Yo Quiero Tacos! Shanghai's Ultimate Taco Showdown: Part I

By Sophie Steiner, September 18, 2021

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An implicit rule in the art of taco making is that texture – and plenty of it – is always good. A crunch of a masa shell; a dribble of spicy salsa; a squirt of a popping ripe tomato; a chomp of fresh slaw; a chewy pull of a tortilla; or a hot, stringy ooze of melted mozzarella. All can transform a humdrum taco into something infinitely more engaging. 

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We've rounded up a list of some of Shanghai's best, boldest and most badass tacos, further proving this structurally sound vessel's dominance as the ideal method of meal consumption. 

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Author's Disclaimer: This is only Part I, so don't get your knickers in a twist if your go-to taco joint isn't mentioned; there is always more to come. The anticipation is half the fun. 

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Bubba's

Bubba’s Food Co., the first Texas-style BBQ joint in all of China, originally opened back in 2006 all the way in Hongqiao. Since then, it moved around to a few different locations, like the Expo site and Cool Docks, but nothing has fit quite right until owner and pit master Ken Walker settled into his new digs in the backside of Shankang Li

The menu is a labor of love, combining highlights from a number of Ken’s previous venues – there’s BBQ meat from the original Bubba’s, some tacos from La Mesa and Tex-Mex from Bordertown

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On the Tex-Mex side of the menu, Ken draws on inspiration from his previously owned La Mesa, and brings to life some the wackiest yet most delicious tacos in town. We’re talking hash browns, ground beef and a runny fried egg on The Matador (RMB30)

Smoked, chopped USDA Prime brisket covered in a zesty “pickle de gallo” mimics a cannibal sandwich topping for the Smoked Brisket Taco (RMB35), and smoked pork shoulder, tinga sauce, slaw and avocado crème rounds out the Cowboy Carnitas Taco (RMB35)

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Throw some jalapeño poppers on a taco with mozzarella, guac, sour cream and marinated onions for the Jalapeño Taco (RMB30) if you can’t get enough of the jalapeno popper starters. 

Other more run-of-the-mill – but just as tasty options – include tossing chorizo, barbacoa beef, spicy beef or chicken tinga on a tortilla with slaw for RMB30 each. Jumping on the Taco Tuesday bandwagon, you can crush two tacos for RMB40 (chicken tinga, beef barbacoa or pork carnitas tacos only) every Tuesday. 

See a listing for Bubba’s Food Co.

Chihuahua

Chihuahua, a spot that feels like walking into a Mexican abuela’s casa in Guadalajara, helps fill a culinary gap in the Shanghai food scene for Mexican street food at everyday prices. 

With many of the recipes coming from co-owner Estef Casas’ (previously of El Santo and El Luchador) grandma, the dishes are rustically wholesome. Although the menu warns that ‘these are not pretty tacos; they are real tacos,’ we disagree, and find beauty in how genuinely delicious they are.

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All tacos are served in sets of two on legit corn masa taco shells (unless otherwise specified), sourced from the ‘masa Messiah’ himself, Juan (La Cocina de Don Juan) in Shenzhen. 

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Do yourself a favor and snag a double set of the Barbacoa (RMB55/two), Estef’s grandma’s recipe of slow cooked beef – stewed in its own juices, so the result is like a rich birria de res. Topped with chipotle salsa and a few pickled onions, the meat is truly the star.

If your camera roll is – like ours – as filled with taco snaps as it is lacking in selfies, be prepared to dedicate an entire album to this one.  

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The Pork Carnitas (RMB55/two) is a hefty portion of slow-cooked pork neck smothered in raw green salsa and pico de gallo. Make sure to ask for their extra spicy hot sauce, a homemade secret blend that adds both flavor and scorching heat, for those itching for that extra kick. 

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We are also big fans of the Al Pastor (RMB55/two) and it's north-of-the-border alternative that comes in the form of Pastor Gringa (RMB45), where the masa tortilla is switched out for a toasted flour one, covered in melted mozz and sprinkled with tart pineapple bits.  

See a listing for Chihuahua

El Santo

El Santo is Shanghai’s go-to for casual Mexican fare, ever-flowing margaritas, fun-tastic events and friendly approachability, backed by The Camel Group

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Aside from free flow brunches, quiz night Wednesdays and daily food and drink specials, El Santo serves up a menu brimming with all things burritos, quesadillas, nachos and – most importantly – tacos, of which there are nine to choose from.

READ MORE: The Mexican Brunch to End All Brunches at El Santo

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A mountain of slow cooked pork is piled high atop a corn torilla shell as the Pork Carnitas (RMB35/one, RMB90/three), laced with salsa verde and fresh pico de gallo – a slurry of juicy fat, sauce and fresh salsa trickles down your chin after each bite. 

Equally famous, the Al Pastor (RMB40/one, RMB100/three) is all about the shaved tendrils of guajillo chili-marinated pork, interspersed with coriander relish, grilled pineapple and jalpeño salsa. 

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On the flour tortilla side of the spectrum, El Gober Shrimp (RMB40/one, RMB100/three) offers up three bigger-than-bite-size prawns nestled in a guacamole, gouda cheese and bean blend, all tied together by a tangy chipotle mayo sauce. Bonus for those watching the waistline: no frying going on here, the prawns are just lightly sautéed. 

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If you're aiming to cut back on meat consumption, the Crispy Tofu & Avocado (RMB35/one, RMB90/three) involves three breaded and fried cubes of marinated tofu, topped with sliced avo, slaw and chipotle mayo wrapped in a crinkly flour shell.  

See a listing for El Santo

HIYA

HIYA is Jason Atherton’s Japanese-inspired restaurant, with a modern fusion thread running through the entire menu. Slick, sophisticated and glamorous, the restaurant is modeled after Atherton's London restaurant, Sosharu, to become a nighttime destination for Shanghai's elite in the chic The Shanghai EDITION Hotel

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While most don't think of tacos when it comes to Japanese eats, HIYA's most ordered dish is a funky combination of two go-to take out favorites: sushi and tacos. The tortilla shell is swapped out for a tempura fried seaweed cracker in the aptly named temacos.

Atherton first debuted temacos at his London outpost, but their popularity has truly exploded in the Shanghai scene. "One table ordered eight of each of the four temaco flavors and ate them all in one sitting," mentioned Angel Chen, F&B Manager of the The Shanghai EDITION. 

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Most closely resembling an actual sushi roll, the Tuna Temaco (RMB118) is stuffed to the gills (pun intended) with soy sauce-marinated raw tuna belly, sushi rice, tobiko and dabs of avocado and fresh wasabi cream, with a spiced aioli served on the side.

The tender tuna juxtaposed by the crisp, umami-rich seaweed shell is as balanced of a bite as can be. 

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The rice-to-fish ratio in the the Seared Salmon (RMB118) is on point, with flaky chunks of salmon combined with tosazu jelly – made from a vinegar based sauce seasoned with bonito soup, kombu seaweed, mirin and soy – sriracha sauce, spiced cabbage and homemade pickles. 

Trading barbecued meats in a traditional taco for Barbecued Freshwater Eel (RMB118), this temaco packs an added punch with pickled chili paste, dill and a wasabi lemon juice sauce. HIYA also offers a vegetarian temaco for RMB100 with seasonal vegetables, sushi rice, tomato miso and a seaweed vinaigrette. 

See a listing for HIYA

Mezcalito 

Mezcalito, a new Mexican bistro focused on tacos and, as the name suggests, mezcal, just soft opened in the old Dodu spot on Changshu Lu. It's backed by Hugo de Mondragon (DoduEspíritu), who is going full in on the agave plant front with his second mezcal-themed venue. 

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The menu, designed by chef Carlos Rosales, focuses on contemporary Mexican fare – a blend of classic tacos, burritos and small plates – with a few scrumptious cuisine amalgamations, like Peking Duck Tacos (RMB28/one, RMB48/two), dribbled with a spicy tamarind chutney. 

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Other inventive taco choices include the King Prawn Mezcal (RMB38/one, RMB68/two) that sees grilled jumbo shrimps flambéed tableside atop a corn tortilla stuffed with sautéed onions, and the Soft Shell Crab (RMB78) – displayed across two shells, deep-fried whole in a tempura batter and decorated with a colorful citrus slaw. 

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The true food focus, as it should be, is clearly tacos. Conventional options – like Birria Lamb (RMB38/one, RMB68/two), Carnitas (RMB32/one, RMB56/two) and Chicken (RMB28/one, RMB48/two)  are on offer, with all tacos available for an upgrade to quesadilla status for an additional RMB18.

The best part is that the kitchen stays open late – 2am on weekends and midnight on weekdays, to be more specific. Tacos for lunch or tacos late night? Both are a win in our book. 

See a listing for Mezcalito

Pistolera 

The name of the game is tacos, with Pistolera’s revamped menu sporting 14 different tortilla topped variations. While the menu now has more salad and burrito options, we – like everyone else – visit with just one goal in mind – to consume as many tacos as possible at a place that offers one of the largest taco selections in the city. 

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Starting with the signatures, the Carnitas Tacos (RMB78) see a hefty portion of slowly cooked pork knuckle topped with onion, cilantro, avocado cream and fresh pico de gallo – just like we'd eat it in Mexico. 

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In the same authentic vein, the Carne Asada Tacos (RMB78) are a meaty matchup of grilled beef sirloin and stewed, spiced beans, topped with guacamole and cheese. 

There's also Shrimp Baja Style Tacos (RMB68) covered in chipotle and mustard coleslaw, Mapo Doufu Tacos (RMB68) and Hunan Stir-Fried Pork Tacos (RMB78) flecked with Xinjiang pepper, among oh-so-many others. 

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Each order comes with two tacos and your choice of flour or corn tortilla shells. Extra sides like Sour Cream (RMB5), Jalapeños (RMB10), Refried Beans (RMB15) and Guacamole (RMB25) are available as add-ons to any taco orders. 

See listings for Pistolera

Tacolicious 

Tacolicious makes the epitome of a great taco – living up to the restaurant’s cheeky tagline, ‘Making Tacos Great Again.’

Co-owners Logan Brouse, Saira Shahzad and Thijs Oomens have expanded deeper into the world of quesadillas, burritos, nachos, ceviches and – no surprise here – cocktails than any other venue in the city. But, we'd expect nothing less from the restaurant that pushes tacos in all forms, even in its own damn name. 

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When it comes to mains, your first and foremost option is – and always will be – Tacos (RMB60/vegetarian, RMB65/meat). From standard meat choices like Chicken or Steak Asado, Chili con Carne, Fried Fish, Birria (Mexican stew) and Shrimp, to fusion favorites like Mapo Tofu, Szechuan Twice Cooked Pork, Beef Bulgogi and Sweet Heat Hot Fried Chicken, to vegan selections like Beans & Corn or Z-Rou Chorizo, the decision is never an easy one. 

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Recently joining the lineup is the Al Pastor – spit-roasted pork, marinated for 24 hours in achiote paste, that’s finished on the flat top grill with a torch for extra char. The meat is then united with seasoned pineapple, chilis, salsa de aguacate and fresh onion in a double layered taco shell. 

With the latest menu release, all taco fillings can now find their way onto quesadillas, burritos, nachos, loaded fries and taco bowls. 

See a listing for Tacolicious

Tacos El Paisa

Tacos El Paisa, situated just outside La Mezcaleria’s wooden door, serves just one thing – tacos. They are identifiably half-moon in shape, sit snugly in one hand and are filled with a multitude of smoky, flame-licked meats – dripping with fat and stewing juices – a sprinkling of crunchy, diced onions and a few sprigs of cilantro adorn the top. 

And they are also open late. Like satisfy-your-drunken-taco-craving-at-2am late.

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Like a drive-through taco joint on the street, there is no real distinction between the kitchen and seating area of Tacos El Paisa; the taco 'bar' serves as a the middle man between La Mezcaleria, La Barra and for floaters that seep up the stairs from Bonica as the evening marches on into late-night.

It’s like a humble neighborhood taqueria, a bastion of comfort and delicious bites that seems to exist exactly at the moment you need a morsel – after a few sneakily strong mezcal libations.

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Behind the counter, behold two of the most exciting finds of the venue – a masa corn tortilla press and a flaming gyro of marinated pork. The Pork Pastor (RMB25) brings the duo together with a griddled-to-order shell encasing orange and dried chili-marinated meat that sports charred crispy bark, similar to that you’d find on smoked brisket.

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Embrace your laowai-ness – but this time as a gringa to Mexico – by ordering the Pork Pastor Gringa (RMB40), the same marinated meat as the Pork Pastor, but this time smothered in gooey, stretchy cheese and crushed pineapple, then grilled on the flat top in a flour tortilla. 

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Pulled lamb shoulder, massaged with Oaxacan spices, is stewed for hours, before finding its way inside a chewy tortilla as the Birria (RMB40). A robust birria broth is served on the side, enticingly aromatic, gamey and ideal for dipping, resulting in a taco ahogado, if there was such a thing. 

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Other must-orders span Tongue (RMB30) with soft-braised beef lengua; Octopus (RMB30) with sautéed ground octopus that looks like it comes from the land, but tastes like plunging into an ocean; and juicy, dripping Suadero (RMB25).

In the name of the salsa, the queso and the holy chili, we praise you taco gods for this offering. 

See a listing for Tacos El Paisa


[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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