The Rio Grande Valley
Taco consciousness in The Rio Grande Valley is nearly equal to San Antonio’s. So rife with taco fans is the region that one hopeful soul tried to market his spit-roasted gyros as Gyro’s Greek Tacos (didn’t work—he’s out of business). On weekends, from roadside stands to urban Mexican spots, everyone breaks out the barbacoa—pit-cooked cow’s head—with tacos of brains and tongue to go along. So enmeshed are tacos in the fabric of Valley life that a Brownsville drive-through called Jerry’s advertises “Videos, Taquitos and Pizza” along with car washes and beer. They’re addictive taquitos too: savory, spit-cooked pork, marinated with a surprise hit of pineapple and tucked into small corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and salsa. At 49 cents each, Jerry’s taquitos are inspired fast food (1235 Central, 542-1521).
The Valley is a bubbling crucible for change in Texas taco culture. At a franchise-looking spot such as Taquito Hut in Weslaco, you’ll see traditional stuff like the plainest, tenderest tongue alongside mondernisms like hand-rolled flour tortillas and hybrids like tacos of beef brisket bathed in Texas barbecue sauce (211 W. Highway 83, 969-3539). At Armando’s Taco Hutt in Pharr (which without the slightest justification bills itself as the “Taco Capital of the Valley”), you’ll encounter a latter-day quesadilla that bears an eerie resemblance to the grilled-cheese sandwiches of your childhood, just good old orange cheese inside a griddle-cooked flour tortilla the size of an LP (106 N. Cage, 781-1091). Weirdest of all to an outsider is the peanut-butter-and-jelly taco on a flour tortilla sold at El Pato Mexican Food to Go, the Valley’s homegrown mini-chain with locations in six towns. El Pato reminds me of San Antonio’s Taco Cabana: it’s an institution that occupies a similar role in local life (if El Pato stopped making its potato-and-egg breakfast tacos, the whole Valley would probably grind to a halt), and like Taco Cabana’s, its food is adequate without speaking the mysterious, gratifying language of home cooking. After grazing among the flour-tortilla “ patos” at the Harlingen and McAllen branches, the Chihuahua-cheese-with-chorizo combination was the only one that roused my enthusiasm.
Directly across the street from the Harlingen El Pato is an upscale place where home cooking is spoken, however. With its strips of grilled rare beef, the taco al carbón at Mamacita’s Mexican Cuisine would do Texas al carbón goddess Ninfa Laurenzo proud. Tillie Alvarez, the owner, makes creditable tacos de carne guisada and mean Mexican break pudding ( capirotada) too (521 S. 77 Sunshine Strip, 421-2561).
My favorite concentration of Valley tacos resides down the pike in Brownsville, though. Morning would find me at Maria’s Better Mexican Food, a homey place where half the area’s border patrolmen hang out, talking bilingual shop and feasting on Maria’s carefully made breakfasts of angelically light chorizo-and-egg gorditas and homemade-flour-tortilla tacos with delicious egg fillings, each big enough for a whole Border Patrol station (1124 Central, 542-9819). After a decent interval, I’d repair to comfortable Los Camperos Char Chicken, where smoky-to-the-bone charbroiled chicken comes with a stack of corn tortillas and searing green-and-red salsa for make-your-own tacos. Two people can also taco-ize the pollo pibil that swims in a tart broth loaded with cilantro fronds, red chile pods, and slices of potato and tomato (1440 International, 546-8172). After another decent interval, it would be time for a snack at Taco Cabaña, a minuscule kitchen where two solicitous ladies dish out three-for-a-dollar, munchkin-size taquitos, everything—well-browned carne asada, cilantro, onion—minced to the same tiny scale. To go along, there’s salsa picante (a mild, brothy tomato sauce) and a relish of pickled, oregano-scented chicharrón—a refreshing surprise (1823 Southmost, 541-4324).
Over in McAllen I’d start my taco day with one of the straightforward, well-made breakfast tacos at the Hi-Way Inn Restaurant, where they also do a tasty understated taco de carne guisada. Weekend barbacoa is moist but texturally varied, with those all-important crusty bits mixed in (2017 W. Highway 83, 687-5945). For a definitive egg-bacon-cheese taco topped by a heart-stopping green salsa, I’d part with 80 cents at Don-Ramon’s Mexican Food, a downtown hole-in-the-wall (1216 Beaumont, 686-9962). By lunchtime I would be ready for Maria’s Restaurant, an incredibly cheap downtown lonchería, where the carnitas de puerco tacos are nasty in the best sense of the word, and you can build your own tacos out of worthy plate lunches like tongue in salsa ranchera (1609 Chicago, 686-9644). At nightfall I’d head to the considerably more uptown La Casa del Taco, where its Mexican national owner puts out one of the state’s most distinguished make-your-own taco platters. Dubbed the Sombrero, it arrives under a hat of top-quality handmade corn and four tortillas; underneath is a mixture of judiciously grilled biftec and fajitas spiced with Canadian bacon, suave melted white cheese, devastating grilled onions, frijoles a la charra, and—if you ask for them—serrano peppers instead of the usual tamer bells. At $4.75, Huerta’s Sombrero is some buy (1100 Houston, 631-8193).
What a difference eighty miles makes: the Capital City’s taco repertoire is neither as expansive nor as provocative as San Antonio’s. In eatery after eatery you find the same offerings—“Austin’s short list,” as I have come to think of it. Always most prominent are the breakfast items, the particular taco form on which Austinites dote (some restaurants have taken to advertising “breakfast all day,” while a few invite you to “build your own breakfast taco”).
The best breakfast tacos in town can be had at Las Manitas, a high-ceilinged downtown lunch counter where Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers look-alikes, frazzled construction workers, and buttoned-up bankers chow down together, and short order is superb. Fine flour tortillas come wrapped around scrambled eggs so fresh they’re positively pearly; try them with awesome, garlicky refried beans or a slice of crisp bacon or browned cubes of potato (just add salt, pepper, and a dash of high-octane salsa to that one). You can’t