Every year, it seems, brings more and more new Mexican restaurants and food trucks to Texas. That’s been true even during COVID-19, as the taco has proven an especially pandemic-proof dish. This makes choosing my favorite noshes of 2021 more difficult than ever. Across the state, I’ve had incredible dining experiences and meals, be they while sitting at a decrepit picnic table eating Tejano barbecue and chatting with the colorfully spoken owner, in a fine-dining space with suit-wearing servers, or at a pop-up with a line stretching around the nearest corner. The Mexican food scene in Texas has never been better. Whittling down my choices for this story was difficult, and that’s a testament to the work of Texas taqueros, cooks, and chefs. But I did whittle them down, and the list that follows represents the primo Mexican and Tex-Mex foods I’ve had the good fortune to try in 2021.
Birria de Chivo
Birria de Chivo Trudis, Houston
Calisience, Fort Worth
While a plethora of taco trucks and taquerias now serve Tapatío-brand ramen mixed with beef birria, Jacqueline Anaya isn’t content to take shortcuts, especially when it comes to ramen. From her Fort Worth truck, Calisience, the taquera serves heaping bowls of punchy beef shoulder tangled in soft coils of noodles. Cilantro, chopped white onions, and a couple of radish slices float atop the crimson consommé. It’s worth fighting over.
Carne Asada Taco With Chapulines
Aroma, San Antonio
Carne asada in a taco is usually treated as a cheap, easy sell. But when it’s done well, using a decent cut of meat and a talented taquero, carne asada can be deliriously great. Such is the carne asada taco at Aroma (the successor to owner-taquero Jaime Hernandez’s now-shuttered La Fonda de Jaime 2.0) at the El Camino food truck park in San Antonio. Hernandez and his sous chef, Pedro Rebollo, make a mean carne asada. Juicy, with a good chew and cooling guacamole, the taco, served on a San Antonio Colonial tortilla, is sprinkled with chapulines. The roasted grasshoppers are overly salty on their own, but in concert with the rest of the taco, they create an experience that will have you running back for seconds and thirds.
Carnitas El Güero, San Antonio
Even if you haven’t yet tasted Mexican food that sends you into silence after the first bite, you can imagine the joyful nature of such an experience. The carnitas at this location of Austin export Carnitas El Güero, situated in a far West Side San Antonio Shell gas station, are just that excellent. Silky in texture and subtle in flavor, the roughly chopped pork confit spends hours in a large cazo, or cauldron, that fits up to four hundred pounds of meat. The lines are long, but the wait is worth it.
Cauliflower Taco al Pastor
Taconeta, El Paso
Taconeta’s cauliflower al pastor is a splendid tower of vegetable heads roasted on a trompo, or vertical rotisserie. As I wrote earlier this year, “it’s seasoned with a verdant marinade named after a Dragon Ball character, the muscular, green-skinned, pointy-eared Piccolo. The salsa is as temperamental and brash (with a gentle underlying flavor) as its namesake. The dish has a colorful, whimsical presentation: the cauliflower florets are chopped and topped with a tangle of pickled red onions, strands of microgreens, and a sprinkle of pepitas.” While you eat, take a moment to admire the gorgeous spinning trompo in Taconeta’s open kitchen, and make sure to relish the blue tortillas, which are nixtamalized in-house. I recommend adding a side of Salsa Vegeta for extra flavor.
Carnitas y Barbacoa El Güero, Mansfield
You’d be right to order the carnitas at Carnitas y Barbacoa El Güero. But don’t sleep on the battered and fried chile relleno. Served flattened, the chile, in this case a poblano, is draped in a refreshing salsa verde that miraculously doesn’t turn the fried coating into mush. The cheese pulls wonderfully from the interior as the chile is cut. Eating the dish, a specialty of co-owner Elena Nava, feels like taking communion. It left me pensive and—I swear this isn’t hyperbole—a little bit closer to the divine.
El Burrito Perrón
Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Que, Grapevine
This Tejano barbecue trailer is a local pioneer in the reintroduction of Mexican meat-smoking foundations. Owner Arnulfo “Trey” Sánchez III was among the early adopters of the smoked-birria taco trend, and he continues to take the laborious process of smoking barbacoa seriously. In Sánchez’s case, that includes wrapping the beef in broad, softened maguey leaves. That simple addition is a big deal for smoked barbacoa. Maguey is the classic wrapper for barbacoa. Aside from serving a traditional and functional purpose, the maguey imparts a slight fresh flavor. This fall, the Vaqueros team has taken to wrapping something new: a burrito percherón, which they call El Burrito Perrón. “Burrito percherón” translates to draft-horse burrito (for its impressive size), but the fiery beast’s title on the menu is a nod to a local dog-adoption event for which Sanchez promised to make a burrito. The fat cylinder is packed with a delectable mélange of smoked brisket, smoked charro beans, spicy potatoes, cheddar, pico de gallo, and crema. A costra, or layer of griddled cheese, adds support between the gossamer, Sonoran-style flour tortilla and its filling. An optional, comforting kick of queso adds the final touch.
Elotitos Corn Bar, San Antonio
Perhaps the most popular Mexican snack food, elotes are ripe for experimentation. That’s the treatment they receive at Jesus Arreaga’s Elotitos Corn Bar, a small, modern space that serves several versions of the classic dish of corn, cream, chili powder or Tajín, queso fresco or queso cotija, and maybe a little butter and hot sauce to gild the lily. The shop’s standard elote is finished with vibrant nacho cheese, drizzled in a gyroscopic pattern. My favorite is the smoky chipotle version, which is practically swimming in a salsa of the namesake chile. The popular Hot Cheetos flavor is speckled with pieces of the spicy snack and topped with a swirl of Valentina hot sauce, while the San Antonio flavor honors local tastes with heaping servings of mayonnaise and parmesan. Luckily, you don’t have to choose: the menu includes an option to create a flight, much like at a brewery. You can’t go wrong.
Molino Olōyō pop-up, Dallas
Olivia Lopez, the chef behind Molino Olōyō, is the talk of Dallas. From her commissary in the city’s Arts District, she nixtamalizes her own masa, preparing tamales and other masa-based treats for retail purchase and wholesale. She’s also a frequent sight at restaurant pop-ups and festivals, such as Chefs for Farmers. From her booth at the culinary happening in November, Lopez offered a one-bite taco of pork from a suckling pig (lechón) topped with chicharrones and mild salsa macha on a red-corn tortilla. I wanted to park myself at that spot and eat all the tacos.
Avila’s BBQ, Hebbronville
Mollejas, or cow thymuses (also called sweetbreads) may be unfamiliar to many Texas Monthly readers, but the adventurous are well rewarded at Avila’s BBQ. These fat slices of caramelized, nearly charred meat have off-white interiors and pink edges. They also have a creamy consistency and the subtle touches of a pleasant, funky finish. This spectacular dish makes Avila’s a South Texas destination.
Prickly Pear Galleta
Comadre Panadería pop-up, Austin
If the cookie jar above my fridge were filled with prickly pear galletas (cookies), I’d grab the container and sit on the kitchen floor, gobbling up the treats and not sharing. Such is the addictive nature of these buttery, prickly pear–infused sugar cookies rolled in pink-hued dragon-fruit sugar. Comadre Panadería owner-baker Mariela Camacho excels at conjuring creative Mexican pastries and snacks for sale at her regular pop-up at Nixta Taqueria. The menu is ever-changing, with a few standbys that include flavored conchas and cakes. I don’t know when the sugar cookies will return to the menu, but when they do, I’ll be the first to preorder and get in line.
Revolver Taco Lounge, Dallas
Some tacos come into your life at the precise moment you need them. For me, it was a quelites (bitter greens) and huitlacoche taco dorado, made on the fly by Revolver Taco Lounge owner Regino Rojas. He folded the greens and corn fungus into a corn tortilla, then sealed it at the top for a quick deep-fry. The result was a crackling, earthy, and herbaceous snack that I may never again enjoy. Though it’s not on the menu, try asking Rojas to make you one, and you just might get lucky.
Salsa de Suero
Quesadillas Estilo Villa Ahumada No. 2, Socorro
The whey-based salsa verde at this small restaurant outside El Paso is a sweet, milky delight. The establishment is named after Villa Ahumada, a town in the state of Chihuahua that’s known as the capital of quesadillas filled with mild, creamy queso asadero. The salsa verde is so good that it deserves to go on everything served at Quesadillas Estilo Villa Ahumada No. 2, not just the namesake quesadillas.
Combo Plate Beers
Urban South HTX, Houston
While German-style Mexican lagers like Modelo and Victoria are the go-to choice for washing down tacos, I prefer India pale ales. They pair well with Mexican food, especially tacos, thanks to an abundance of bright and tangy flavors that go wonderfully alongside lime, cilantro, and a tornadic blend of spices. Urban South HTX’s Combo Plate double and triple IPAs offer the heft, depth, and creativity that I want to drink while eating tacos.