By Justine Hall and Bradley Harrison
Photos by Jaquan Leonard and Sigrid Johannes
Tacos are the cool kids of food. Spicy, fun and full of variety, yet still sort of noncommittal. They’re a go-with-the-flow kind of cuisine. Perfect for date nights, parties with friends, even dinner with your parents.
Justine: This is where Bradley shows his gringo roots. I proudly tout my Mexican heritage. Plus, I’m a born-and-raised San Diegan, also known as home of the best Mexican food anywhere in the U.S. I spent summers working in a Mexican restaurant with freshly made tortillas, the best rice and beans and (of course) traditional tacos. All of this is to say that I take my tacos seriously.
Anyway, this is the structure to how we went about judging the best taco in Charleston. First we made a list of spots based on recommendations, Google searches, word on the street and previous experience. From that list, we narrowed our options down to three restaurants. At each eatery, Justine and I ordered a different taco.
Justine: Bradley took the meat category, seeing as I’ve been a vegetarian for over eight years. Well, technically I’m a Pescetarian — I’ll eat fish. But when I tell people that I’m a pescetarian they tend to think it’s a religion. So there’s your clarification.
Bradley: With this, there was a natural variety to our orders. Tacos in hand, we rated them on a scale of zero to five stars: zero: bad, one: ok, two: good, three: great, four: excellent and five: one of the best we’ve ever had. We gave these ratings to each taco for five categories: FLAVOR, TEXTURE, HOLD-ABILITY (this is basically structure, but hold-ability is more fun to say), WILD CARD and overall EXPERIENCE. We then added up the total stars that each restaurant earned and with this official mathematical formula, we determined the best place to get a taco in Charleston.
Justine: We have all been to Taco Boy at one point or another. For happy hour drinks with friends, birthdays or post-beach eats, it has become an institution among College of Charleston students. As a self-proclaimed Mexican food aficionado, Taco Boy has relatively decent options — but its true strength is its outdoor seating.
Justine’s Taco: Tempura Avocado
FLAVOR: Killer. Seriously, so much unexpected spiciness comes from the roasted cauliflower. The sweet Thai chili glaze, while not exactly Mexican, was flavorful and inventive. Four stars.
TEXTURE: There was so much going on in one taco that the avocado, buried down at the bottom of the flour tortilla, felt like a bit of an afterthought. I honestly forgot that it was an avocado taco because I was so infatuated with the roasted cauliflower. Three stars.
HOLD-ABILITY: My notes for this section say “excellent, no spillage.” You could get away with ordering this taco on a date and not embarrass yourself. Four stars.
WILD CARD: You guessed it: the roasted cauliflower. I’m not exaggerating, it was so good that if they would let me, I would order an entire bowl for myself. This taco also supports the Green Heart Project, donating a dollar from each one sold to the cause. Five stars.
EXPERIENCE: Prior to this article I habitually ordered the Taco Boy salad. Now I’m a complete convert to the Tempura Avocado taco, and you should be too. Four stars.
Bradley’s Taco: Portobello Mushroom
FLAVOR: Though I’m usually a carnivorous orderer, the cumin-seasoned mushrooms and roasted poblano peppers left no want of meat in my stomach. Three stars.
TEXTURE: Biting into this taco is a profoundly juicy experience. Three stars.
HOLD-ABILITY: Sadly, the juiciness actually caused the taco to get soggy by the last two bites. Two stars.
WILD CARD: This taco is good enough to make me think that being a vegetarian would not be that much of a sacrifice. Four stars.
EXPERIENCE: It is always a pleasure sitting in the breeze at Taco Boy while enjoying a meal. Four stars.
That gives Taco Boy with an overall score of 36 stars.
Justine: This place boasts cool, pink lettering outside with a definite ‘60s vibe in its decor and architecture. It almost feels like you’re sitting on the set of a Wes Anderson film. A trusted source told me this was the best place for tacos in Charleston. I still trust this source, and am going to give the Americano the benefit of the doubt and say we hit it on a really, really, really bad day.
Justine’s Taco: Seasonal Fish
FLAVOR: When the server brought the plate of tacos out to us, the scent that accompanied it is best described as the oldest pair of gym socks you own, that have never been washed and then left in a swamp somewhere. That put a damper on any potential this taco had. And it really seemed like it had potential — supposedly served with an avocado crema, fried plantain crusted fish, blood orange, red cabbage and jalapenos. The only thing I tasted was the blood orange. Zero stars.
TEXTURE: The fish was cut into cubes and fried, which just did not work for a taco. The orange did add an interesting element for texture. One star.
WILD CARD: Food should never smell like old socks. I cannot imagine an instance where this would be okay, other than a kid’s Halloween party, and even that is pushing it. Zero stars.
EXPERIENCE: The slow service didn’t even bother me that much. I get it, I’ve worked in the service industry, and sometimes things happen that are out of your control. But as I said food should not have such an off putting, terrible smell that it’s all you remember and all you can think about while you are trying to eat your taco. Zero stars. Zero stars.
Bradley’s Taco: Jerk Chicken
Bradley: Woah this place put us through the ringer. Justine mentioned the smell, but honestly she describes it too modestly. I ordered the Jerk Chicken taco and would not have even eaten it if it were not for my journalistic perseverance.
FLAVOR: Dirty gym socks? No, that’s too nice. Imagine this: You just finished hot yoga and are getting into the shower. You have an itch in an intimate part of your body, thus you reach to scratch, and upon bringing your hand up to the shower knob you get a whiff. Okay, now amplify that smell to the point where it could engross an entire table of four. That is honestly how it smelled. -400 stars.
My mother always said, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So after I make the comment that the smell of the food turned the scene of the restaurant from a Wes Anderson film to a horror movie, I’m not going to finish reviewing this taco. I’m just glad I was not hungry when we came here.
The Americano gets an overall score of -398 stars.
Pancito & Lefty
Justine: Open for just over a month, this eatery is always packed and for good reason. It’s crazy good. Their motto is “transportive, unforgettable food experiences with every meal” and that is dead accurate. The exterior of the place still says Zappo’s Pizza but as soon as you enter the doors, you’re transported — you feel cool just because you’re sitting there. With street art-inspired walls and tons of windows, you’ll want to stay long after you finish your food.
Justine’s Taco: Crispy Fish taco
FLAVOR: WOW. Spicier than expected but in the best way. And the flounder is so good and almost buttery. The chipotle crema is the culprit behind the spiciness — if I could buy it to drizzle over everything I would. Four stars.
TEXTURE: The fish makes this taco in the texture department. The right amount of crispness on the outside combines perfectly with the butteriness of the fish. The tortilla also deserves an honorable mention. Five stars.
HOLD-ABILITY: Easy to pick up and put back down. Just what you want in a taco. Four stars.
WILD CARD: I considered ordering another tortilla as a side — they were that good. Four stars.
EXPERIENCE: I can confidently say this place will be around for a while. You should start getting used to hearing people say they’re heading to Pancito & Lefty. Five stars.
Bradley: I knew I was in the right place when I saw a Campari cocktail on the menu. I ordered the Tacos al Pastor: pork, pineapple and cilantro.
FLAVOR: I’ve eaten the al Pastor variation of the taco many places, but the succulent, bacon-like strips of pork used here are unmatched. Five stars.
TEXTURE:The sweet crunch of a pineapple is what you come to expect from the Taco al Pastor, but the pork makes this version stand out, being the right combination of crispy and chewy. Four stars.
HOLD-ABILITY: To be honest, the tacos were eaten before I even thought about putting them down or switching hands. Three stars.
WILD CARD: Eating here makes you feel like you have hit peak trend. I think this restaurant will be cool for a long time. Four stars.
EXPERIENCE: It could have been the light from the big windows, the general atmosphere or my personal hunger, but I swear the tacos were glistening when they were brought out. I almost took a bite of one without thinking to take pictures of it first. Five stars.
Pancito & Lefty gets an overall score of 43 stars.
There you have it. Pancito & Lefty is the best place to eat a taco in Charleston.
*This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Yard.