There’s no denying that the last couple of years have been stressful for just about everyone who calls this planet home, but there’s one core value that is shared in every human across the world that kept us all pushing forward together - tacos. These seemingly simple yet taste bud-tantalizing creations remind us that even in the hardest of times, there are still plenty of beautiful moments to enjoy. One motivated Magic City resident, Jon O’Neal, decided he wanted to elevate his Earthly status from man to all-time legend by helping residents of Birmingham find every available opportunity to enjoy a traditional taco (cilantro and onion with sauce/lime on side) in the city. He did so by starting the Birmingham Tacos Instagram account, and currently has a running list with over 110 locations. Jon’s been to nearly 80 of these himself over the last two years, and has no plans of slowing down.
This great endeavor wasn’t ever an official planned process, it more so came naturally from Jon sharing his favorite hobbies. “I’ve always had eating and traveling and stuff like that as a hobby, so on (my) personal account I would post pictures of different food and stuff around town and eventually I started doing little side quests,” he shares “Birmingham’s famous historically for hot dogs, going back decades. So I started seeing if I could go to every hot dog place in Birmingham.” Next came other side adventures like burgers and tacos-which immediately gained traction.
Jon took a trip to Los Angeles shortly before COVID began, and was inspired to find more than his usual 4-5 regular taco truck spots to frequent when he returned to Birmingham. It’s safe to say he’s exceeded as his list now features 100 different businesses, and nearly 3,000 followers on Instagram show that Jon’s far from the only one who loves the greater Magic City taco scene. O’Neal will have supporters he’s never met on Instagram reach out to inform him of new locations and send him taco pics, along with out-of-towners and James Beard-winning food reviewers following his page. “It’s really blown up in a way that I didn’t expect. I was just doing it for fun,” Jon shares.
While it is a pleasurable mission, Jon still wanted to have some structure to his taco journaling for the public. He doesn’t consider himself a food critic by any means, but wants to be able to provide consistent, reliable taco information to his followers. O’Neal’s go-to order for his page is two of his favorite tacos (“I’ve always been a tacos al pastor guy”) and two campechano tacos (a blend of chorizo and steak, along with additional meats on occasion). Jon claims it’s impossible to select favorite trucks, as they all have their unique takes and he’s been to many of them only once which may not be representative of their overall experience.
One thrill of the project is “anytime you come across a new (truck) that you’ve never seen or heard of before.” Other exciting moments come from the invites he gets to try out tacos, like the time a family messaged O’Neal an invite to come to the neighborhood taco sale. Jon gladly obliged, and was treated with enough food and memories to last a lifetime. “Going to a taco truck is cool, but finding a secret place to eat tacos that nobody else knows about is pretty crazy,” he shares. Trucks like the pink Tacos Mami Nor truck in Homewood that serve guisados and other flavorful dishes that are typically less seen in Birmingham have also earned a special place in the food lover’s heart. Notable visits include Taqueria Tafoya in Centerpoint, Taco Morro Loco (“It’s good and it’s also really convenient for me”), Gordos in Homewood, Los Valedores on Green Springs, Dos Hermanos (“Everybody knows that one and it’s always good”), Lonchera Los Vargas towards Pinson, La Juanita in Leeds, Taqueria Charros, Taqueria Fiesta in Center Point, El Compa in Trussville, Taqueria Juarez, and Los Primos Taqueria. It’s fairly often for this writer to discover places like the Guatemalan food truck La Quetzalteca Xela only to see that Jon tried their tacos much earlier. O’Neal knows this city’s taco scene, and loves every bit of it.
“I do have a thing for supporting small businesses,” Jon confesses, “These are all small businesses. They’re people just making the food that they like, and trying to make a living. In some cases, maybe they came here from another part of the world and they’re just bringing their culture with them which I think is really important.” Jon remembers seeing peers not being treated well because of their ethnicity while attending school in North Alabama, and has now witnessed those bullied youth who stuck around start businesses and bring new joys to the community. “I think that’s cool. I think that’s something the country needs more of,” he shares, “Not saying that having a taco account is high-minded like that but if I can post somebody’s truck that nobody’s ever seen them before and that gets them some business-hey that’s cool”
Taco trucks aren’t the only type of restaurant that has made O’Neal proud of the state that he calls home. Restaurants like Helen and Automatic have become national favorites and prestigious award nominees in very short time periods after their respective openings, and the city is a hub for Greek food, Lebanese food, and so much more in addition to being the hot dog capital of the South. His food journey also recently took him into the world of podcasts as Jon made an appearance on the Eating Alabama podcast.
Birmingham is growing, and with it is coming more and more great food options for us to enjoy. It can feel overwhelming to take in, but at least the people of the Magic City have Jon O’Neal to guide us.