Felix, a character in Adi Alsaid’s young adult fiction book North of Happy was asked what makes a taco perfect. “It’s a taco that tastes as good as the idea of a taco itself. A taco that’ll hold steadfast through memory’s attempt to erase it, a taco that’ll be worthy of the nostalgia that it will cause. A taco that won’t satisfy or fill but will satiate your hunger. Not just for tonight but for tacos in general, for food, for life-itself, brother. You will feel full to your soul. “But!” he added, a callused index finger pointed straight up at the sky. “It’s also a taco that will make you hunger for more tacos like it, for more tacos at all, for food, the joy of it, the beauty of it. A taco that makes you hungry for life and that makes you feel like you have never been more alive. Nothing short of that will do
Finding the perfect taco may be as futile a quest as finding a modicum of talent in any Kardashian. There is probably no such thing! There are only good, very good, excellent and more rarely, outstanding tacos and that’s more than enough. If you (and we all should) persist in your quest for the perfect taco, accept that the pursuit is truly about the deliciousness of the journey not some mythical perfect taco destination…and what a rewarding journey it should be. Since the turn of the century, tacos have given the ubiquitous burger a run for its money as the most popular of all hand-held foods. Tacos are no longer just the province of Mexican restaurants and taquerias. Nor are they solely constructed from Mexican or Mexican-inspired ingredients. You can find the once-humble taco crafted from a fusion of exalted multicultural ingredients.
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than at Dia De Los Takos which just might be the closest you’ll ever come to finding that elusive, maybe unachievable perfect taco. More than any tako we’ve enjoyed across the Land of Enchantment, these tacos pop with flavor and ingredient combinations that are bold and brash yet sophisticated and refined. These are flavor combinations obviously born of trial, fun, folly and mostly pure genius. The genius (perhaps mad scientist) behind these tacos is Chef Dominic “Dom” Valuenzuela. You can almost picture him standing over burbling beakers of sauces he creates, adding a dash of this and a dab of that in his own quest to create the perfect taco, a symphony of concordant flavors.
Chef Valenzuela is one of the new breed of young chefs transforming the Duke City’s culinary landscape–mavericks out to prove New Mexico isn’t solely about our sacrosanct red and green chile. While chefs of previous generations may have aspired to haute French cuisine or fine dining, this new breed is more apt to prepare affordable street food for the masses. They’re innovative and original, not bound to established culinary mores or to traditional brick-and-mortar milieus. They have an almost reverent respect for the ingredients and flavors of (among others) Japanese and Peruvian culinary cultures. This new breed–which also includes Burque born or raised chefs Javier Montano (Vara Winery), Marie Ynguez (Bocadillos Slow Roasted) and Israel Rivera (The Shop)–can compete in any culinary arena.
One of the other defining characteristics of the new breed of Albuquerque chefs is how well they support (even root for) one another. Sure culinary competitions such as the 505 Food Fights are emulous, but at the end of the day they’re also fun and friendly. Chef Dom is one of the binding forces in this fraternity, bringing his chef colleagues together to shed light on New Mexico’s burgeoning culinary culture in his entertaining and enlightening podcast Let’s Tako About it With Chef Dom. There’s no better avenue for getting to know some pretty good chefs who are even better people.
Competition certainly brings out the best in Chef Dom who bested fifteen of the metropolitan area’s most accomplished chefs in the inaugural 505 Food Fights. As with all successful chefs, he’d probably echo the sentiments of British actor T. Alan Armstrong who once said “Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it.” Chef Dom has been preparing for culinary success since he was a high school freshman at Del Norte High School in Albuquerque. After high school, he matriculated in the prestigious Johnson & Wales University (class of 2004), earning a degree in culinary arts.
In between stints (mostly as a sushi chef) in Southern California and Hawaii, Chef Dom returned to the Land of Enchantment briefly in 2012 where he launched and operated Dia De Los Takos as a mobile kitchen (that’s food truck for you, Bob). It was a tease. When he left, Duke City taco aficionados flew aprons at half-mast and offered up novenas in hopes he’d soon return. There was much rejoicing when he returned to Albuquerque in 2019, launching Dia Del Los Takos inside Albuquerque Indoor Karting, “one of Albuquerque’s funnest adrenaline destinations.” His hero’s welcome back included earning accolades from readers of Albuquerque the Magazine. In its annual “Hot Plate Awards” edition for 2019, the magazine’s readers bestowed a well-deserved “Hot Plate” award to Dia De Los Takos for “the entire taco menu.“
9 July 2019: That’s the entire tako menu–not one taco singled out from the others. Ostensibly, that means you can’t go wrong no matter what tako(s) you order. Fittingly, my inaugural visit transpired on Tuesday, the nationally recognized Dia De Los Tacos. Taco Tuesday at Dia De Los Takos means the very best fish taco in the city for a pittance. As with other takos on the menu, the fish taco is named for for a classic car. It’s called the Cali Convertible and it’s about six near-perfect bites. A hefty blue Peruvian tilapia filet battered with cerveza from Marble Brewery is nestled in a single tortilla where it shares a crowded space with Chef Dom’s brightly-colored signature slaw (hand-cut cabbage, red peppers, red onion, vinegar and lime juice) and cilantro crema. It’s an adventure in textural contrasts, heat and cold temperatures and absolute deliciousness.
11 July 2019: Perhaps the most misnamed tako on the menu is the Kia Klunker (soy-braised pork belly, lettuce, kimchi, Korean chile sauce). There’s nothing klunky about this tako. In fact, it’s an exemplar of Chef Dom’s ingenuity in putting together ingredients and flavors that titillate your taste buds. That pork belly is more crispy than it is fatty, more savory than it is sweet. The Jalope (maple-glazed crispy fried chicken breast topped with lettuce and chipotle crema) does that, too, offering taste and texture contrasts that’ll delight your soul. The fried chicken is as good as the best (non-Nashville-style) fried chicken in the city. My favorite, however, also showcases chicken. It’s the Saigon Scooter (Vietnamese sticky crispy chicken, with pickled Daikon and carrot, mint and cilantro, peanuts, and jalapeño). If you’ve ever wondered what a banh mi would taste like in tako form, you’ll get your answer with every bite of this paragon of creativity.
9 August 2019: Growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, my friend and publicist Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) never had a taco until he matriculated at The University of Southern California. As it was for many denizens of taco deprived regions of the fruited plain, his introduction to tacos was at Taco Bell. Dia De Los Takos really challenged his taco paradigm, but to his credit he dove right into the Camero (Philly cheese steak taco with tender brisket, caramelized onion and American cheese) and the Saigon Scooter. Whether he’s become a “convert” remains to be seen, but at least he tried and enjoyed something new.
9 August 2019: Spanish speaking New Mexicans don’t use such anemic adjectives as “awesome” or “great” to describe something we like. We use the term “chingon” (no, not the Federation’s enemy on Star Trek). Chingon describes something that’s not just extremely awesome, it’s f’ing awesome. Dia De Los Takos Tako Chingon (confit beef cheek topped with guacamole, cilantro and elote salad) certainly earns its name. Instead of being greasy, a consequence sometimes of cooking a meat in its own fat, the confit beef cheek had a flaky-grained texture and deep beef flavor punctuated by the richness of the guacamole and sweet, creamy corn niblets. Tako chigon takes chingon to another level!
9 August 2019: On the counter where you place your order, you’ll espy a number of sauces in squeeze bottles. Ostensibly some diners use them, but for me it would be a desecration to mess with Chef Dom’s creativity. Takos such as the confit beef cheek tako (guacamole, cilantro and onion) need no amelioration. It’s perfect just as is–even if it’s not named for a vehicle. If it’s starting to sound as if Chef Dom has a thing for confit beef cheeks, count your blessings. Confit beef cheeks go well with everything Chef Dom pairs them with.
9 August 2019: If BOTVOLR’s taco paradigm was shaken by the Camero and Saigon Scooter not being made on pre-formed, crispy corn tortillas, it was blown away by a tako constructed on a burnt cheese corn tortilla. More accurately, a cheese “skirt” is formed around the corn tortilla, a sort of wrapper for a wrapper. Burnt cheese is more than an interesting concept. It lends rich, salty and delicious notes that go so well the Takoma (tender confit beef brisket topped with guacamole, salsa fresca and queso fresco). It’s a tako not only brimming with flavor, but it’s fun and different.
9 August 2019: Chef Dom has ended his podcasts by collaborating with his guests to reimagine takos. After a scintillating interview with Chef Javier Montaño of the Vara Winery (a Gil favorite), the dynamic duo came up with the Quixote Tako (juicy achiote chicken with a Spanish red wine salsa and sour cream). Named for Don Quixote De La Mancha, the tragicomic hero of Spanish literature, this is a tako for which Quixote would have undertake a quest of errantry. It’s Chef Montaño at his Iberophile best. That Spanish red wine salsa is fantastic and it’s pairing with sour cream absolute genius. I’ll be saying a few novenas for this tako to remain on the menu.
It’s not just Gil’s Thrilling opinion that El Dia De Los Takos is the best in the Land of Enchantment. MSN worked with Yelp to compile a list of each state’s most exemplary taco joint, ranking them using such factors as total volume and ratings of reviews in 2019. Named as New Mexico’s best taco place is the spellchecker-confounding Dia De Los Takos. Here’s what MSN had to say: “Did anyone else this restaurant name and think El Dia De Los Muertos? Head to the beautiful city of Albuquerque for epic hikes and to nosh on delicious tacos at Dia De Los Takos, including the electric bike, a vegan taco that comprises crispy sweet potato, cashew cheese and guacamole.”
9 July 2019: Chef Dom’s genius isn’t limited to tacos. The menu is replete with options–burgers, burritos, a mac and cheese dish reputed to be sheer magic and even salads–all beckoning repeat visits. There are nine burgers on the menu, some named for a street, route or interstate. The green chile cheeseburger (green chile, 2x 3oz chuck patty, American cheese, red onion, lettuce, tomato, special sauce) is named the I-25 for the north-south interstate that runs from Las Cruces to Buffalo, Wyoming. The I-25 is about half the price of almost every other green chile cheeseburger in town. It’s also about twice as flavorful. Seriously, this is a too-good-to-be-true bargain that can go head-to-head with any burger in town and beat them. Just ask my friend Captain Tuttle.
In keeping with the motorized theme of the space, seating is far more utilitarian than it is comfortable. Tables are, in fact, just plexiglass table tops atop engine blocks and other car parts I can’t name. Save for the three or four times I banged my knee against the steel engine parts, my visits were adventures in anticipation followed by satisfied swoons of appreciation for tacos about as close to perfect as you’ll find anywhere.
Dia De Los Takos
5110 Copper Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 9 August 2019
1st VISIT: 9 July 2019
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Cali Convertible, Kia Klunker, The Jalope, The Saigon Scooter, I-25, The Chingon, The Takoma on a Burnt Cheese Tortilla, Confit Beef Cheek Taco