In the hunt for the latest trendy restaurants, our spotlight often misses neighborhoods that are home to some of the Valley's best kitchens — including those making metro Phoenix's best tacos. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be guiding you toward the Valley’s tastiest tacos, and the taquerías that serve them. Welcome to Taco Summer.
35: Puffy Taco Shack
Taquería: Puffy Taco Shack, 16426 North Greasewood Street, Surprise (the nearest major crossroads are Bell and El Mirage roads)
Open Since: 2006
Style: Classic Tex-Mex puffy tacos
You've eaten soft tacos, crispy tacos, rolled tacos, and street tacos. But have you experienced the distinct pleasures of the puffy taco?
A puffy taco is a Tex-Mex specialty that's not particularly easy to find outside of the Lone Star State. Most taco scholars (that's a thing, right?) pinpoint its origins to San Antonio, where they have been made and sold at Alamo City institutions like Ray's Drive-in for decades.
The defining feature of a puffy taco is its light and airy tortilla shell, which is produced by dropping a thin round of fresh, uncooked corn masa into hot, sizzling oil until it turns puffy and airy.
It takes skill and practice to "puff" a taco. To get the right consistency and shape, the chef on deep-fryer duty must carefully poke and prod the bubbly cornmeal blob so that it curls up around the edges and takes the shape of a taco shell. Not quite as thick as a sopapilla, and smaller and less doughy than a fry bread taco, a well-made puffy taco is a thing of beauty.
Once the puffy taco wrapper is done, it's topped with all manners of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and other condiments.
"I learned to make them from watching Throwdown with Bobby Flay," says Sylvia Rivera, the owner-chef of the Puffy Taco Shack in Surprise.
In that episode, celebrity chef Flay went up against one of San Antonio's most celebrated chefs, Diana Barrios-Treviño of the Los Barrios family restaurants. (Spoiler alert: Flay fails to conquer the puffy taco challenge).
"I watched her make those tacos and thought, 'Somebody should start making those tacos in Phoenix,'" Rivera says.
Rivera, who got her start in the mobile food world by selling cotton candy and burritos at local spring training games, figured out how to make the puffy tacos and began selling them at Surprise Stadium about five years ago.
Rivera doesn't know of anybody else making San Antonio-style puffy tacos around town. You might say that puffy tacos are in her blood, though — the Arizona native comes from a long line of tejanos.
Before getting her trailer a few months ago, the easiest way to get your hands on one of Rivera's puffy tacos was to attend a spring training game at Surprise Stadium. Her puffy tacos have become a top draw at the stadium, selling out before the seventh inning stretch on more than one occasion.
Luckily, though, you don't have to wait for spring training to get your hands on some "puffies."
Three nights a week, you'll find Rivera, along with employee sidekick, Teena Resendez, making and selling puffy tacos out of a small white trailer that's parked next to her home in Surprise.
Rivera's home sits on a large, clean lot that has been zoned for commercial use. The street and the surroundings feel distinctly residential, though. If you dine in, you'll eat on simple yet comfortable folding chairs and tables, in full view of Rivera's well-groomed rose garden and spacious, well-lit home.
It's an unusual setup, but also a pleasant one.
I ask Rivera if it ever feels weird to have strangers eating in her own front yard.
"Not really," says Rivera. "I'm just such a people person."
Apart from being a friendly and chatty host, Rivera is also a talented, self-taught chef. Her rendition of the puffy taco is heavenly. The crisp yet tender shell is light and lovely, and every taco is beautifully paired with your choice of four meats. Options include shredded beef, chicken, pork, and carne asada, and there doesn't seem to be a dud among them. Most of the meats are slow cooked with fresh green chiles, onions, tomatoes, and spices for about five hours, resulting in taco meat that's very tender, saucy, and well-seasoned.
"Those are all my mother's recipes," Rivera says. "She could cook anything and everything."
Rivera has held on to her other business — a long-running, family-owned upholstery and clothing alterations business — but her dream is to dedicate herself full-time to the Puffy Taco Shack.
The plan is to expand her current setup, she says. Eventually, she would also like to operate a small fleet of puffy taco food trucks.
"I've given myself 10 years to get it all done," she says laughing.
"This is what I want to do," she says, motioning to her taco trailer. "I have more fun with the food business. This is what I love to do."
The Puffy Taco Shack is up and running on Wednesdays from 6 to 9 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 10 p.m. For now, the shack is cash-only, but Rivera says she hopes to add debit and credit payments soon.
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To keep up with any changes in the shack's hours of operation, check out the Puffy Taco Shack Facebook page for updates.
Our Taco Summer picks so far:
50. Taqueria Don Beto
49. Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
48. Tacos Tijuana
47. El Burrito Grande
46. El Horseshoe Restaurant
45. Tacos Sahuaro
44. El Pollo Correteado
42. La Fiesta
41. Taqueria Lucy
40. Tortas Ahogadas George
39. Taqueria El Chino
38. Joe's Tacos
37. Taqueria El Gallo de Lagos
36. Tacos Huicho