I found it. OK, I didn't really find it: it sort of came to me third-hand, from Nashville filmmaker James Clauer (congrats on the Sundance cinematography award!) by way of our own Jack Silverman. But I may have happened upon the holy grail: the mythical hole-in-the-wall taco joint where the food is both amazing and dirt cheap.
Out West--in Los Angeles, in Texas--it's hardly a myth. But the taco-stand chow I've had here has been mostly serviceable, much as I love the elotes at Taqueria Dona Tere on Nolensville. But when Jack came back raving about the food at Taqueria San Luis, operated out of a sliding window behind a carniceria just off I-24 on Harding Place, that old hope began to burn again.
He and Rob Williams went to get their bowling balls polished--I hope that's not a euphemism--and a half-hour later we all stood at the narrow counter huddled against the cold. I knew it was going to be special when I caught a breeze wafting past the several large smokers blazing full-tilt outside the carniceria. The smoke was sweet and strong, and the parking lot was full of people ducking inside to purchase whole rotisserie chickens.
At the window near the back of the building, I ordered three tacos: chorizo, al pastor, and carne asada. They came neatly arranged on a Styrofoam plate, each piled atop two soft, hot corn tortillas. I took a bite of the al pastor, and my knees went weak.
I've always heard reports about the al pastor tacos out West, strips of skewered pork studded with slivers of pineapple. I'm not sure whether it had pineapple or not, but San Luis's al pastor had a citrussy sweetness that perfectly balanced the spicy marinade. Better still, it was topped with long strands of tangy grilled onion that had just begun to caramelize, and the tortilla was slightly crusted, as if it had been just waved over a flame.
The chorizo was at the very least just as good: crumbles of intensely peppery sausage flecked with chopped grilled onion and topped with more grilled slivers of onion. The carne asada was good, but no match for the moist chorizo and al pastor. I know, because I went right up and ordered two more. They arrived hot as fire within moments.
The first time, I didn't even try either of the hot sauces provided on the narrow chest-high counter outside the building that counts as the dining area. The second, I loaded up on the green sauce--not as scalding as the sauce at the stand near Nolensville and Haywood Lane, the hottest I've encountered, but still packing a lip-searing cumulative burn--and a subtler, slightly fruity red sauce. Both were remarkably good, but the seasoning on the unadorned tacos was so exceptional that I might leave well enough alone next time. And the aftertaste (more like afterglow) was so appealing and mellow that my palate tingled pleasantly for an hour.
The cost? A whopping $1.37 per taco. A plate of three and a Sprite came in right around five dollars. And the people, both those at the window and standing elbow to elbow alongside us at the counter, couldn't have been nicer. The whole experience made me proud to be a Nashvillian.
Taqueria San Luis is at 369 Harding Place B, 833-9000.