Taco purists, look away.
There’s little for you here in this tale of hybridization, improvisation, and bastardization. I’m talking about the St. Paul deep-fried taco, aka the West Side taco, aka the gringo taco—without a doubt one of the best bar foods ever created and an overlooked piece of St. Paul lowbrow cuisine.
The first deep-fried taco I remember eating was at Kelly’s Depot, a working-class neighborhood bar in Lowertown St. Paul. (Demolished two years ago, RIP.) I ordered tacos on taco night, not thinking much about it, but in minutes a basket full of shredded lettuce and cheese was in front of me. Digging in like an archeologist, I was astonished to find a subtly fried handheld food that was… like a taco. But different. What was this sorcery, and where did it come from?
In the years since, I’ve contemplated these tacos and how they became a distinctive bit of St. Paul bar culture. As a white kid raised by Scandinavians, for whom garlic was outré, I grew up on hard shell tacos from Rainbow, the kind where the yellow shell shatters into shards, leaking orange grease all over your hands while stabbing you in the gums.
If there’s a tortilla spectrum, with hard shells on one end and the classic small corn tortillas on the other, the deep-fried taco occupies an unexplored space between the camps. The fried flour tortilla is simultaneously thin and substantial, both chewy and crispy. Supple, flaky, crisp, tender, and crunchy, the taco hooks your salivary imagination and takes you on a wild ride.
But where did that ride begin?
The origins of the West Side Taco
The consensus among dive-bar old-timers is clear: “Boca Chica started it.” So I headed across the Wabasha Bridge and met Jose Frias, the fourth-generation West Side Mexican owner of Boca Chica Ristorante, the OG of St. Paul Mexican food.
“I don’t even know if I know exactly how it started,” Frias admitted, before a 40-minute exposition on the subject. Frias, who’s in his early 40s, had asked his large circle of relatives and keepers of local Mexican lore.
“We didn’t actually start serving the deep-fried taco until about the early ’70s,” Frias explained. “We actually started the deep-fried taco at the Taco House. This is when everyone thought my grandfather was crazy.”
Boca Chica Taco House, the fast-food satellite of the larger sit-down restaurant across the street, is a place designed for folks driving on Cesar Chavez who are wanting a quick meal. It’s there that the deep-fried taco quickly became a best-seller.
But before that the technique had been floating around Mexican-American families on the West Side, so nobody really knows who invented it. Originally the meat was mixed with potatoes, as Fries said, to “stretch out the beef.” But the taco likely had dozens of different varieties based on family tradition.
“We perfected it, popularized it, but it comes from the neighborhood,” Frias said. “In Texas they have what they call a ‘puffy taco,’ which is similar, but kind of different.”
By my eye, the differences have to do with the kind of tortilla and the degree of bubbling—the St. Paul version is less extravagant than its Texas counterpart. Even after the pandemic cut into business, Boca Chica sells 2,500 deep-fried tacos each week.
“There’s pretty much someone making the tacos all the time,” Frias said. “You have to use the right tortilla, and you warm the tortillas up and put in your meat. Then you take toothpicks and pin them on the top; that’s the key to keeping the meat inside when you fry them.”
The delicious result boasts texture ranging from the crispy edges to the almost chewy beefy center, and everything in between. At times, the best tortillas almost flake apart, creating layers that remind me of phyllo dough.
“The key to it is to just get enough crispiness on the edge and not crispy through the middle; if you try to get it crispy in the middle you end up burning the edges,” Frias said.
Two more classic St. Paul fried taco joints
There are probably a dozen places offering deep-fried tacos scattered in nooks and crannies of St. Paul and its suburbs. If you want the classic, Boca Chica has two varieties available: a work of edible art from the ristorante and an on-the-go version from Taco House. Enjoy them while marveling at the city’s best Mexican history murals, depicting everything from pre-colonization to the revolution.
For a classic white working-class version of the St. Paul fried taco, head over the river to Joe and Stan’s Pub & Grill. (Be warned: Friday is bingo night.) Here the taco baskets overflow with shredded lettuce. A surface sprinkle of diced pale tomatoes top the taco trench lurking in the basket, while plastic cups of sour cream bob along like lifeboats in the lettuce. The salsa is “Minnesota hot,” which is to say, not at all, but that doesn’t really matter. This is not fine dining, but it it is the perfect pairing for a Michelob Genuine Draft.
A leveled-up version of the bar taco is available at the Half Time Rec, the landmark Irish bar on Front Avenue. More constrained than Boca Chica’s floral arrangement, the taco here boasts two kinds of cheese and substantial tomato chunks. The shells have their crispness pushed up to 11, with actual browned edges of tortillas puffed up like half-full balloons. Buckle up: They come in threes.
There are surely more deep-fried tacos scattered across the East Metro, all tracing their origins to somewhere on the West Side. Watch for them on chalkboard menus or specials boards, and keep us posted when you find them. Uncovering the hiding places of this idiosyncratic hybrid food is an adventure in itself.