My mood lifts as soon as I pull up to Taco Stop, a walk-up taqueria along Dallas’s Irving Boulevard. The building is brightly painted in the red, green, and white of the Mexican flag, and giant all-caps letters in a playful sans serif font proclaim the eight-year-old restaurant’s name. Though the seating area out front remains closed because of the pandemic, fresh floral arrangements still adorn each lime-green picnic table.
Before COVID-19, I often saw construction workers, families, and businessmen in suits mingling at these tables. Now the diverse crowd lines up for curbside pickup instead. The functional shift doesn’t alter the impact of the food. Biting into a Taco Stop taco elicits a reaction of relaxed shoulders, a sigh of relief, and the thought that maybe, just maybe, today will go better than expected.
It’s all part of the plan for owner Emilia Flores, who worked as a psychologist before she opened Taco Stop in the Dallas Design District in 2012. The Durango, Mexico, native sees selling tacos as a natural extension of her previous career. “I’ve always been interested in people and seeing what could help make everybody’s life a little better,” she says. “There are a lot of ways of doing that. One of them was obviously my professional practice, and another one is food. I think in most cultures, but particularly for Mexicans, it’s a nurturing thing.”
For Flores, nurturing her customers means selecting every ingredient with care: shredded crispy carnitas; the popular prime steak with those sweet pearls of “magic onions,” the sleek-but-never-greasy barbacoa; the ever-changing components of the seasonal veggies, and my favorites: the chicken tinga special generously topped with creamy queso fresco and—best of all—the picadillo.
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Juicy but not greasy, composed of finely ground beef alongside vegetables, the picadillo taco is wrapped in what are arguably Dallas’s best corn tortillas, those made at Araiza Tortilla Factory. The discs made from nixtamalized corn are tiny, about three inches in diameter, and they leave the fragrance of corn lingering on your fingers for hours. It’s a relaxing smell that for me is the culinary equivalent of a calming essential oils blend misting out of a diffuser. The sweet, piquant filling amplifies the experience.
For the tinga taco, threads of chipotle-stewed chicken are packed into doubled-up tortillas served in foil in a red-and-white basket in a brown paper bag. The nearly imperceptibly smoky filling is further accentuated by the white cheese. Never dry, the chicken, like the picadillo, is a daily special served once a week (the day varies depending on availability). Another gem is the salsa de cacahuate, an elusive off-menu habañero-peanut blend. It makes the potato-and-egg breakfast taco sing.
In addition to great classic tacos, Taco Stop stands out for Flores’s charity work. Thanks to donations from diners and a few former regulars who have since moved out of state, she’s been giving away free meals to frontline health care workers. Flores also occasionally offers free, donated bags of mixed produce and meats to anyone who can’t afford basic groceries. “It’s a way of setting an example,” she says.
For the past several winters, she’s also operated a take-a-coat/leave-a-coat program. This last December, Flores received her first piece of hate mail because of her charitable work. When I wrote about the letter earlier this year, she said that the negativity doesn’t deter her: “There are people who are unhappy, no matter what you do.”
Adversity doesn’t faze Flores, and COVID-19 has given her plenty of that. She admits she’s taking business day by day—even with the Paycheck Protection Program loan she recently received. “Prices are going up, and there are a lot of people without jobs,” she says. “People will not be eating out as much as they used to—even though when you talk about tacos, they’re really an inexpensive way to go. Tacos are so versatile.”
The last time the United States and Texas were in a similar financial position was during the Great Recession of 2007–2009. That economic crisis played a role in the current, continuously increasing popularity of the taco. Its versatility was, and remains, critical to its endurance. As long as there are affordable tacos, people will pay for them. And Taco Stop deserves to be one of the busiest taquerias in Texas—not only because of the goodwill it’s built with the community, but because the tacos are good for body and mind.