I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Despite asking my friends — and acquaintances — incessantly about restaurants I should try, nobody told me about a taco place I found on my own, a restaurant that brimmed with people during a recent dinner service and that’s home to my new favorite tacos in the area. Plenty of locals know about it apparently, just not you.
Y’all let me down.
Not surprisingly, this taqueria stands in the Waughtown neighborhood, a commercial and residential district in southern Winston-Salem flooded with Latin food, and Mexican in particular.
It’s akin to the stretch of Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro that houses so many of the Triad’s great Mexican spots, including Mi Casita, Villa del Mar, Mercadito No. 2, San Luis and El Mariachi, though it isn’t as treacherous for pedestrians and doesn’t include as wide an array of international options.
It’s no accident that I wrote one of my first Triad City Beat food articles about El Rancho Taqueria just off Waughtown Street, not far from an assortment of businesses with Spanish names, Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive (a church) and several Latin mini-marts. But while plenty of Camel City residents primarily know this area as the home of Kermit’s Hot Dog House, it is — more importantly — home to my new favorite tacos at La Perlita.
The combination restaurant/meat market is bigger than others like it, with about 25 tables, including some that could seat larger parties. La Perlita trades in everything from hand-held burritos — which aren’t easy to find around here, for some reason — to pollo rostizado to camarones a la diabla to fried tilapia. The sopes are cheap — three for $6 — and a flight of four tacos comes in at just under $7.
That’s what I came for.
After some initial confusion about how to order (La Perlita offers table service, though this isn’t immediately apparent), I snagged a table in the long, sun-kissed entryway beneath wide windows looking out onto the neighborhood. I’d picked carne asada, al pastor, carnitas and barbacoa, forgoing the more adventurous tripa (intestine), tongue and cabeza (head) choices.
The smell of cooking meats and the bustle of the restaurant started to raise my expectations, and I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after I sat down, a server placed a tray of simple tacos in front of me — just the meat, some chopped onion and a fistful of cilantro on each, with uneven radish slices, a juicy lime wedge and some grilled spring onions between them.
I intentionally went for the carnitas and asada tacos first — they certainly looked appealing, but knowing my own preferences, I intended to save what I hoped would be the best for last. Neither disappointed, though neither left a strong impression. These are good, dependable tacos, I thought, improved slightly by the thicker green salsa on the table that tasted like a combination of cilantro, creamy avocado and heat. But nothing all that remarkable, especially in a community market with a sizeable Latino population and plenty of remarkable options around town, including Luciano’s food truck and Taco Riendo III.
But that’s why I’d saved the pastor and barbacoa for last.
The stringy-yet-hearty beef in the barbacoa reminded me of a variation on my Jewish grandmother’s brisket — just about the highest praise I can offer. The meat looked similar to the Cuban dish ropa vieja in a way, or maybe a cousin of North Carolina’s pulled pork, but I wouldn’t trade it for either. When I bit into this taco, I wished I’d doubled down on my instincts, and ordered three or four of these alone.
And then there’s the al pastor.
My bar for pastor tacos is unreasonably high, but when you’ve had the pork fresh from a spit roast and with a piece of pineapple that’s just been pulled off the grill, it’s hard to go back. I felt the same way after returning from Italy, refusing to eat the trashy pasta, bland tomatoes or over-processed cheeses I encountered back home for months.
These are not those tacos. But the pastor from La Perlita still made me close my eyes briefly in satisfaction. It’s not an exaggeration to say I loved it, or that I desperately want more.
Plus, the grilled spring onions were incredible.
My friends, acquaintances and readers may have let me down by not cluing me in to La Perlita sooner, and I considered repaying the favor by keeping this to myself. But that wouldn’t be fair to the talented folks at La Perlita, who deserve a whole lot more recognition for their food.
Visit La Perlita Tacos Y Restaurante at 1001 Waughtown St. (W-S).
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