Tacos have come a long way from the crispy sleeves of corn tortillas and spice packs some of us grew up on. Innovative taco finds are prevalent in the Tampa Bay area; Creative turf or surf, globetrotting rubs, terrific toppings, sassy salsas and other garnishes make tacos inexpensive culinary stars. Whether Tex-Mex, Mexican, California or fusion, you find plenty of options from scrappy, casual eateries to well-heeled, fine-dining temples. The only skills needed are nimble fingers and a tolerance for an occasional drip. One for snack, two for lunch, and three make a substantial supper, usually.

MEKENITA MEXICAN GRILLE

Lutz

THE FIND: We sing praises for its masterfully marinated pork tacos slathered with a “rustic-rub” before smoking 18 hours over mesquite wood. This north of Carrollwood, Tex-Mex stop was opened a decade ago by former Roy’s Restaurant executive chef Rand Packer and his wife Tiffani. The California-born, seafood-surfer chef convinces you he knows tacos with one bite of the wahoo, rich with lemon, lime and orange juice tang paired with fire-grilled corn and pasilla-chili salsa. Shrimp marinated in a smoked chipotle sauce based on red jalapeños and garlic is cradled by a fresh pineapple-papaya salsa. “Ours are traditionally authentic with a gentle, new approach,’’ adds Packer.

TORTILLA TYPES: Pliable flour

IMPRESSIONS: Packer says even though they own a Mexican restaurant, they still have Taco Tuesdays at their home. “My daughter Kirra loves to eat with her hands and loves the fact that they are so fresh tasting and not as filling as pasta.’’ He serves the same fish tacos at his place in Colorado. “If they are killer and super fresh tasting, why change to something different?’’


THE EATERY AT BREW BUS

Tampa

THE FIND: The Tex-Mex staple is exclusive to Tacos + Trivia Tuesdays. Executive Chef Max Sherard offers a variety that has balance, freshness and will ensure a smile. “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” a pastrami-sauerkraut production, could inspire the same kind of reaction as Meg Ryan to Billy Crystal in the famous “When Harry Met Sally’’ New York Katz deli movie scene. Sherard becomes the taco maestro when he pairs sumptuous duck confit, creamy goat cheese and tart arugula with the sweetness of figs. A tempura alligator combo, with black pepper remoulade with blood oranges, is a match made in guilty-pleasure heaven.

TORTILLA TYPES: Corn

IMPRESSIONS: In the backdrop of the brewery that draws some two-dozen brews, The Eatery offers plenty to satisfy your food and drink cravings. “Tacos as just a vessel to hold whatever the chef is slinging,’’ says Sherard, who adds, “Who doesn’t like a good taco?”


CASITA TAQUERIA (TWO LOCATIONS)

St. Petersburg

ON THE MENU: The heart of a great taco is inside Casita’s fresh, housemade, corn tortillas made daily. The tortillas draped with lightly seasoned fried or blackened cod (pescado), slow-roasted pork and queso fresco (carnitas), or tomato-braised beef, topped with pico de gallo (barbacoa), add up to a reflective tradition. A marinated prime flank steak built with grilled onions, Oaxaca cheese, salsa roja, and cilantro (carne asada) makes fantastic sense. Enjoy the harvest with a zucchini, squash, red pepper taco lifted with pico de gallo. Every day brings a daily special taco.

TORTILLA TYPES: Corn

IMPRESSIONS: Manager Maris Hannah says there is so much to like here—fresh food, great atmosphere, and everyday specials. Friendly and accommodating staff compliment the festive, Day of the Dead décor with indigenous, artsy motifs that sets the restaurants apart from some of their neighbors. The 4th Street location is smaller and more family oriented and a place for quick take-out. Tampa’s Seminole Heights will get a sister Casita this summer.


RED MESA

St. Petersburg

THE FIND: This is the Señor Uno of the popular family-run, Mexican eatery trio that opened in 1995. Its lunch only tacos include grilled mahi, asada steak, chicken and shredded beef. Try the flavorful grilled shrimp that pairs delectably with cabbage slaw. Red Mesa’s chipotle aioli, chili morita and ancho tomatillo are special calibrations that mark its culinary vernacular.

TORTILLA TYPES: Corn and flour, crisp and soft

IMPRESSION: Proprietor Peter B. Veytia says his family (with parents/founders Peter and Shawn Veytia) has used the same recipe for mahi tacos for more than 25 years. “We started making the tacos when this building was the Seabar.’’ Red Mesa’s culinary heritage is a tribute to Shawn’s Mexican grandmother’s tasty cooking.


RED MESA CANTINA

St. Petersburg

THE FIND: This titan of taco shops boasts a friendly ambiance, cold beer and a lively patio bar. With 16 tacos, the star is the rich, orange-braised duck confit, complemented by creamy goat cheese, grilled pineapple and raspberry-red chili jelly that offer jammy intensity. Other addictions include pulled pork, mahi, grilled steak, ahi tuna, shrimp, baja fish and chorizo.

TORTILLA TYPES: Corn and flour, crisp and soft

IMPRESSIONS: The distinctive duck taco wins over the pickiest quack aficionado. Beloved by locals, this favorite spot puts a fine point on tacos with such cheese choices as goat, cotija, feta, Jack and queso fresco. Its salsa arsenal includes red chili jelly, cumin crema, soy orange coulis and habanero aioli. If you’re feeling frisky, the Cantina boasts the largest selection of tequilas and mezcals (tequila’s older, mysterious brother) in the South.


RED MESA MERCADO

St. Petersburg

THE FIND: The newest in the Red Mesa family, open since 2015, Mercado cranks out fresh tortillas for all three restaurants. You’ll find intriguing tacos, packed with pork al pastor, beef barbacoa, pork carnitas, shrimp, tofu, vegetables and fish.

TORTILLA TYPES: Corn and flour, crisp and soft

IMPRESSIONS: Mercado re-imagines tacos with avocado sauce, guajillo chili and chipotle aioli. Owner Veytia is proud of its freshly made flour tortillas. “They require special equipment, so many people have never had the opportunity to try one. It is the equivalent of fresh baked bread for a sandwich.”


ACAPULCO MEXICAN TAQUERIA/GROCERY

Tampa

THE FIND: With eight choices, this may be the best $2 taco deal in town. If Mexico has a signature dish, it is al pastor, or “shepherds’’’ tacos made with juicy, succulent pork. Green salsa with bits of avocado is the way to go here. Varieties also include fajitas (beef with marinated pineapple), sesina (steak), chicken, and south of the border favorites, such as lengua (tongue), buche (sweet bread) and tripa (intestine).

TORTILLA TYPES: Freshly made soft corn tortillas with a slightly crisp edge

IMPRESSIONS: A number of Spanish speaking customers sit at the counter watching the taco production. Acapulco’s nine tables share space with a small grocery. The server asks if you want onions or chopped cilantro garnish on the order. Manager Adrieo Rodriguez says some regulars down a dozen tacos at a time.


MIGUELITOS TAQUERIA Y TEQUILAS

Tampa

THE FIND: A colossal variety of tacos include slow-braised, barbecue beef barbacoa, lengua and carnita street tacos. Miguelitos isn’t afraid to experiment: lobster, BLT, surf and turf (shrimp and filet), pork belly, fried chicken, and some vegetarian sisters (asparagus with avocado) also pack punch.

TORTILLA TYPES: Freshly made corn and flour tortillas

IMPRESSIONS: Open about a year, the million-dollar-plus, very South Beach taqueria also features breakfast tacos. Just like Miguel Rodriguez’s two decades-old Miguel’s Mexican Seafood, this is a family operation with his wife Patricia, son Kyle Miller, and brother, Gabriel Rodriguez, aboard. Enjoy the fresh tastes from its mini-tortilla factory. Taco Tuesdays offer $2 street style tacos and $1 off others. Don’t miss the frozen tequila tap, which chills and dispenses the spirit at 5 degrees.


THE LURE

St. Petersburg

THE FIND: The highly adaptable taco takes well to seared pink duck breast, mixed field greens and cilantro—citrus salsa fresca—in The Donald (think of Disney, not 45). Guests like the playful menu. Wasabi aioli and sriracha mayo have a natural affinity for spiced, seared ahi tuna (Action Joe). Portobello mushrooms, onions, spinach and Mozzarella cheese encounter marinated beef tips (Ponzu), while pulled pork with avocado and jicama (The Hugo) further add to the lure. As a homage to the adventure-western television series Kung Fu, there was a sautéed chapuline (as in grasshopper) with avocado and jicama slaw (The Kwai Chang) that was just pulled from the menu.

TORTILLA TYPES: Soft corn

IMPRESSIONS: A trio of talent between chef Tom Golden, Richard Alday, and Michael Stewart, bait your interest with their slogan, “Home to tikis, tapas, billiards and cold dead fish.” Sushi chefs turn out 31 options to fill your hungry belly. Tampa fans will be hooked, too, when The Lure swims across the bay soon to south MacDill Ave. with the same concept.