Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the results of the first ever Girard Avenue Taco Throwdown!
The contestants: recently opened Shifty’s Taco in Brewerytown, and very recently opened Union Taco in Northern Liberties. An intrepid group of tasters and I subjected ourselves to the one-order-of-each approach to the entire taco menu (plus guacamole and salsa, for good measure) on offer at both places. The goal? Not to crown a winner (because anyone should be happy to have either shop in their neighborhood), but to highlight the best tacos–and alert you to some missteps–at each. Overall, we had great experiences with friendly and helpful staff at both places. Through an extremely scientific tasting, note-taking, and discussion procedure, we reached consensus on some favorites. Honorable mentions are as follows:
If you ate public school lunch in the 90‘s, as several tasters and I did, than Shifty’s Texican taco will inspire in you an extreme nostalgia. Whereas some flavor memories are best left in the past, the Texican’s finely ground beef, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, and pre-grated yellow cheddar is a salty, savory little bite of Americana that will have you swooning over your middle school crush. Be sure to opt for a crispy corn tortilla on this one to maximize taste memory.
While each place offers fish tacos, neither hits it out of the park. Shifty’s version, the Hem and Hawl, is seared tilapia with tangy red cabbage slaw and “a secret sauce” (spicy mayo-like dressing). It has a great balance of sweet, sour, and rich, but the fish is unremarkable.
Alternately, the fish in the Mahi Mahi Tacos at Union was totally overwhelmed by corn and black bean salsa, and their Fried Fish Tacos have addictive, panko-crusted crunch, but were completely under-seasoned and with underwhelming soy and ginger dressed bell pepper cabbage slaw. If I could combine the fish from Union (slapped with some salt before it hit the fryer) with Shifty’s garnishes, I would.
For the vegans out there (in the event that we, in fact, have any vegan readers), there is a solid option for you at each place. At Union it’s sautéed wild mushroom tacos with black beans, caramelized onions, arugula, and goat cheese (unless you’d prefer it without). The Imposter at Shifty’s is filled with house made seitan with chipotle mole, pomegranate molasses, and shredded lettuce. It has a saucy, almost barbecue like sweetness that some of our meat-eating tasters loved. Also, it was noted that the beans at Shifty’s were particularly good, and the Frieda, a special on the day of our visit, is a vegan mash up of black beans, guacamole, lettuce, and pickled red onion, carrot, and jalapeño.
Union Taco’s Pork Cheek al Pastor might be the overall winner of the day. One order of two tacos comprised six chunks of beautifully-braised meat with pineapple, pepper jack, shredded romaine, and salsa fresca. Flavor-wise, it was a crowd favorite, but it, and all of the other braised meat tacos at Union, suffered from serious sogginess. While the corn tortilla fared better than the flour (which gave way when we picked it up), there were numerous moments when, upon lifting a taco out of its tray, the braising liquid ran out in a steady stream. Be that as it may, Union’s meats are tender and robustly flavored and nobody had any problem with forking up taco “salad.”
Though it’s probably quite clear by now that these tacos, for the most part, don’t bear much resemblance to the ones you’ll find on 9th street, when well-executed there’s greatness in the non-traditional. We unanimously loved the chicken nugget stuffed Towner at Shifty’s in all of its ranch dressing, nacho cheese, pickled onion and iceberg lettuce-y glory. And we can’t resist giving props to Union’s Ox Tail taco with pickled jicama, cabrales blue cheese, and caramelized onion. Nothing about this flavor combination requires a tortilla to be enjoyable, but enjoyable it is, nonetheless.
Though overwhelmed (6 whole tacos per person) we still had room for chips, salsa and guacamole. Both shops offer the option of either corn or flour tortillas, which is nice for all your glutards out there, but Union also offers corn or flour tortilla *chips* as well, and for the carb-avoiders, Shifty’s will make any of their tacos as a salad. Shifty’s salsas were stellar, with the roasted tomato being a particular standout. Though all of us liked the idea of the strawberry habanero and the mango poblano guacamoles at Union, we found it strange that the soggy fruit sat atop the guac instead of being mixed in. Overall we preferred the smaller portion of Shifty’s classic guacamole instead, but if you, like me, are a fan of all things cheezy, the smoky jalapeño queso at Union is both a bargain at $3 and not to be missed.
Union Taco [f8b8z]
Shifty's Taco [f8b8z]