My vision quest began in January of 1999.
I was on the road in Phoenix, Arizona for the National Championship between the University of Tennessee and Florida State.
From lawns made of rock and painted green to picking breakfast off the citrus trees in the backyard, I was a stranger in a strange land.
One day, while my friends were otherwise occupied, I asked a local for directions to a place offering authentic Mexican food for lunch.
The name of the spot is lost to the ravages of time but my friend, this was not a place where you order the steak fajitas.
I asked for a recommendation and ordered accordingly.
The food arrived and the heavens opened. I was a Hoosier who’d relocated to East Tennessee. When I was young, finding authentic Mexican cuisine in either place was a laughable idea.
Food trucks? Street tacos?
Carne asada? Chile rellenos?
Exotic cuisine from a faraway world.
There were places in Northern Indiana that served their tortilla chips with ketchup for God’s sake. KETCHUP!
And so here I was alone in a Phoenix restaurant about to have my worldview changed.
I could say it was a delicious meal.
I could say they served me delicious food.
But either of those statements would make me a liar.
They set the plate down and the scales were lifted from my eyes. The heavens opened and angels sang hosannas of corn tortillas and arroz con pollo and tacos Al-pastor descended upon this holiest of places.
My taste buds leaped off my tongue and slapped me straight in the face forever having subjected them to the mealy offerings of Taco Bell.
I had found, at last, truly good Mexican food. It was so good, in fact, I went back that night for more.
The next night Tennessee won and I was on my way home to the Great Smoky Mountains euphoric for more reasons than one.
Yes, the Vols were world champions but also, I’d had an awakening.
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts
Can you find authentic Mexican food in the Smokies?
From East Tennessee to South Alabama and back, I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years in search of the type of authentic food they had in Phoenix. But without having a reason to return to the Southwest, I’ve been mostly unsuccessful despite trying a ton of Mexican restaurants through the years.
That’s not to say they were bad meals. By and large, each local Mexican restaurant I’ve tried has had good food, fresh food and a variety of popular dishes but they’ve lacked the flavor I’d found in Phoenix.
You could have a great time with great service, but the authentic Mexican meal was elusive.
In recent years that’s changed. The advent of food trucks has made tasty, spicy tacos and tortas easier to find. And the growing Hispanic population has meant more types of hidden gem restaurants that serve traditional Mexican food.
These are the kind of places that judge the type of meal you’re about to get based on your tortilla preference.
Flour tortilla? You’re not gonna get the real stuff. Corn tortilla with cilantro and onions? Better try a small sample of the green sauce before you put it on your taco because it may well be fire – in more ways than one.
And that brings us to Pigeon Forge, TN where the top Mexican restaurants and the best Mexican restaurants are two different things.
With tourists from all over the United States and the world coming to experience Pigeon Forge restaurants, many of the larger establishments will play it safe. These are the best places to go for a fun atmosphere, maybe a favorite drink or cocktail but not the best Mexican food in town.
But while I’ve never really considered Pigeon Forge to be the best place to go for Mexican food, that doesn’t mean you can’t find great food.
It just means you may have to adjust your expectations. In other words, focus on places with reviews that focus on the friendly staff and the specialty cocktails. And also the generous portions and the value for your meal where all the favorite dishes come with Mexican rice and refried beans.
Before we get to the list – and I hate to say this – No Way Jose’s, which is part of the KBS Restaurant Group – has some of the area’s best restaurants. But whoo buddy, it’s not the spot if you’re craving Mexican food.
In fact, we’ve tried multiple No Way Jose’s over the years. In fact, my daughter used to love the Gatlinburg location across from the aquarium when she was younger and didn’t want much flavor in her food. Now that she’s grown up? There’s No Way we’re going back.
Now, without further ado, here are our favorite places in Pigeon Forge to get Mexican.
5. Smoky Mountain Burritos Mexican Grill
Guys, I think it’s pretty safe to say anything that’s not a bar in Pigeon Forge is family-friendly, but nevertheless. It’s family-friendly. It’s got a great atmosphere. And good prices.
The food? It’s fine. It’s good. If you order well, you’ll be more than satisfied. Will angels sing? No. But we can’t set the bar quite that high.
Smoky Mountains Burritos is located at 2250 Parkway in Pigeon Forge.
4. Wacky Tacky Tacos
Here we go, A fun little food truck located on 2902 Bird’s Creek Road near Pigeon Forge (albeit, technically in Sevierville). I don’t know if it is there all the time or if they move around. Best to check their Facebook page for current locations.
It’s a fun stand with really good and creative food. They have a variety of offerings designed to cater to those seeking an authentic taste as well as those who want their Mexican a little more Americanized. The stand is closed Sunday through Tuesday.
3. Cielito Lindo
Cielito Lindo is the type of Mexican restaurant most of middle America would recognize from their hometown. This is probably why they have over 2,000 four and 5-star reviews on Google.
It’s a perfect spot for delicious food but short of an exceptional meal.
2. El Ranchero Loco
In many towns in America, this would be the best Mexican place in town. Tex-Mex in its stylings, the food is well seasoned and expertly prepared.
If I’m being honest, I could use a little more Loco in El Rachero but if you’re looking for consistently good food that fits a variety of palates, this is the place.
El Ranchero Loco is located at 2902 Veterans Blvd #5.
1. Talitas Restaurant
Nothing fancy here. The menu is a bunch of pictures hanging from the ceiling like you often see in quick service Chinese restaurants. No frills at all in this slightly off-the-beaten-path eatery.
Located at 2961 Veterans Boulevard, Talitas offers delicious food and traditional Mexican dishes at great prices. It’s not the overall dining experience offered at some of the other Mexican places in the surrounding area but its food will give just about any one of them a run for their money.
Do you have a favorite Mexican restaurant in Pigeon Forge? Let us know in the comments.