups at lunch times. This is a great place to grab a quick, affordable meal in The Market.
Lowertown (307 Dalhousie St.)
This has been my go-to Mexican hangout for years, but until now I had never had the tacos. That was a mistake. Tacos can be ordered individually, or as a platter of three tacos for $13.50 with a fresh salad and rice or beans. One chicken, one beef, and one pork come topped with fresh pico de gallo and avocado. Loading up at the salsa bar is the highlight of any Ahora meal, so be sure to make a few trips to try them all. The tacos are fresh, flavourful, and delicious, although this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has eaten at Ahora. The food comes quickly, and the atmosphere is fun and colourful. It tends to fill up for dinner any night of the week, so this is hardly an insider’s tip. Starting the meal with a shared plate of nachos is an excellent game plan. Take it from an expert.
Taqueria La Bonita
Gloucester (1128 Cadboro Rd.)
This east end gem is tucked into a little strip mall near the buzz of Ogilvy Road, but far from ordinary. (See what I did there?) A bright, festive atmosphere and friendly staff create a fun Mexican experience that doesn’t feel kitschy nor touristy. Cheesy old Mexican melodrama movies are silently projected on the wall, so if you’ve had a few tequilas, it only gets more entertaining. The tacos come in sets of two ($8.50), or three ($12.25) with delicious homemade hot sauces. The authentic staples are here (tinga de pollo, cochinita pibil, carnitas) and since you can’t mix and match tacos in an order, bring a friend and get three orders of two for variety. Very fresh, and very fun.
Gloucester (1730 Montreal Rd.)
In a strip mall on a quiet stretch of Montreal Road, Kukulkan has been open and busy for two years now, and the food is fresh and delicious. Tacos are ordered individually for $4 each and they were the only location that we noticed offered flour tortillas as an alternative to the traditional corn. There is no judgement from this foodie if flour is more your style! The shrimp taco is a fresh creamy and delightful option, and anything with their morita/chipotle mayo condiment is a surefire win. Service is polite and helpful, and the dining room is small and simple. If they happen to twist your arm about ordering some fresh homemade tres leches cake, consider yourself lucky.
Hintonburg (999 Wellington St. W)
Centretown (226 Nepean St.)
I’ll eat tacos anywhere. Even a parking lot. TacoLot came onto the Ottawa food scene as a walk-up food stand in Hintonburg and now has two locations. Although the original location isn’t open during the winter. The Nepean Street restaurant is open for the lunch hour Monday–Friday, and dinner Wednesday–Friday. There is limited indoor seating, but takeout is fast and simple. A big hit with the downtown lunch crowd, two tacos with sides of salad and rice with beans comes to $12 with taxes. Taco fillings can change on the whim of the chef, but the ground beef offering is the delicious, spicy, grown-up version of the tacos from your childhood, and the fish taco is very crunchy and flavourful. Definitely a parking lot party in your mouth. I got the inside word that they are starting to serve brunch, so keep your ear to the ground!
Lowertown (121 Clarence St.)
This is the place to go if you are planning a sexy date night, but still want to eat tacos. This hotspot focuses on “Mexican inspired cuisine” and while the taco selection itself is not extensive, it is delicious. They sell for $4.50 each, or a flight of five for $20, so you can try one of each flavour. A side of guacamole and chips, or Mexican fries, completes a good meal for sharing. The tequila list is very impressive, and the cocktails are a matter of pride for the highly skilled bar staff. Drinks do run on the pricey side (from $13–18 for cocktails) but isn’t that what swanky nights out are for? Making a reservation is a good idea, but eating at the bar guarantees excellent, attentive service from truly remarkable bartenders.