WHAT A PERSON SEARCHES FOR during a lifetime is as personal as a fingerprint: power; money; a sensitive lover; elixirs of youth; the ideal dance band; nirvanas of all shades and hues.
My search is for something simpler, as illusive as happiness, yet found in a thousand places. My search is for the noblest manifestation of Tex-Mex culture, the quintessential Mexican Regular Dinner Number One. The Perfect Taco. The supreme steak tampiqueña. The unsurpassed burrito. As far as I know I am the only member of my peer group to hallucinate after a flawless guacamole salad.
With resolve burning like a hard gemlike flame, I set out to find my grail. My search took me from Juarez to Matamoros, following the Rio Grande, the famous Route of the Hungry. I engorged, ingested, consumed, and did just about everything else a tourist would do along some 1248 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.
I was democratic in my choice of restaurants. From the most outlandish Chicano grub palaces I traveled to dens that reminded me of a place my lawyer friend Warren Burnett commented on, while pretending to eat a bowl of chili: “I’d give $20 just to hear a dog bark.”
I began in El Paso-Juarez, the largest and oldest twin border cities, and then followed the Rio Grande across the rich screen of Texas landscape, beginning in the Chihuahuan desert and ending in Matamoros, 20 miles from the shores of South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
Juarez is the most sophisticated border town, a city with outstanding Mexican food, Mexican-style steaks, and Chinese food. Juarez has the warm, inbred politeness, and charm that comes from 314 years of tradition. These two p1easant cities basking in a near-perfect climate provided an ideal launching pad for my journey.
The next stop was Presidio-Ojinaga, towns I found to be simple and direct, relatively unconcerned with the throes and thrashing about of events in the 1970’s. Existing in a landscape of rock and cactus that does not nourish tender sensibilities, Ojinaga hides a light under its basket, one of the major surprises of the trip: El Ferrocaril, a restaurant featuring some of the best Mexican seafood on the border.
Leaving this uncompromising environment, the Camino del Rio winds 90 miles east to Big Bend National Park and then to Del Rio-Ciudad Acuña, site of the Mexican government’s gigantic “Acapulco-to-Texas” resort project on the Mexican shore of Lake Amistad. Ciudad Acuña, 1973, bristles with avarice and friendliness, an ambitious boomtown that eagerly awaits Yankee tourist dollars. Here I felt the spirit and optimism of the modern Mexican businessman whose plans for his city far exceed those of its American counterpart, Del Rio.
Another 60 miles southeast, driving easily through thick brush country of cattle and goat ranches, brought me to Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras is full of police, part of a program by the new mayor to solve traffic jams. The town is choked with cars and pickup trucks: prodigious roaring and screeching of brakes, taxis everywhere like iron cockroaches darting through the narrow streets. Amidst all this motor madness is the redoubtable Moderno Restaurant, for 40 years the place where locals and tourists alike relax and converse.
Moving always to the southeast, on past Governor Dolph Briscoe’s ranch headquarters at Catarina, I felt the approaching excitement of Nuevo Laredo, South Texas’ pagan place, a town to enjoy yourself in, to kick out the slats, to indulge. Nuevo Laredo has the best shopping on the border, fancy restaurants, rock-and-roll, and of course, the Cadillac Bar and the best Boys’ Town anywhere.
Pushing towards the Gulf, I brunched in Miguel Aleman across from Roma, Texas. In 1950, Roma was chosen by director Elia Kazan as the sight for his movie, Viva Zapata!, starring MarIon Brando and Anthony Quinn, because it so closely resembled the Mexican countryside 1000 miles to the south. If Mr. Kazan should decide to remake his movie of the 1910 revolutionary leader in 1974, he could again use this undisturbed city for exteriors.
In McAllen-Reynosa, twin cities cradled along the river in the Rio Grande Valley, I found a nightclub boom and several good restaurants including La Cucaracha, an old favorite that has recently been completely reconstructed. Now nothing was left between me and the trip’s finale in Matamoros except lunch at the delightful Arturo’s Restaurant in Nuevo Progresso, across the international bridge from Progresso. Finally, I ended my trip in Matamoros, with its excellent market, the superb Santa Fe Chinese Restaurant, and the Texas and US Bars on the square.
Before setting out on similar journeys, however, consider this caution. If you plan to take a foreign sports car towards El Paso, have it checked thoroughly before losing sight of your hometown suburbs. The garage sideyards of Fort Stockton, Pecos, Sanderson, and other West Texas towns are filled with carcasses of cars as unfamiliar to West Texas mechanics as the Apollo moon-buggie—an Elephant’s Graveyard of VW’s, MG’s, and Triumphs. The only relief until the lights of El Paso come into view are VW dealerships in Del Rio, Midland-Odessa, and Fredericksburg.
While driving west on I. H. 10, stop at the first Gulf station on the right in Fort Stockton and pick up a free copy of their road guide. It is a delightful information sheet containing interesting facts on the geography, industry, and history of the area from Fort Stockton to El Paso.
ASIDE FROM HOME BASE IN Austin, El Paso is my favorite Texas town. Conceivably it’s not really Texan; it lies closer to San Diego than to Houston. Yet Texas’ recorded history begins here in 1680, when three missions for refugee Indian tribes were established.
To appreciate the stark desert beauty at its best, drive up Rim Road to Scenic Drive at dusk, stopping at the scenic overlook on Mt. Franklin to look down on El Paso and its Mexican counterpoint, Juarez, lying in a horseshoe before you. On the left, Fort Bliss and suburbs; across the river in front, Juarez, a jumble of pastel