Last October, as Leila Melendez navigated her way through El Paso International Airport, she stopped and noted how heavy her suitcase was and began to laugh. She laughed because inside her luggage, alongside toiletries and changes of clothes, were items that would have baffled anyone who wasn’t from El Paso: twenty pounds of chorizo, asadero cheese, and tortillas from Barron’s Superette, in El Paso’s Mission Valley neighborhood. The groceries were intended as a care package for members of Melendez’s family in Dallas, who missed the foods they had grown up eating.
As Melendez stood on the concourse, she laughed for another reason: she knew that she probably wasn’t the only person at the airport that day devoting precious luggage space to the most basic of El Paso grocery store products. “El Pasoans do this all the time,” she says. “They’re constantly shipping food to family who have left. And people who return for a visit often take food back to their new home.”
And that’s when she came up with the idea for her company.
In December Melendez and her husband, Javier, launched a trial run of Food Flight, a mail-order business that they hoped would service the needs of the countless El Pasoans living in places where no one has ever heard of Los Tres Gallegos or Chico’s Tacos. Sure, you can find tacos and enchiladas in Dallas and Austin. But they don’t taste like or look like the ones you’ll find so close to the border. It’s just not the same.
The first couple of weeks were slow; Leila and Javier had only six orders, mostly from family and friends. But after she tweeted a picture of an order of menudo she was sending to a customer in Jamesville, New York, during the blizzard in late January, everything changed. From Tampa, Florida, to Puyallup, Washington, customers flooded the website with orders. Three days later, the Melendezes were preparing to buy a third freezer to accommodate the surge.
By far the most popular item that Food Flight sells is the double order of tacos from Chico’s Tacos: six fried, rolled (not folded) tacos smothered in a thin tomato sauce—some call it tomato juice—and generously topped with shredded yellow cheese. The Chico’s menu lists other items, but it’s those greasy tacos that turned the fast-food restaurant into a local institution.
Native El Pasoan Bianca Soto always pays a visit to Chico’s when she returns home from Sacramento, California, where she has lived since 2012. When she learned about Food Flight from a friend’s Facebook post, she jumped at the chance to place an order. “Being about eighteen hours away, it’s something I can’t easily get,” Soto says. “Or, you know, you try to duplicate the recipe and make it for yourself and it doesn’t work.”
Since Leila hasn’t given up her day job as the director of administration at the nonprofit WorkForce Solutions Borderplex, she spends her weekends driving around El Paso, stopping by Los Tres Gallegos for tubs of menudo, Chico’s Tacos for several hundred double orders, Gussie’s for tamales, and Barron’s for various staples. That leaves her little downtime, but for now she doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s an opportunity to connect people back to their hometown and the memories of the food they enjoyed there,” she says. “That’s what makes this so much fun.”
Becca Ed, a freshman music-business major at Middle Tennessee State University, is one of those people in dire need of a taste of what she has left behind. She was born and raised in El Paso and initially found the climate and culture of her new home difficult to adjust to. So her father, Stuart, the president and CEO of El Paso’s Goodwill Industries, decided to send one of Food Flight’s “Chico’s Tacos survival kits” (as he calls it) to his daughter right before finals week. “There was enough for me to share with my friends, which I thought was really great,” Becca says. “It’s like a representation of El Paso rolled into one little taco.”