18 October, 2019, 18:23

The Tohono O’odham Swap Meet is Tucson’s secret taco heaven

Most of these tacos will only run you $1.50 each

I’ve nullified my Friday night social life for the past several weeks so I could wake up early enough to enjoy some local, off-the-beaten-path culinary treasures before they inevitably sold out.

I’m talking about slowly stewed meats that melt in your mouth and leave your lips sticky with gelatin.

Chile-red sweet pork, bathed in pineapple juice and light charred from a slow rotation on a vertical rotisserie.

Beef ribs grilled over mesquite wood, gently perfumed and viscerally satisfying to gnaw off the bone.

Costilla, Birria, Chicharrón en Salsa Roja, Chile Rojo, and Tripitas Tacos at El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Costilla, Birria, Chicharrón en Salsa Roja, Chile Rojo, and Tripitas Tacos at El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Cubes of fried skin-on pork belly, crackling on the outside and sinfully rich and soft on the inside.

All on soft corn tortillas with cilantro, onion, a squirt of lime, and house-made salsas.

What if I told you these were all at one place? And that most of these tacos will only run you $1.50 each?

You don’t even need to time travel back to the nineties to enjoy food so affordable. I don’t even want to tell you where it is. I just want to keep it to myself and all you rascals away so I can enjoy my tacos in peace. But it’s my job to share these joys. Just go to the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet on Saturday and Sunday mornings, ideally between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. — and don’t forget to bring cash.

Accidental Discovery

The discovery began with a quest for al pastor cooked on a trompo, the Mexican version of the vertical rotisserie used for Lebanese shawarma. On a trompo, an upside-down cone of al pastor slowly rotates as it is occasionally licked by the open flame.

In Tucson, the trompo is hard to find. Most restaurants with al pastor simply cook it on the flattop griddle or grill instead. While Street Taco and Beer Co. cooks their al pastor on a vertical spit, the restaurant ironically doesn’t feel like streetside eating; it feels like eating at a fast food restaurant.

When searching online, records of Polo’s Taqueria came up. Polo’s started as a taqueria at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet, then opened a brick-and-mortar location at 918 W. Prince Rd., which sadly didn’t last.

A glimmer of hope remained; scattered comments online said the stand still operated weekend mornings at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet. Neither the restaurant nor the swap meet had any web presence, however. I always assumed it was farther from me than it really was (turns out it’s only 15 minutes southwest of downtown Tucson) and I didn’t want to commit a weekend morning only to find out it didn’t exist anymore. I was more of a cabeza person anyways.

Trompo of Al Pastor at Polo's Taqueria at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Trompo of Al Pastor at Polo’s Taqueria at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

However, Tucson Foodie founder Adam Lehrman had been spending energy on discovering hidden taco joints. One morning, he told the office he visited Polo’s and they had the best al pastor he had ever eaten.

The Tohono O’odham Swap Meet is open from roughly 5 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Many restaurants open around “as late as” 7 a.m.; most of them are outdoors, so getting there early helps avoid the heat. That meant I had to work Saturday morning (first world problems) by investigating and eating possibly the best al pastor in the Greater Tucson area (definitely first world problems).

After I parked in the dirt lot and crossed the wooden bridge with a sign warning about ice, I saw dozens of structures. It wasn’t fancy; most of the structures featured plywood walls and dirt floors.

Tacos de Cabeza

Tacos de Cabeza (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

The stands selling random appliances and merchandise didn’t interest me. But I saw at least 15 different places to get food. And prices were exceptionally affordable; almost all taco places had tacos that maxed out at $1.50 each; overhead costs can’t be too pricey here.

At long last, I found Polo’s Taqueria. Naturally, I ordered al pastor tacos, but I also tried birria sopes, tripas tacos, and carne asada tacos.

Assorted food at Polo's Taqueria at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Assorted food at Polo’s Taqueria at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Magnificence. While most al pastor in town features cubes of pork, this al pastor was thinly shaved off the trompo with bits of pineapple. Such thin slices wouldn’t work on a griddle or grill; it would dry out. These had a kiss of char while retaining its juiciness. The flavor wasn’t much different from other al pastor, but the texture was what made these stand out.

The tripas (small intestine) were also excellent; slightly chewy with a satisfying crunch.

After Polo’s, I followed the smell of mesquite wood, which led me a few feet away to El Taco Rústico. Little did I know that it would become one of my favorite restaurants.

El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Mesquite Madness

I stood next to the grill, reading the menu while watching chef Juan Almanza move some costillas, glorious slow-grilled beef ribs. His daughter happened to be there that day and recognized me from Tucson Foodie. Knowing it was my first time there, she helped show me the ropes.

I asked for a little bit of everything, so they brought it out on a cast iron fajita plate. Oh my. I could taste the passion in each bite.

Parrillada from El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Parrillada from El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The carne asada was at least as good as Tacos Apson and The Quesadillas. The birria was unctuous and rich was a good kick of savory cinnamon. The bistek encebollado featured the carne asada grilled with onions and flecks of bacon.

Sadly, my hangover was too strong and I couldn’t eat too much. I could taste how delicious everything was, but I didn’t get to fully enjoy it. I knew I had to return without a hangover. I was excited to know there were so many more undiscovered taco places within a few paces.

Basket Tacos

Tacos de Canasta at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

I saved room for one more taco. I saw a sign for $1 tacos de canasta. I looked it up online and saw it was a “basket taco,” named so because these premade tacos sat in a basket and are sold directly to customers on the street.

At this stand, the fried taco was filled with ground beef and potatoes, topped with chopped cabbage and tomatoes. Simple, nostalgic, and superior to any fast food crunchy taco by a landslide. Just be careful with the salsa; it’s hot.

Tacos de Canasta at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

I swung by the aguas frescas stand for a massive pineapple drink to stay hydrated, then called it a day.

Over the next week, I ate at some new Tucson restaurant openings. Maybe a wine dinner too. But while I was enjoying the fancy stuff, I found myself daydreaming about my next trip to the swap meet for more tacos.

The Return

I couldn’t resist myself and returned to Polo’s Taqueria and El Taco Rústico. The magic didn’t fade and I was still euphoric with my taco high. However, I foolishly ate too much at these two stops and didn’t have room for any new place. But I didn’t regret it — they are just that darn delightful.

Once I got home, taco fiend and chef Ruben Soto asked if I wanted to go to the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet for tacos. Too late, but I asked for pointers. He suggested I visit Taqueria Guanajato for carnitas de res; carnitas is normally made with pork, but this version was made with beef.

Taqueria Guanajuato at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Taqueria Guanajuato at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

I came back next weekend, but Taqueria Guanajuato wasn’t open during that visit. Darn. But I was lured in from the smoke from another stand, Carnitas El Pelon.

Behind the grill, the chef was also stirring a giant cauldron of chicharrón frying away.

Chicharron frying at Carnitas El Pelon

Chicharron frying at Carnitas El Pelon (Credit: Jackie Tran)

While El Taco Rústico seasons their costillas simply with salt, Carnitas el Pelon marinates their ribs; it tasted like a blend of chilies and garlic. The ribs weren’t as tender as Rústico, but the char was more intense. They were also on the fattier side, but I’m not complaining when it’s $1.50.

The carnitas were fine, but not memorable. I’ll be back to try the chicharrón.

El Pollo #1

El Pollo #1 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

I realized the next door neighbor had an even larger grill and focused on chicken.

El Pollo #1

El Pollo #1 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

El Pollo #1 offers combos with half or whole chickens with beans, salsa, rice, salad, and tortillas. I was only in a taco mood, so I moved onward to get my El Taco Rústico fix for this trip.

Aguas Frescas at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Magical Pork Belly

Next week, I noticed another carnitas stop: Carnita Los Equipales. While the outside looked as humble as anywhere else at first glance, I noticed they had tinted windows.

The signage also claimed they had the best carnitas, but I saw a taco that I previously had not seen in Tucson: suadero.

I stepped inside and realized Carnitas Los Equipales was probably the nicest property on the swap meet grounds; they had abundant musical decor along with air conditioning. Sweet, sweet air conditioning.

Once inside, pick a seat and the restaurant will provide table service. Tania, one of the owners, has been the one taking my order for most of my visits; she has been kind and helpful, happily answering all of my esoteric pork questions.

Interior at Carnitas Los Equipales

Interior at Carnitas Los Equipales (Credit: Jackie Tran)

As it turns out, suadero here is skin-on pork belly. The skin is fried to a crackling crunch while the fatty meat stayed juicy. I happened to be eating with local knifemaker Don Nguyen, whose eyes widened after the first bite. It was now tied with first for being my favorite taco.

“That’s nuts,” Nguyen said.

The mixtos tacos featured a blend of carnitascuerito (braised pork skin), and buche (pork stomach). It was absurdly gelatinous and sticky, definitely an acquired taste. Right up my alley, but probably too soft for most folks.

Suadero and mixto tacos at Carnitas Los Equipales

Suadero and mixto tacos at Carnitas Los Equipales (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Tania also showed me their house special hot salsa, only available upon request. It wasn’t overwhelming at all; the blend of chilies featured an intense heat, but was balanced with a fruity sweetness.

The pork-centric restaurant also features beef birria and tortas ahogadas, which are sandwiches swimming in an oniony red salsa.

I’ll try that in the future, but it’ll be difficult not to get the suadero. They also offer slices of homemade Mexican cakes.

Lastly, be aware they typically sell out of food on Sundays by 10:30 a.m.; I came back the next day at 10 a.m. and they had already sold out, much to my dismay.

After Equipales, we went back to Rústico.

Birria taco and bistek encebollado taco at El Taco Rustico

Birria Taco and Bistek Encebollado Taco at El Taco Rustico (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Almanza was used to seeing me at this point. He told me I had to try his new salsa, and he told Nguyen the importance of the salsas.

“You can’t have great tacos without great salsas,” Almanza said. He was right.

The Surface Is Only Scratched

I haven’t been able to resist returning to El Taco Rústico and Carnitas Los Equipales. I’ve been returning once or twice a week with different friends to show them the taco magic that has been warming my black cold heart.

The strategy now is to have a couple tacos at Rústico and Equipales to meet my weekly quota, then try a new spot each week. Come support these tiny businesses and say hi if you see me — and don’t forget to bring cash.

Here’s a dump of photos for most of the other food spots I found but haven’t eaten at yet:

Gorditas Maria at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Gorditas Maria at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Los Primos at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Los Primos at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Taqueria El Gordo at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Taqueria El Gordo at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Super Antojitos Salvadoreños

Super Antojitos Salvadoreños (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

El Baqueton

El Baqueton (Credit: Jackie Tran)

El Sope Loco

El Sope Loco (Credit: Jackie Tran)

El Sope Loco menu

El Sope Loco menu (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Ajua menu

Ajua menu (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Mariscos Guaymas

Mariscos Guaymas (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Chapo's Cocina at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Chapo’s Cocina at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Variedades Lourdes at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The Tohono O’odham Swap Meet is located at 5721 S. Westover Ave. Operating hours are 5 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, but hours will vary between each individual restaurant.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.

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