Hector Burnias is not one for the same old bistec and queso fresco tacos of his Rio Grande Valley upbringing—at least not at his taqueria, El Santuario Tacos & Cocktails in Olmito. The forty-year-old opened the taco joint after nearly a dozen successful years operating his first restaurant, Flying Pig Grill & Cantina, where he acclimated a customer base to burgers that go beyond the average patty. “I wanted to do something that was familiar but wasn’t really familiar,” he says. “We started with classic burgers. Then we get a lot of elk and ostrich, kobe, and bison.”
Having built a customer base accustomed to his slightly different spins on familiar fare, Burnias decided it was time to up the ante with tacos. El Santuario takes things even further than Flying Pig with its unfettered spirit. “Why would you always want the same thing? Why would you like being so repetitive? It doesn’t go anywhere,” Burnias said. In the two years since El Santuario opened, its menu has featured nearly 75 different tacos. Among them are escargot in a spinach tortilla, duck al pastor, and quinoa in a blue corn tortilla.
There was also the dessert taco that the kitchen dreamed up because it had delicate five-inch chocolate-infused corn tortillas on hand for mole tacos, and the menu needed something sweet. Burnias wasn’t certain the dessert taco would work because of the tortilla’s thinness. “I wasn’t sure it would hold the ice cream,” he said. The tricky part was frying the tortilla. “I thought it was going to break too easily, but it actually held up well.”
This use of the resulting wafer-like tortilla alone is a departure from more common varieties of ice cream tacos, which typically are taco shell-shaped waffles packed with rolled or scooped ice cream that’s capped with toppings. Nor is El Santuario’s dessert like the crushed peanut- and chocolate-drenched Klondike brand Choco Taco. (Burnias says he wasn’t aware of that product before our conversation.) These aren’t actually tacos, of course, since there’s no tortilla involved.
There are other dessert tacos that deserve the name. For instance, the s’mores taco from Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman, executive chef of José in Dallas. That involves a hefty, delightfully gooey house-made rectangular marshmallow nestled into a tortilla made from masa with Abuelita brand chocolate powder mixed in. There’s also Evil Cooks’ flan taco on a chilled half-corn, half-flour tortilla. It was one of the best tacos I had last year. Of course, neither of those involve ice cream. Also, where Quiñones-Pittman at José uses powder, Burnias and crew boil down their chocolate. Next, they add a heavy-handed scoop of chocolate ice cream and a few squirts of loose whipped cream, and finish it with a fine dusting of cinnamon sugar and chocolate syrup. The resulting Chaco-Taco (better consumed with a spoon than by hand) is a satisfying complement to El Santuario’s best-selling bacon-wrapped quail taco dressed with jalapeño creamed corn salsa.
The taco’s name is Chaco with an “a” because of his wife, Christi. “She was like, ‘No, Chaco-Taco just sounds funnier.’ Instead of ‘choco,’ she said ‘chaco.’ It was hilarious,” Burnias said. Thus was born a most surprising taco, in a most surprising place, a part of Texas where barbacoa is king. He has something to say about that too. “Why? This is Texas. I’m going to do what I want.”