April 03, 2018

Six Cincy Craft Taco Destinations

Tacos exemplify the best of street food — in this case, Mexican street food. Some of the most popular food trucks in America dish out savory, spicy combos of meats and veggies on fresh corn tortillas. And taquerias — brick-and-mortar versions of those food trucks — have been reliable places for inexpensive, delicious meals for decades. Add margaritas and other cocktails and expand the range of fillings for the tortillas and you’ve got a slightly upscale version of the street staple.

Over the past few years, the “craft taco” eatery has become quite the thing in our town and a recent addition cropped up early this year in Covington. Its location, at the corner of Madison Avenue and Seventh Street, couldn’t be better for this kind of casual food. Agave & Rye faces both Hotel Covington and The Madison Event Center and is just around the corner from the Braxton Brewing Company. With its full bar and kitchen, this glossy taqueria has been an instant hit for patrons of those neighboring establishments and pulls in families and young couples earlier in the evening as well.

Interestingly, though, owner Yavonne Sarber said she doesn’t consider Agave & Rye to be a Mexican restaurant. “The taco is a vessel for our food,” she said, and the food — taco fillings — ranges across many cuisine influences. 

Mexican or not, except for a few small side dishes and a couple of desserts, the menu consists entirely of tacos ($3-$5). They’re organized as “Graze” for meat-based fillings, “Swim” for fish-filled tortillas and “Grow” for veggie versions. Graze is the largest category, with eight different options that include a taco based on kangaroo meat — we didn’t try that one — as well as chicken, pork, beef and duck confit.  Altogether we selected from 15 taco options, including a monthly feature with “cheese-filled mini beef meatballs, mac and cheese, white cheddar and vodka sauce.” We skipped that one, too.  

One unusual feature of the menu is that each taco comes in a crispy corn shell and a soft flour tortilla. The filling goes inside the crispy taco and the flour tortilla surrounds the whole shebang. Sarber told me later that because they intended to serve hefty portions of the food inside the tacos, they went with this double wrapping.  

Since I’ve always thought the gold standard of good tacos should be a soft corn shell — sometimes two, if the fillings are heavy — I couldn’t see how this was going to work. Strangely enough, my friends and I all gave this innovation a thumbs-up. I’ve always liked a crispy corn tortilla but they’re pretty impossible to eat as a taco unless there’s almost no filling. With Agave & Rye tacos, you get that yummy corn crunch with every bite while the firmer flour tortilla holds it all together.  

For our meal, the three of us selected six tacos, two sides and a cocktail each. The restaurant was almost full and the bar service a little slow, although the manager apologized repeatedly for the delay in serving our drinks: a house cocktail based on tequila and St-Germain, a tall coffee drink on ice with mezcal and the house margarita. 

The food came out much faster. A taco called The Bee’s Knees would have been better if the chicken in it hadn’t been too dry, but we all loved The Alderman — ancho grilled steak with Mexican street corn salad and a good salsa. The Swanky One came in a fried wonton shell — the only non-tortilla wrapped taco — with a filling of ahi tuna poke, serrano aioli and guacamole. It tasted good, but the shell fell apart when you picked it up. One of the veggie tacos, The Bang Bang, hit the right notes with crispy cauliflower, spicy carrots and a creamy cheese sauce.

We enjoyed the food and drinks, but what I liked best was the décor and vibe of the place. Sarber and her husband, Wade, the chef, gutted the diner that had previously been in this location and selected a color scheme played out in murals, paintings, chandeliers and other light fixtures and a custom bar. The music on the sound system was upbeat, familiar and not too loud, and the space between various types of tables made for a cozy but not crowded feel.   

Agave & Rye633 Madison Ave., Covington, 859-360-1060, agaveandrye.com

More Tacos to Try

Bakersfield set the standard for taco deliciousness here when it opened its casual, ultra-hip spot on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine at the beginning of 2012. Among their standout tacos are the vegetarian huitlacoche with corn truffles, roasted poblano and cotija cheese, and the meaty short rib with queso fresco and crema. Bakersfield, 1213 Vine St., OTR, bakersfieldtacos.com.

Cincinnati gained another excellent place to try Mexican street food when Mazunte set up shop in Madisonville late in 2013. Although it has a menu that goes beyond tacos, they make some dandy ones. Among their most popular are the fish tacos, beer battered or grilled with Mexican slaw and avocado salsa. Mazunte, 5207 Madison Road, Madisonville, mazuntetacos.com.

A couple of years ago, the talented Josh Campbell — formerly chef at Mayberry downtown — became chef/owner at Django in Northside and started making tacos and other Mexican-style foods. Among his tacos, patrons love the fried chicken with pimento cheese and honey, and the veggie with butternut squash, spicy broccoli, mushrooms and quinoa. Django Western Taco, 4172 Hamilton Ave., Northside, djangonorthside.com.

More recently, two relatively upscale taquerias opened on opposite sides of the Ohio River. At Casa Figueroa, owner Heather Byer renovated and beautifully decorated a Pleasant Ridge building, then developed a tacos-heavy menu starring a “Cochinita” taco with barbecue pork, salsa verde and orange-cured onions, and the “Barbacoa” with roast beef, pico de gallo and cotija cheese. Across the river, Frida 602 — named after and whimsically decorated to honor the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo — has high demand for both its Brussels sprouts taco with smoked peanut salsa, and one called “Gobernador” with shrimp, bacon and shaved lettuce. Casa Figueroa, 6112 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, casafig.com. Frida 602, 602 Main St., Covington, fridaonmain.com.

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Agave & Rye uses taco shells as a vessel for unique fillings like kangaroo meat, duck confit and “cheese-filled mini beef meatballs, mac and cheese, white cheddar and vodka sauce.”
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Agave & Rye uses taco shells as a vessel for unique fillings like kangaroo meat, duck confit and “cheese-filled mini beef meatballs, mac and cheese, white cheddar and vodka sauce.”
Formerly a diner, the renovated restaurant features murals, chandeliers and a custom bar in a cozy — but not crowded —space.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Formerly a diner, the renovated restaurant features murals, chandeliers and a custom bar in a cozy — but not crowded —space.
Filling options are organized as “Graze” for meat-based fillings, “Swim” for fish-filled tortillas and “Grow” for veggie versions.
Filling options are organized as “Graze” for meat-based fillings, “Swim” for fish-filled tortillas and “Grow” for veggie versions.
Each taco comes in a crispy corn shell and a soft flour tortilla.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Each taco comes in a crispy corn shell and a soft flour tortilla.
With its full bar and kitchen open until 2 a.m. seven nights a week, this glossy taqueria has been an instant hit.
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
With its full bar and kitchen open until 2 a.m. seven nights a week, this glossy taqueria has been an instant hit.
The Oaks Classic, a mint julep margarita
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The Oaks Classic, a mint julep margarita