Dining With Denise Neil

One year and 44 restaurants later, buddies find Wichita’s best taco on the south side

Their goal when they started was to try a bunch of Wichita tacos and have an excuse to meet up for lunch every week.

But a year later, the three guys who started the Wichita Taco Tour have not only found a new favorite taco, they’ve fallen so deeply in love with that taco that they travel to south Wichita to eat it several times a week.

They daydream about it and suffer withdrawals when they’re not eating it.

And they have befriended the man who makes the taco – and have extracted a few of his secrets.

They’ve even found some local fame, as they discovered last week when some fellow diners spotted them and squealed, “ARE YOU THOSE TACO GUYS?!?!?!”

Wichita Taco Tour is an eating tour put together by local taco fans Travis Hettenbach, Shon Chapman and Chris Kurth. Their plan, which they hatched in January of last year, was to eat in a different Wichita taco place every week for a year and then determine at the end which taco was best. Along the way, they decided, they’d each post a review of each taco on a blog and on Facebook.

They’re hardly the first Wichita food tourists to come up with such an idea. I’ve written about many over the years, including some buddies who ate and ranked local burgers, a couple of girlfriends committed to rating Sedgwick County’s pizza scene, and a married couple whose mission was to report on the state of nachos in Wichita.

The Wichita Taco Tour, however, had a much more dramatic conclusion than most local food tours. While many other groups finished their quests, made their rankings and moved on, these three guys were a bit more moved by their results. Not only have they appointed themselves the unofficial public relations directors for their favorite taco – which they loved so ardently, they judged every taco they ate on the tour against it – but they also had a professional plaque printed to award to their winner.

And the winner is...

The best taco served anywhere ever in all of taco history, say the Wichita Taco Tour guys, comes from Pollo Express, a tiny, unassuming restaurant at the corner of Pawnee and Meridian that’s easy to just drive on past.

Owners Ernesto and Aurora Naranjo bought the restaurant in 2007, having just relocated to Wichita from California for Ernesto’s job. Aurora had been staying home with the kids and was getting restless.

“She started going stir crazy at home, and she said, ‘I want to open up a restaurant,’” Ernesto said. “I said, ‘Okay,’ and two weeks later, she told me, ‘Hey, I found a place. Let’s go look at it.’ ”

Pollo Express had already been running for a little more than a year when the couple bought it, but Aurora made the menu her own and brought her cooking magic to the kitchen.

Though the restaurant is small – it seats only 26 – it has a big menu and a devoted following, and that’s how the Wichita Taco Tour guys discovered it. A friend of Hettenbach’s, who’d seen the blog, told him they’d better check out Pollo Express.

The tour started in January 2017, and the buddies first visited Pollo Express in April. They loved the tacos so much, especially the carnitas and the “transmission taco,” that it became their benchmark taco. If they were eating a mediocre taco, they’d look at each other and say, “You know, this place is only a few miles from Pollo.’ ”

When they started to wax on about the restaurant on Facebook, owner Ernesto took notice. He wanted to know who these guys were and what they were up to, so he invited them in for lunch. They immediately accepted, and a few days later, the three taco tourists and their taco hero were having lunch together.

They learned from Ernesto that the quality of his tacos was no accident. His crew always removes all the tendons and gristle from the carne asada, he told him, and they marinate the carnitas for 24 hours, the al pastor for 48.

They learned to love Pollo Express’s “transmission” taco, named for a mechanic who came in one day and told the staff he wanted a greasy taco with grilled onions. It was so good, they added it to the menu.

“Just to clarify, it’s not just me,” Ernesto told his fans. “I have a whole crew back there. Sometimes you can probably hear us out here arguing. We’re all related somehow or another.”

The buddies, having sampled 44 tacos in the course of the year, officially ended their quest about a week ago. They asked Ernesto to meet them again for lunch, but they didn’t tell him why.

When they were all seated, Chapman unwrapped the plaque and showed it to Ernesto.

“So you know we’ve been trying all the tacos, and we have a little award for you here. You are are the Wichita Taco Tour Champion of 2017,” said Kurth, a local car salesman.

“Undisputed champion,” added Chapman, an insurance agent. “It’s not even close.”

Ernesto smiled as other customers strained to see what was happening.

“I’m just glad you guys like it,” he said. “It makes it worthwhile.”

Edible lessons learned

By tour’s end, the buddies say, they’d learned several valuable taco lessons beyond the fact that Pollo Express was their favorite.

First, they learned that there was more to tacos than the Americanized versions they were previously eating at a local sports bar.

“I would never ever have ventured out to a lot of the places we’ve been to,” said Hettenbach, a business owner.

They learned that size matters, as does the amount of meat in a taco.

At least one of the guys, whose buddies teased him for eating “kiddie tacos” with just meat and cheese, expanded his palate and what he was willing to try. All said that the challenge gave them something to look forward to each week and deepened their friendship.

Though it was by far their favorite, the Pollo Express taco wasn’t the only tacos the guys liked.

They also gave high marks to Molino’s at 1064 N. Waco, Las Mananitas at 2347 N. Arkansas, Los Pinos at 1225 W. Douglas, and Taco Fajita at 1004 S. Meridian.

They’re all kind of taco experts at this point, they’ve decided, and they’ve noticed more friends and acquaintances coming to them for dining advice.

Though the taco tour is officially over, they said, it might not end. Even though they’ve tried 44 Wichita taco places, they can think of about 40 more they’d still like to try. They may continue their meetups but treat them more causally.

Meanwhile, their Wichita Taco Tour winner’s plaque is now hanging prominently on a wall inside Pollo Express. Ernesto and Aurora were the official winners, but the taco tourists say they also won.

“I call us taco snobs now,” Hettenbach said. “We’ve definitely expanded our horizons.”

Pollo Express is at 2501 W. Pawnee. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

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