Every Christmas Eve, my family eats the same meal.
My mom polls me, my three brothers, and any extra guests: “A double or a single?” She scratches the answers down on a piece of paper, Notes app be damned. My dad, cash in hand, makes the trek out to pick up the nondescript paper bags of food (one of which is entirely and unnervingly filled with loose shredded cheese), and we gather around our table to construct our orders. A fleet of little cardboard boats of rolled tacos begins to assemble. Every Christmas Eve, we eat Chico’s Tacos.
If you know anything about the El Paso institution, which will hit seventy years of serving the city this July, you know that a single order comes with three rolled and fried beef tacos meant to be topped with cheese (scooped from the aforementioned giant bag) and then submerged—just fully drowned—in a soupy tomato salsa. The preparation is slightly haphazard, and there’s not really much more to the dish. Some diners opt to supplement the red sauce’s lack of spice with heavy spoonfuls of the restaurant’s salsa verde. Hungrier patrons are better off getting a double order of six tacos. Usually, I go for a single and an order of fries to soak up the leftover sauce when I’m done. I’ve sat and eaten in the restaurant’s red booths enough times to know that the fries trick is the gold standard.
There are four Chico’s locations across the border town; El Paso’s Franklin Mountains are in full, beautiful view of two. Although hours changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the joint’s cash-only dining rooms historically served as the city’s late-night haunts, rendering Whataburger (a Texan’s traditional 1 a.m. option) a last resort. Aside from the hours, which are now 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., things at Chico’s remain the same decade after decade. When they do change, as with a shift in the restaurant’s cheese supplier in 2017, El Pasoans take note—and they still have not stopped talking about it.
While beloved by many, the restaurant’s signature dish faces unabashed criticism from El Pasoans and outsiders alike. Although many take issue with the thin sauce and the Kraft-like cheese, the sogginess of the tacos is particularly polarizing. It’s the thing diners mention either way, whether they’re explaining why they love Chico’s or why they can’t stand it.
There isn’t a Chico’s criticism I can in good conscience rebut. The tacos are soggy. The “tomato juice” is watery and only hints at any sort of flavor. The shredded cheese is unearthly, like McDonald’s apple slices with their notoriously suspicious shelf life. The ground beef tastes like salt (and I mean just salt). I’ve tried enough elevated and homemade takes on Chico’s tacos to know the dish can be done much better, and to more delicious effect, but I still wouldn’t opt for any of the alternatives. It’s not entirely clear to me why I’m willing to defend a cardboard boat full of rolled tacos with a passion much better suited to a meal that’s objectively good, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with the food.
Eaten with my family on Christmas Eve or with a friend I haven’t seen in a while—in my beloved hometown, where I haven’t lived for years—Chico’s subpar ingredients taste just right. The tacos are warm and familiar, with flavors that mollify all you’ve been through since you were last back home. They’re nostalgia rolled into corn tortillas and deep-fried. Plus, nothing melts like that cheese.
(Of course, I mean the old one.)