Taco Time

Posted On March 14, 2017

For some, a taco has to be traditional.  Ground beef and all the fixin’s.  Crunchy shell.  Lots of guacamole.  Others (chefs included) paint a broad stroke with their taco-like creations.  A little fish, perhaps a marinated concoction, even a vegetarian variety.

We asked friends, neighbors, review sites and strangers where they got their taco fix.  People were glad to share.  These are not the only restaurants where you can get a mighty fine taco.  But, begin here and forge your own taco trail – margaritas not required (but often enjoyed).

By Clair DeLune and Kathy Pettit 


Perfectly positioned in the Shoppes at Flight Deck, in Lexington, owner Josh Wille’s Arkos is attracting a crowd that appreciates the “cool vibe” and “flavorful twist on Latin food.”  The contemporary culinary and cocktail experience includes ultra-fresh cuisine and signature cocktails.  Hint: it may take a bit for the bartender to muddle, mix and craft your drink.  It will be worth the wait.  Word on the street is, the avocadotini is amazing.  Don’t worry if a classic margarita or peach martini is more to your liking. They’ve got those beautifully covered as well.

In terms of tacos, their offerings are gourmet.  The ahi tuna taco is delicious and the booyah taco includes booyah shrimp, sauce and pickled jalapeno slaw.  If your party is conflicted about dinner choices, their entrees include paella, shrimp and grits, duck and arugula flatbread and sides of yucca fries, bangin’ brussels, braised cabbage and mac n cheese.

They have outdoor dining and a rooftop bar that rocks the roof on weekends.  Take your significant other or BFFs and head out for a great dining experience. Open Tuesday-Saturday for dinner and Sunday brunch.

109, Old Chapin Rd., Lexington, #K; 785.5660 / Arkos-sc.com

Cantina 76

In two Columbia locations, you’ll find margarita devotees as well as those in search of a quick bite, or leisurely meal.  Hanging out is encouraged.  Premium margaritas (including a “skinny” version), are plentiful and a nice selection of beer complements the food.  

As for the tacos, they’re fresh and tasty.  Consider the Peruvian Shrimp version – lightly fried, sweet sesame chili sauce and coleslaw.  The BBQ brisket taco is another favorite, with its chopped, dry rub brisket, honey chipotle sauce, fresh pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime (don’t forget that squeeze – makes all the difference). 

Of course there are the usual suspects – fish and chicken, veggie and traditional.  It’s all good, as are their sides and desserts.  And the starters are fresh.  Choose spicy or mild, and you may be tempted to order tortilla chips and salsa to go, just to keep that fresh, Mexican Vibe nearby.  

Owners Jeb Babcock, Chad Elsey, Rob Ward and Craig Wyatt are old friends and SC natives – Babcock attended Clemson University, and the others, the University of South Carolina. Their love for food, travel and good times inspired the imaginative tacos and upbeat atmosphere they’ve created.

Main St., 764.1769; Devine St., 708.6004 / cantina76.com

Carolina Ale House – Vista

Viva la Vista for Tacos and Ale! Meet friends or colleagues for an evening of fun where you can watch three sports games at once, or enjoy your tacos with a rooftop breeze at the Carolina Ale House on Lady Street. 

The Ale House is the place to go when you are in the mood for unusual tacos. You might even imagine hearing steel drums as you savor Caribbean tacos with spicy mayo, coleslaw and breaded or grilled fish. Taking seafood tacos to the next level are their Island Style Shrimp tacos. What sets these tacos apart from the rest of the fish tacos in the sea are the Ale House’s pico de gallo and sweet mango salsas.  

For a spicy counterpart, enjoy the Spicy Grilled Chicken tacos with queso fresco, pico de gallo and a piquant house-made apple coleslaw.  

Whether by land or by sea, pair Carolina Ale House tortilla tacos with your choice of the many draft ales from the bar, and you’ll surely tap into what Carolina Ale House founder, Papa Lou, calls the “Ale Yeah!™ Attitude.

708 Lady St; 227.7150 / carolinaalehouse.com


This downtown delight is a must-lunch for faculty and staff at USC as well as those who simply love the atmosphere and food at this lunchtime classic.  Dianne Light and Bill Prato have a loyal following that comes from years of serving great food.  Customers enjoy the triple decker corned beef, the signature salads, and always, their pimento cheese.  Come on Wednesdays, however, and you’ll be tempted by their fish tacos – two tempura-battered fish portions in a soft flour tortilla, slathered with chipotle cilantro slaw and accompanied by housemade pico de gallo and chips.  

We speak from personal experience here – they were delicious, and gone in a New York minute.  

Like your tacos in a bowl? Visit on Thursdays, when taco salad is the daily special. Iceberg and romaine lettuce, seasoned ground beef, diced tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole, cheddar cheese and salsa, enveloped by a taco shell and served with a side of Ranchero dressing. So good!  

If it’s a vacation day, order a pineapple lime mimosa and make it a real celebration.  And speaking of celebrations, add DiPratos to your Sunday brunch destination.  Their eggs Benedict dish is divine, especially when accompanied by their Bloody Mary.

342 Pickens Street; 779-0606 / Dipratos.com

Pawley’s Front Porch

A Five Points tradition, Pawley’s Front Porch – formerly the Congaree Grill – owes much of its long-standing popularity to location, an ample parking lot and the aforementioned covered porch, which overlooks the bustling crowds of Harden Street. If that alone were not sufficient to assure a crowd, their array of 21 draft beers on tap and a Margarita with a closely guarded secret recipe are, especially before and after Carolina football games.

But wait, there’s more! With a menu unchanged for decades, Pawley’s was featured on Guy Fieri’s popular television show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network in February of 2009, so why mess with success? Mixed in with burgers and other standard American fare are standout items, including three unusual offerings: fried crawfish tail tacos; Buffalo shrimp tacos and grilled Mahi Mahi tacos which all feature southern salsa, shredded cabbage and – for a quick kick – chipotle pepper sour cream. The Mahi tacos also include a deliciously piquant salsa of grilled corn and black beans.

Lay on a side order of fried pickle chips or hand-cut fries with pepper jack cheese dip for a unique meal from a place that put Five Points on the national food map. Don’t forget their half-price menu on Tuesday evenings. Open until 11pm.

827 Harden St, Columbia, 771.8001 / pawleysfrontporch.com

Publico Kitchen & Tap

Ever tried Lat-Asian cuisine?  This Five Points favorite gets ravs for its fusion food (and 54 craft beers, fresh margaritas and all sorts of creative concoctions).

Owners Mick Duganier, Robert McCarthy and Stan Panos have combined their considerable restaurant experience to develop a concept that’s well-liked by all who frequent Five Points. Try the Tuna Poke, with Poke Tuna, fresh guacamole, pickled jalapeno, sake-infused cucumber and red cabbage slaw.  Or, Avocado Crunch works for vegetarians, with avocado two ways, black bean corn relish, citrus slaw and salsa verde.  And then there’s Cilantro Lime Shrimp, which adds charred corn, red cabbage, jalapenos and chipotle crema to our favorite seafood.

Their homemade hot sauces add even more flavor. We like Mango Pineapple, but try the others, too: Caribbean Lime, Coconut Ghost Chile, Red Habanero, and Garlic Serrano. 

Want to take your furry friends along?  Head for the deck and ask for the VIP menu (Very Important Puppy).  We like the way they look after the pups, advising patrons to make sure any human food to be shared is safe for Fido. Even better, all proceeds go to SQ Rescue. 

On Sunday Funday, great brunch options are available, but we’re talking tacos, here, so consider the steak and eggs version.  Delicious! Open for lunch and dinner.

2013 Greene Street; 661.9043 / publicokitchenandtap.com

Real Mexico Restaurant y Tienda

For authentic Mexican food, turn your wheels to Real Mexico Restaurant y Tienda where you will find the usual beef and chicken tacos topped with lettuce, tomato and cheese served for an astonishingly low price, just as they serve them south of the Texas border. Many diners enjoy exploring a bit further by trying some time-tested authentic Mexican diversions rarely offered in the Carolinas, such as Carne Asada, Chorizo or Tripitas, which are not for the faint of heart. 

Lovers of heat may dare the chipotle chicken tacos, three seriously spicy mini-corn tortillas topped with onions, with some cooling queso fresco and cilantro for a much-needed contrast to the heat of the chipotle chilies.

The rave fave is their plate of five mini-tacos bursting with sautéed shrimp, pico de gallo sauce and cheese, with a fabulous finish of freshly sliced avocado as the crowning glory. 

As reported by regulars who have lived in the Southwest, and know their Mexican food, the Loco Bean Dip is not only considered a must, but also purported to be a mysterious hangover cure. It is recommended as a starter for any of the taco dishes on the menu, perhaps with a little hair of the Chihuahua dog by way of adult beverages from the bar. Open until 10pm.

2421 Bush River Road; 750.8990 / Facebook: Real Mexico

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina 

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina has numerous locations across the country and represents a trend in modern food service by offering authentically inspired fast casual Mexican fare, prepared freshly on site each day. Classics tacos feature special touches such as hand-mashed guacamole. Salsarita’s has two locations in Columbia, one in Harbison, and another right in the center of Five Points at 2006 Devine Street near the Walgreen Drug Store.

Tacos are not the only thing on the menu, but the temptation of choosing from chicken, pork, ground beef, steak and shrimp make it hard not to want a taco fest. You can order a combo that includes two tacos, queso, chips and a drink, plus upgrade to their signature guacamole for only a dollar more. 

Joining their loyalty program, Cantina Club, earns you points and notifies you of updates and menu changes, as well as providing special offers. Featuring fresh, fast, fabulous food that you can enjoy with friends, or when you take a break from shopping, Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina is un poco más de una fiesta in your day.

2006 Devine St; 999.2441 / salsaritas.com/

San Jose

This is where you’ll find authentic Mexican tacos and a large and lovely margarita to help end your work day.  Traditional Mexican favorites are found here, including a taco salad for the lettuce-deprived.  (It comes with the usual sides: sour cream, tomatoes, beans, guacamole and your choice of ground beef, beef tips, or chicken.)

Their specialty tacos have their own following.  Some prefer the Tacos de Carne, with grilled steak, while others opt for the popular Tacos el Pastor, with its tender, juicy marinated pork.  Order the Tacos de suadero and you’ll get chopped beef with all the fixin’s.  You can go a bit more mainstream with the Taco Loco, a crispy flour shell filled with ground beef, chicken, or beef tips, plus the regular goodies.

San Jose, on Old Orangeburg Road, in Lexington, is a very family-friendly restaurant.  There are even tacos for the little ones, to keep everyone munching together. A friendly wait staff and efficient service make this location an excellent choice for a family dinner or a casual gathering place for friends. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

1475 Old Orangeburg Road Lexington;  808.0767  / http://www.sanjosemex.com

Tijuana Flats

Part of a chain of 100 fast-service Tex-Mex restaurants located mostly in the Southeast, Tijuana Flats, at 106 Percival Road off Forest Drive at I-77, was born of a dedication to wholesome, plentiful and good-tasting food, as well as their community-minded charity, the “Just in Queso” Foundation.

Tijuana Flats has grown a dedicated following built upon their fast and friendly table service, abundant amounts of food and a spectacular 36-selection hot sauce bar, as well as offerings of locally-brewed draft beer. An extremely broad menu that includes over two dozen taco offerings among other Tex-Mex standards makes it difficult to select an entree. 

Especially tasty are the chicken soft tacos with black beans on wheat tortillas topped with crispy lettuce, tomato, onions, sour cream, cheese and fresh jalapenos for a nip of heat; but you may get your chicken taco blackened. However, true fans will revel in Flats’ menu inclusion of carnitas tacos, which feature delicious slow-cooked pulled pork – essentially Mexican barbecue.  Adults and children alike will enjoy finishing off their taco dinner with a delectable dessert of cinnamon churro or cookie flauta.

106 Percival Rd.; 451.3130 / tijuanaflats.com/columbia


White Duck Taco Shop

Duck into the White Duck Taco Shop at 612 Whaley Street near the South end of Huger Street in Olympia to find a totally new twist on tacos. While the shop offers a quesadilla or two, they specialize in high-end gourmet tacos, featuring the restaurant’s namesake: a mole-roasted white duck taco. The eclectic sauce is reminiscent of a Guatemalan mole, being comprised of Mexican chocolate, tomato, craisins and pumpkin, and topped with lettuce and a delightful cranberry-apple salsa and Mexican crema. Crema is akin to sour cream, but often saltier and slightly tangier. 

A well-guarded secret is White Duck’s house-made guacamole, which is tweaked with their house-made kicky hot sauce. Get them to roll out their house Margarita and select which of three tiers of tequila you prefer. 

Open about a year, the White Duck features Taco Tuesday, where most tacos are $2.50 each, with a slight upcharge for their duck, pork belly or oyster po’boy tacos, which you will not find anywhere else in the area. 

A “little bird” whispered to be on the lookout for five new specialty tacos about to hit the menu and that they will soon be opening for brunch on Sundays from 10:30am – 2pm.

612 Whaley St.; 814.0374 / whiteducktacoshop.com