Yolanda Guerrero, a taquera with mostly silver hair neatly pulled back and covered by a hairnet, is standing in the doorway of her East Austin taco trailer, Tacos Guerrero. She’s recounting how she got into the food business. In the 1990s, Guerrero beat a hundred other competitors in a cooking contest in her native Monterrey, Mexico. Her winning array of dishes included fluffy, orangey-red rice, chiles rellenos, and half a cabrito (milk-fed kid goat). Guerrero worked at restaurants and cleaned houses and food trucks before her son bought her a trailer in 2016. “You don’t need to work for anyone else anymore,” she remembers him saying proudly.
At Tacos Guerrero, construction workers in orange vests eat at picnic tables alongside middle-class moms and families in athleisure wear. The taquera has been doling out Austin’s beloved breakfast tacos, including migas and ones with other egg-based fillings, all day. Lines are common. Guerrero works solo, after all. “If I lose track of a spoon or a fork, who’s going to help me look for it? I’m the only one to blame,” she laughs.
I was happily eating my spicy tangles of chicharrón en salsa verde on a hot and fresh corn tortilla at one of those picnic tables, when Guerrero grabbed the plate from my hands. “Come with me. The taco is missing something,” she said. I followed her into the trailer, where she quickly but gently removed aluminum foil creased around the brim of a tall, heavy-bottom pot, sunk a long ladle into the cookware, and filled it with a hillock of whole, pale pinto beans, aka frijoles de olla. “This, mijo,” she said quietly, “this is what the taco deserves.” I returned to my table unaware that Guerrero was following me with a plate of fideo en salsa roja (vermicelli in a delicate tomato salsa). “This is the proper side dish,” she said, before turning to reenter the trailer.
The plump, pale brown-pink beans had just enough give to offset the gentle, crumpled-velvet texture of the pig skin. The vermicelli was fun to slurp with childish glee. What did I do to deserve such treatment? I didn’t ask for it. Rather, I used my most formal and polite Spanish, merited by Guerrero’s station and age. She’s known for her hospitality and her doting manner. Occasionally customers, regulars mostly, call Guerrero “Mama” or “Mami.” I’ll only go so far as to call her Doña Yolanda, using the honorific for an older, respected woman.
Woman-owned and -operated taquerias and restaurants are scarce in the male-dominated culinary industry. However, it was women who codified Mexican food from the ground up, beginning with corn. It’s women who nixtamalized corn, ground it using a metate made from volcanic rock, and formed tortillas to cook on the flat clay comals. They also defined dishes like enchiladas and huaraches. The advent of industrialized tortilla manufacturing in the 1950s helped free women previously confined to the kitchen, allowing them to earn educations, join the workforce, and become entrepreneurs. But over time, their labor was mostly replaced by that of men who opened their own molinos (corn mills), tortillerias, and taquerias, allowing large companies like Gruma, producer of the dehydrated corn flour Maseca brand, to dominate the market.
Men may have gotten most of the credit and profit, but as Austin taco matriarch Mamá Reyna Gutierrez, the mother of Veracruz All Natural owners Reyna and Maritza Vasquez, points out, women never stopped doing the real work behind the scenes. The bold and enterprising woman her daughters call “La Ley,” the law, left her native Veracruz, Mexico, at age thirty, bringing her family north in the hope of opening her own restaurant. It would be a continuation of the fonda, a type of small restaurant serving affordable prix-fixe, multi-course meals for workers, that she had run in her hometown of Veracruz. The elder Reyna ran that first restaurant on her own. Mamá Reyna bought the ingredients to cook with, prepared the salsas, moles, chilaquiles—every dish—and even bussed tables. When her daughters were old enough to help after school, they would assist with cleanup, and then moved on to cooking. “That’s where [Reyna and Maritza] learned everything,” Mamá Reyna says. “It’s also where my approach to Mexican cuisine was formed. I developed a lot of ambitions.” With the poor economy in Mexico, fulfilling those ambitions required moving to Texas.
In Veracruz, the fondas were run by women, says the younger Reyna. They managed the small restaurants while the men sold tacos at night. In the U.S. “it’s the other way around,” she adds. Her mother agrees, and is careful to note an often-overlooked reality: “Behind every taquero, there is a woman working as a prep cook. They season the meat. They make the salsas. They do it all.” As Mamá Reyna recounts her upbringing and early years in the food industry, she requests a moment to brush aside tears.
Those were tears of strength and perseverance. “They worked me hard and paid me little,” she says, recalling the harsh conditions she endured in Austin Mexican restaurants. Mamá Reyna turned to housekeeping, while selling tamales, pozole, and other dishes from the trunk of her car. Her dream was put on hold until 2008, when her daughters decided to open Veracruz All Natural. Mamá Reyna worked alongside them to prepare the mole, season the pastor, and make the tortillas.
At the time, the sisters were working in a bantam trailer with barely sufficient room for two people and a plancha (griddle). Yet everyone, including Maritza’s daughter, Lis Mariscal, squeezed into the space. “It was us or the plancha,” Reyna joked about how confined the kitchen was. The circuit breaker to the griddle would trip periodically, and things were harried. There wasn’t an exhaust fan, and temperatures inside the trailer would soar in the Texas summer. Vandalism struck too. “One night someone broke in and smeared the interior and floor of the truck with the marinated pastor meat,” Reyna recalls. Nevertheless, they persisted. Thirteen years later, Veracruz has grown into a highly popular mini chain of trucks and stores, including a large space inside the Line Hotel in downtown Austin. The business has garnered praise on a national level, with the Food Network and Alton Brown naming Veracruz’s breakfast tacos as among the country’s best.
While the women behind Tacos Guerrero and Veracruz All Natural are likely the most visible taqueras in Texas’s taco landscape, they aren’t the only ones of note. Below are nine more of our favorite taco operations helmed by women.
Calisience, Fort Worth
Jacqueline Anaya sold food from her home before a relative urged her to open her own food truck. The food was that good—and still is. Just before the pandemic, she opened Calisience, and then seafood-focused Cali Mar, in a Fort Worth lot to great acclaim.
Cars line up for what is essentially drive-through service for cheesy tacos de birria (known as tacos dorados at Calisience), birria ramen, mini tacos, and fresh aguas frescas in a range of fruit flavors. Anaya says she never dreamed of such success. “I was happy only to be able to pay my bills and be there for my son, and then 2020 was the best year of my life,” she says. 3318 E. Belknap, 323-640-9898
Chela’s Tacos, San Antonio
For more than a decade, Chela’s Tacos has been a perennial San Antonio favorite. Owner Celia Davis opened her first Chela’s as a truck near the University of Texas at San Antonio’s main campus in 2007. In 2015, she established her first restaurant. In 2018, she added a second brick-and-mortar location near the Japanese Tea Garden along North St. Mary’s Street. All three spots offer myriad taco options and entrees, but there are also banana leaf–wrapped tamales oaxaqueños and the Costra de Chela, a corn tortilla with a slip of fried mozzarella bearing al pastor and pineapple. 3420 N. St. Mary’s, 210-535-7340; 5231 Broadway, Suite 117, 210-753-1040
Cochinita & Co., Houston
What started in 2016 as a roving pop-up and morphed into a kiosk at the now-closed Politan Row food hall in Houston’s Rice Village is now a brand. The Cochinita & Co. empire, run by Victoria Elizondo, encompasses a taco truck, prepared foods (including salsa macha, horchata, tostadas, and tamales), and the Cocina Local restaurant. Cocina Local opened the last weekend in April, and uses locally sourced products to highlight the vegetarian dishes that form the basis of Mexican cuisine. The truck will roll out in mid-May, serving regional, street-style tacos such as bistec and al pastor. 5420 Lawndale, Suite 500, 713-309-6410
Doña María Mexican Café, Houston
Opened in 1988 by María Piñeda and now owned and operated by Piñeda’s daughter Anna and Anna’s husband Juan, Doña María Mexican Café on Navigation is a Second Ward institution. The café serves up up classic breakfast tacos with refried beans, eggs, and favorite proteins like vermilion-staining chorizo or twists of chicharrón, on flour tortillas made by Griselda Delgado Lamas in the kitchen overseen by Doña Ever Ochoa. Don’t miss out on the life-affirming South Texas carne guisada. 2601 Navigation Boulevard, 713-224-3317
La Nueva Fresh & Hot, Dallas
Gloria Vasquez’s La Nueva Fresh & Hot tortillerias in northwest Dallas and Lewisville are part of a larger network of tortilla factories first established by Vasquez’s father in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1968. When the family immigrated to Dallas, they began to open tortillas across North Texas. Most operate under the name La Nueva de Zacatecas. Others operate as La Nueva Puntada. All 28 locations are owned by Vasquez family members. The original Fresh & Hot in Dallas was initially a tight space for tortillas, salsas, chips, and tacos to go. The space has now expanded to include tables and chairs with an open view of the creaking, fire-heated tortilla machine.
The special tacos remain the same. Under the wide range of homey, slow-cooked stews and braises known as guisados, the menu includes standouts such as the blazingly hot guisado verde taco with its blocks of tender layers of pork. The lamb barbacoa taco is slightly gamy, and the bean and queso fresco is sink-in-your-seat comforting. 9625 Webb Chapel Road, Dallas, 214-358-7261; 1003 Fox Avenue, Lewisville, 972-436-1570
La Toxica, San Angelo
The COVID pandemic has been an unsurprising boon for Mexican food and tacos. With low overhead and the ability to adapt faster than many other types of restaurants, Texans’ favorite food joints have gotten a wonderful reception. La Toxica opened in January 2021 in San Angelo. Co-owner Yazmin Ramirez told GoSanAngelo, “Toxica is a person in a relationship that can be so toxic to the other person that they become addictive. That’s my food… you want it, you think about it, you keep coming back.” Ramirez and her mother Lydia started dishing out bacon-wrapped Mexican hot dogs, tacos, and charro beans before expanding to offering tortas, menudo, gorditas, and more. The breakfast and lunch spot (La Toxica closes at 2 p.m. daily) even started selling birria de res with consommé, still a relative novelty in West Texas, in early April. Most importantly, La Toxica is built on the essential foundation of aromatic fresh corn tortillas. That alone makes the taqueria road-trip worthy. 2323 Ben Ficklin Road, 325-617-4215
Nana’s Taqueria, Weslaco
In the case of decade-old Weslaco-based Nana’s Taqueria, there is no eponymous grandmother. Rather, the name was inspired by co-owner Roxanna Treviño’s daughter Mariana, who was two years old at the time, and had trouble pronouncing her own name. The taqueria’s original presence was almost as small as the child who lent it her name. At first, the Treviño family ran their business out of a small building on the same property as their home. It quickly outgrew the space, and the Treviños moved out of their house so they could include the building as part of the restaurant. Nana’s Taqueria is now more of a colorful compound (gift shop included) than a simple restaurant.
Go for the Rio Grande Valley tacos, big and small, and for the Nuevo Progreso–style lonches, top-split bolillo bun sandwiches filled with lightly seasoned ground beef, cabbage, tomatoes, avocado wedges, onions, cabbage, and queso fresco. They’re also known as tacos de pan (bread tacos). “It’s everything you put in a taco but in a bolillo,” says Treviño. 1802 S. International Boulevard, 956-447-2798
Santos Tacos, Crowley
“If by ‘co-owner’ you mean the one who put in the most money and does all the cooking, yes, I am,” says Maggie Santos of Santos Tacos. The other owners are her sons Michael and Matthew. They help her dole out traditionally braised carnitas, shimmering cheek-meat barbacoa, and cubed chicken tinga in fresh corn tortillas. A separate trailer is available for catering and serves birra de res from Wednesdays through Saturdays. When Santos Tacos relocates to a larger sit-down space, a move planned for later this year, Maggie Santos will finally fulfill her dream of nixtamalizing her own corn. Until then, she relies on trusty Nixtamasa dehydrated corn flour. 998 W. Main (restaurant), 682-702-4145; 1516 Highway 1187 (birria-only trailer)
Tacos Doña Lena, Houston
For 25 years, Lena Cabrera sold tacos, tamales, and other foods from within the apartment complex in which her family lived. When she, her son Angel Cabrera, and her son’s husband, Brian Ponce, decided to open a brick-and-mortar space, they signed a lease more than a year before opening Tacos Doña Lena in spring of 2020. They sat on the lease while saving enough money to self-finance the business. It takes steely confidence, detailed planning, and a sprinkle of faith to open a restaurant during a pandemic, but that’s exactly what the taquera and her family did. They struggled at first, sometimes making only a hundred bucks a day. Since then, the trio has found incredible success.
They employ a staff of ten and dish out specials like five mini tacos for $5 on Tuesdays; loads of birria de res tacos with consommé; breakfast tacos; and snappy flautas filled with ribbons of juicy chicken and piled high with shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, crumbles of queso fresco, and three paper-thin wedges of avocado. The toothpick Mexican flag rising from the dish is a bonus. Better yet are the tacos of chicken mole that start with a fresh corn tortilla and a base of yellow rice that’s topped with mixture of shredded chicken and earthy mole and a dousing of queso blanco. 8788 Hammerly Boulevard, Suite G, 713-993-6486
Tacos Guerrero, Austin
Veracruz All Natural, Austin
Some call Veracruz All Natural the purveyor of the gold-standard migas, but we prefer the weighty, cheese-filled chile relleno and the story of independently minded women who created a booming Austin-area mini chain. Multiple locations