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An Ode to Taco Boy's in Six Meats

Barbacoa, carne asada, and cabeza tacos, plus smoky beans and the works from the salad bar.EXPAND
Barbacoa, carne asada, and cabeza tacos, plus smoky beans and the works from the salad bar.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

At Taco Boy’s, a downtown taqueria wedged into the northwest crook of Roosevelt and Seventh streets, you’re likely to fall for some backyard-style, tortilla-wrapped greatness. Below is an evaluation of the offerings in the form of a meat-by-meat paean.

1. Carne asada

Chattering behind the counter at the newest taqueria on Roosevelt Row, laid with thin slices of beef, is a grill. Its endless grates are caked with char and worn with time. Ruby skirt steak slices — slips thin but broad — sizzle and splutter. If you watch, they gray, brown, and blacken, transforming, by flames leaping from a mesquite charcoal cairn, into a classic carne asada.

This is the Taco Boy’s signature meat. Juan Cornejo Jr. and his father — Juan Cornejo, master of the kitchen — slice beef thin for fast cooking. This keeps lines short and lunch rushes happy. On top of speed, thin slices bring more surface area, meaning more surface browning, meaning more flavor.

Bite, at least once, into this drippy cabeza totally naked.EXPAND
Bite, at least once, into this drippy cabeza totally naked.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The carne asada’s lone seasoning is salt. After grilling, sails of meat are draped onto a wooden cutting board. The board has a hollow smooth and wide, like a bowl from a skatepark. Over time, the hole has formed from the percussive impact of the final step: A cook wielding cleavers furiously chops and crushes the steak to bits.

Like father and son, the Cornejo family grilling recipes come from Obregon, Sonora. When he was six, Cornejo Jr. and his family left the town seven hours south of the border for the U.S. As he got older and started to work the grill, Cornejo Jr.’s favorite thing to cook was carne asada. He and his family would make sauces from scratch, have friends over, and grill and eat outside, drinking beer. These days, he serves bottled Mexican brews at Taco Boy’s and plans to add kegs.

In metro Phoenix, father and son started to build a following after moving from El Matador, a restaurant they ran for two years, to a truck. Tacos Cornejo, parked at 35th Avenue and Broadway Road, cooked carne asada for six months. Sensing opportunity, the Cornejos, together with fellow Taco Boy’s co-owner Suminder Singh, made moves to open their taqueria downtown. Over time, they had honed their backyard grilling recipes.

Over time, too, they had pruned them down to a handful. At Taco Boy’s, six meats prepared five ways come in tacos, quesadillas, burros, vampiros, and platters heavy with peppers and deliriously smoky beans, cooked until silky and shapeless.

2. Cabeza

Dark puddles on flour tortillas, the cabeza at Taco Boy’s is a $2.49 portal to nirvana.

In truth, the cabeza here is more of a cachete. Instead of meat from the whole cow skull, Juan Cornejo Jr. uses just the cheeks. He likes to say beef cheeks are “the filet mignon of the head.” He stews them in pots for three to five hours, with allium, herbs, spices, and vegetables like Anaheim chiles.

Once out from the kitchen, juices seep from the mound of head meat, past the rim of your grill-pocked tortilla. This gives your cabeza taco a brief lifespan before sogging. So how should you eat this cabeza, one of the best in town?

Front and center: Taco Boy’s barbacoa.EXPAND
Front and center: Taco Boy’s barbacoa.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

In the minute or two between ordering and arrival, hustle your Styrofoam tray to the salsa-and-salad bar. Pickled red onions? Whole radishes? Limes and pico? A thin salsa of avocado, water, and salt? Get them all. Mostly, you need the pulpy crimson red salsa, which sears with a hard chile de arbol heat.

But wait! Before adding salsa, bite, at least once, into this drippy cabeza totally naked, bathed in nothing but its own juices. Trying it this way gives you the full panorama of its soulful richness and velvety dissolve, the meat as soft as pudding.

3. Pollo asado

Food doesn’t get much sleepier than grilled chicken. But I’d say the chicken at Taco Boy’s is worthwhile — at least, worth an order on a second or third visit. Morsels have an honest rusticity born through the acrid kiss of mesquite charcoal from Sonora. Though simple, this is simply a good chicken.

This is the only meat at Taco Boy’s that sees a marinade. It hits the spot in a classically stark burro, with, if you want, a touch of melting beans and cheese.

4. Barbacoa

At Taco Boy’s, barbacoa ripples with flavor, rivaling carne asada. Masses have turned to fine strands here, creamy pockets there. This barbacoa belongs on the carne asada tier — a high level, but one still below the cabeza and tripa.

(As you eat barbacoa and other meats, you can hear, now and then, a cook chopping carne asada with Olympic fervor. The quick metal-on-wood drumrolls, forming a sonic baseline with the sizzling grill, Spanish of the TV, and ambient conversation.)

When getting barbacoa, a meat that thrives when ordered in the $25 one-pound option, your tortilla matters. Go flour.

Tortilla options are flour and white corn. These are homemade in Sonora and driven across the border three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Pale discs are leaf-thin, thinly chewy, and broader than corn tortillas here, meaning more real estate for barbacoa.

5. Al pastor

The al pastor doesn’t have much depth or pineapple. Though the best meats at Taco Boy’s can hang with any from downtown to 16th Street, skip the al pastor.

Freshly griddled vampiros are an ideal vehicle for tripas.EXPAND
Freshly griddled vampiros are an ideal vehicle for tripas.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

6. Tripa

At Taco Boy’s, tripa can stand with even cabeza. Tripa, though, works by a different algebra. Where cabeza poleaxes you with its decadent dissolve that recalls the melt and rush of a barbecue beef rib, this tripa shows restraint, elegance, dexterity.

The Cornejos cook tripa to order. Regulars know that tripa orders take about 10 minutes. In some cases, this is eight or nine minutes longer than other meats.

This tripa is worth the modest wait. Char speckles rings and patches of stomach. On the chewy-to-crisp spectrum, they near the former, but in the best way possible. They almost resemble nicely grilled squid. Seasoned only with sea salt, tripe has a charcoal-glanced, marine-like lightness. Tripa might be best on a dainty Taco Boy’s vampiro, a tortilla griddled until crisp, light and snappy and wavering like a close snapshot of ocean.

The tomatillo and avocado salsas shine, letting nuances flourish. Even if you don’t like tripe or feel weird about putting another stomach in yours, give this one a shot. It’s kicking with character, a tripa that brings something simple, fearless, and different to this stretch of downtown. Just like this top-notch taqueria.

Taco Boy’s
620 East Roosevelt Street
602-675-3962
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Cabeza taco $2.49
Barbacoa taco $2.49
Carne asada taco $2.49
Tripas vampiro $2.49
Beans plate $2.99

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