You got, you got, what I need.
Reviewing Hunger Street Tacos is awkward. Like reviewing a teenage crush. There’s too much familiarity – too much need – to be entirely objective. “She’s like the best. So amazing. So, so cool. She has a sparrow tat on her boob and smokes weed. I really think she’s the one. Did I tell you she’s cool? And smokes?”
Hunger Street Tacos smokes. It has since opening many moons ago on the wonkiest of west Winter Park street corners. It’s a location that should never work as a restaurant space: The feng shui is all sorts of fucked. But, it does. Work, that is. It’s the same corner that birthed the 8-headed barbecue monster that is 4 Rivers, and under the guiding hand of brothers Joseph and David Creech, is now home to one of the better taquerias in town.
If you had to pick out the Hunger Street staffer born in Mexico, you wouldn’t choose Joseph Creech; he’s a red-headed gringo that looks part Volvo. But Creech was born in Guadalajara to missionary parents and spent six years of his childhood there before returning later in life as a missionary himself. It was then that he met the love of his life; tacos de suadero (oh – and his wife, Seydi, a Mexico City native). After moving back to Florida, it was his pursuit of this seldom-seen-stateside taco (and Seydi’s cravings for it) that eventually had him driving down Hunger Street.
Creech and I have a few things in common. First, I’m as gringo as gringo can be. I sweat truffled brie. When I was seventeen, I also made my way to Mexico. I commandeered an old Volkswagen bug and puttered down the Yucatan, hopping from small coastal town to cenote to small coastal town to cenote. It was a roadside shack serving whole barbecue chicken in banana leaf that provided the fuel (and curiosity) I needed to follow a dirt road off the main highway to Playa del Carmen. This wasn’t the Playa del Carmen you know now; the vertical, slap on a sarong and get your drank on, whitewashed resort town. At the time, there were three man-made structures on its picture-perfect beach; a lean-to between twisted palms under which a beautiful Swedish hippie sold bad pizza from a makeshift oven, a scuba shack, and a hotel that had seen far better days. The hotel walls were topped with broken soda and beer bottles and the bed I found there was infested with crabs. Sand crabs. It was on the beach.
Further in town, I found an open-air café across from a bodega staffed by a blind man that kept a shotgun across his lap. At dusk, a taquero would appear outside the store with a vertical spit stacked with pork and pineapple. Machete in one hand, he would deftly chop pieces of each into the air and catch them in a corn tortilla cupped in his other hand. It was utopia for a boho teen. That taco put flavor to a memory forever burned into my brain. A reverie that became a craving that became a need. Creech’s taco de suadero is my taco al pastor, and there was very little approaching either for years in Central Florida.
Hunger Street Tacos (henceforth dubbed HST) arrived on the scene just as Orlando was getting serious about authentic Mexican grub. Excellent timing for both them and me. I was growing panicked. Pricing south-of-the-border airline tickets. Reconsidering my distaste for Los Angeles. I now had somewhere to feed the need.
HST is laid back in a way taco places should be; counter order with a covered patio for al fresco gobbling. Be forewarned; al fresco is not a choice. That’s A-OK with us. Tacos shouldn’t be propped atop white linen and there’s space heaters for the one day every year we’re forced to suffer the indignity of donning a second layer. Actually, we consider ourselves lucky to be sitting down at all. Some of the best tacos we’ve eaten have been enjoyed while standing, half the innards spilling onto sidewalks and shoes. Not that HST’s casualness is unpolished. There’s some keen branding at play; beautiful murals by the Lapiztola art collective, a clean and consistently applied identity – this is a well thought through business that also runs with a precision taco joints aren’t exactly known for.
What’s good to eat? All of it. When we go with larger groups, we generally order the entire menu. Many of the dishes at HST are based on recipes from Seydi’s family and have been honed with the help of Creech brother David who also spent time in Mexico cooking and learning to appreciate fresh-food market culture. There’s plenty of interesting eats to explore, but if you’re going for the first time start with tacos.
HST’s everyday range of tacos is the date that brings you to the dance; Creech’s muse – the taco de suadero ($3.75) – makes for a winning intro; the fatty, round mouthfeel of brisket cut with onion, cilantro, and avocado-lime salsa. The campechano ($3.75) ratchets up the brisket with chorizo, and the el mañanero ($4.00) just goes cray by adding refried beans, scrambled egg, and Chihuahua cheese to the brisket/chorizo blend. It’s a meal.
There is a shredded chicken taco with chorizo (aptly named the chori-pollo at $3.25), which I like quite a lot, but it thirsts for its avocado lime salsa much more than the holy brisket trinity above. If you’re not as keen as I on quenching its thirst with various salsas it can be a little dry.
As far as HST’s taco al pastor? For now, it’s a special. A very special special. Let’s just say important parts of my life (and traffic laws) go largely ignored when I learn it’s on the spit. As much as I loathe ham and pineapple on pizza (an obscenity), I love crispy bits of marinated pork with pineapple in a tortilla. Sharpened with a bit of onion and freshened with cilantro? That’s the stuff. HST’s al pastor is straight up super bueno.
Los accoutrements are done well: Spot on guacamole ($3.50/$5), totopos, a housemade hot sauce with a lovely long dry burn (ask for it). The stock salsa is as close to in-country as I can remember. HST’s version of esquites ($3.95) – fresh corn off the cob in a marrow broth reduction with epazote, queso cotija, and crema fresca – is simultaneously fresh and fatty. We’ve also enjoyed their molten queso fundido several times, with and without chorizo ($7.50/$8.50). Gooey gooey good in the dirtiest kind of way. However, amidst all the nibbles an undisputed standout is the chicharron de queso ($8.00); a thin sheet of Gouda cheese seared crisp and served with guac and salsa. Yep, you heard right. A sheet of fried cheese. For dipping. This is a destination side – a drive across town treat. It’s also a table sharer, serving 2 to 4 humans or 1 me.
Mexico is all about the meat, but HST slings some super solid vegetarian options. Squash blossom quesadillas ($6.00) are subtle, delicious, and a delight to stare at, the bright yellow blossoms tucked into a tortilla with Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheeses, sautéed onion, garlic, epazote, and salsa roja. A hibiscus and guacamole taco ($3.00) is a veghead dream. When cooked, the hibiscus takes on a chewy meat-like texture making it satisfying in a way most veggie tacos are not. Not a whisper of flaccid squash and zucchini. Thank god. HST is the only place I’ve come across this taco and it’s become a Munch lunch fixture.
More, more, more. When you tire of tacos, rope into the sopes. HST’s sopes are handmade; blue corn masa cakes with a wonderful crisp-and-give under fork and a bunch of fun stuff thrown on top. The best bunch of fun stuff? The marrow and mushroom ($8.50); black beans, sautéed mushrooms, salsa roja, avocado salsa, crema fresca, queso cotija, red onion, and a bone marrow that will lubricate your soul. There’s a veggie version, but why?
Sweets aren’t really why we frequent HST, but desserts are solid. On our last visit, we took turns grabbing spoonful’s of xocoflan ($5.00); chocolate cake topped with a layer of flan de queso. There’s also straight up flan and a key lime.
Drinks? They have drinks. Topochico, a rainbow of Jarritos, craft beer on tap, both red and white wine sangria. All good. All there. The sangria in particular is worth a try.
Finally, a top tip for those seeking to go taco pro: Being in the know means being in the loop. HST cranks out some fantastic specials. Follow them on Instagram (here) and keep an eye out as off-menu items disappear quickly. A recent beauty was a duck tamale smothered in a mole as deep as Marianas Trench. According to our fuzzy math, 4 days of duck cure multiplied by 40 ingredients in the mole = 160 reasons to fall in love. The whole kit and caboodle was cooked in a banana leaf which harmonizes and moistens, and I’m all about the harmonizing and moistening. I tend to love or hate tamales (as opposed to my all encompassing love of all things taco) and I loved this tamale.
So, lessons learned? First, HST is good. It has been consistently good for quite some time. Second, we need to stop reviewing restaurants we know we like (we do it for you!). Third, I no longer need to go to Mexico for my tacos al pastor fix, even though it takes about as long to drive across Orlando as it does to fly to Mexico City. Is there a fourth? Yes. Go forth and eat tacos. Orlando is increasingly finding itself dealing with an embarrassment of quality taquerias and Hunger Street Tacos is among the best.