Arturo Reyes and his best friend, Mark Rubio, were leaving a Naughty by Nature concert in Las Vegas in late 2018, when Rubio’s nephew called at 2 a.m., from Texas. The young man was speaking in a hurried, excited manner. It was difficult to hear him, but one question came through: “Hey, Tío, does Art still make that delicious queso?”

Rubio switched the call to speaker and heard his nephew tell the two men that their families were confident enough in Reyes’s recipe to sign up for the Quesoff in Austin. The day of the contest, Reyes arrived with his family’s decades-old chile con queso recipe: a mixture of restaurant-quality white American easy-melt cheese, roasted Anaheim chiles, poblanos, onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, cilantro, and a blend of other spices and herbs. His team called it Kick Ass Queso. “We didn’t read anything or pay attention to anything,” the 58-year-old Reyes recalls. “We just showed up with our cheese.” To El Paso native’s surprise, the dish won the Spicy category. 

In the wake of the title, Reyes knew there’d be no putting off Rubio’s pleas to open a food truck serving El Paso fare. It was an idea years in the making, he recalls. Dinners at the Reyes household always ended with Rubio urging his best friend to sell his food. Reyes’s response was always the same: He was content as an electrician. But not anymore.

The pair began to save money for the truck when Rubio was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2019. He died a year later. Rubio’s death sent Reyes into a paralyzing depression. “I did nothing for two years,” Reyes says. That is until his daughter, Stephanie Reyes, helped him recover. She encouraged him to develop the food-truck concept of homestyle El Paso dishes and give it a six-month trial. 

“She and my daughter-in-law [Samantha Perez] were the ones who supported me through this mess,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done this without Stephanie.” Reyes enlisted his sister-in-law, Noemi Martinez, to help develop the recipes, alongside his daughter and daughter-in-law. The four family members tweaked preparations of flautas, chile colorado, burritos, and even birria.

The truck, El Paso Flauta, named after one of the city’s star dishes, officially opened on June 17, 2022. Almost immediately, the trailer began to sell out of tacos ahogados, burritos, and chile colorado. Six months has turned into almost two years.

It was a long way from Reyes’s modest beginnings. He was born and raised in “the Other Ellis Island.” The neighborhood, El Segundo Barrio, was the second such enclave in El Paso, hence the designation. Dominated by tenements and housing projects, its nickname came about because El Segundo Barrio was where many Mexican immigrants, including Reyes’s grandparents, entered Texas. It was also the neighborhood where revolutionaries such as Pancho Villa enjoyed ice cream at the Elite Confectionery and Francisco Madero plotted the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Díaz. The curandera (“healer”) and revolutionary Teresa Urrea also lived in Segundo Barrio for a time. Residents often lived in impoverished conditions, working to achieve what modicum of success they could eke out, including Reyes, who grew up in the Sherman Plaza housing projects. “I came from nothing,” he says. “I thought El Paso was the center of the universe.”

So it is with awe that Reyes recalls his first trip outside of his patch of far West Texas, to Corpus Christi. “We went to this beachfront condo . . . and I didn’t realize how big Texas was. Then I just wanted to see all of it,” Reyes says, admitting it inspired a wanderlust in him. He wanted to leave El Paso as soon as he could. After graduating high school in 1984, Reyes did just that when his in-laws in Austin got sick and required looking after. He and his wife relocated to Austin to fulfill the roles of caretakers. To provide for the family, Reyes took up work in construction, initially in flooring and eventually electrical. The jobs led him across the country, including Colorado, Maine, New York, and Hawaii. But Austin was home, and Austin was welcoming of El Paso Flauta.

El Paso Flauta
The El Paso Flauta trailer at Tree House Park in South Austin. Photograph by José R. Ralat
El Paso Flauta
The chile relleno burrito. Photograph by José R. Ralat

Transplants from the Sun City were among the first to line up, including Reyes’s third-grade teacher, Mrs. Campos, and her family. “I treated them like royalty. I brought them over everything I made because I wanted them—and I want everybody—to try our food, especially people from back home,” Reyes explains. As a frequent visitor to El Paso whose in-laws hail from the far West Texas city, I can say Reyes is honoring—and at times exceeding—the quality of El Paso’s cuisine.

My initial visit to El Paso Flauta in Manchaca, on the fringes of South Austin, last September offered surprise after surprise. Reyes was taking orders. His full, slicked-back gray hair and groomed white goatee and smile give the muscular gentleman a jovial air that evokes the kindness El Pasoans are known for. The sky suddenly darkened. He looked beyond me and upward. First the clouds were gray, then black. The wind gusted and it wasn’t letting up. Rain was coming. I ordered flautas, tacos ahogados, and burritos anyway.

The menu is numbered in order of popularity, with the number one being the namesake flautas. They’re long, rolled, and packed with shredded brisket, the dark, crispy edges of beef protruding from freshly fried, crunchy corn tortillas. Served three to an order, the flautas are dressed in generous squiggles of white crema, salsa verde, and guacamole. A sprinkle of cheese finishes the job. It’s messy, but worth it. A tad spicy, snappy, and full of beefy flavors, the flautas are a taste of the El Paso–Juárez borderplex. 

Even better is the “Number Two (Because it’s the s—),” the name for the Chico’s Tacos–style tacos ahogados plate. The dish requires some customer assembly, which allows for the freshest experience. First, place the trio of tightly rolled and fried ground-beef tacos into the provided laminated paper basket. Next, pour the thin, warm tomato salsa over the tacos. Spread the accompanying grated cheddar cheese over the dish, and finish it by drizzling with mild salsa verde. It’s not as messy as the flautas, but it’s glorious in its warmth. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and an immense improvement over the original. 

By this point, the wind’s force was increasing. Lightning cracked the sky. Thunder shook the small wood deck and picnic table at which a friend and I were relishing the food, and the canopy covering us. So of course we ordered more. Next we went for the El Paso–Juárez-style burritos. The border staple is composed of a thin twelve-inch flour tortilla smeared with refried beans and a ladleful of one filling. Typical guisos include chile colorado, chile relleno, and chicharron, all of them specials at El Paso Flauta. The chile colorado burrito was earthy, with chunks of pork that shredded neatly with each bite. It was much different on my second visit, in March, when the filling was dry and difficult to swallow. I chalked it up to a bad batch. 

Chile relleno burritos are my favorite burritos. At El Paso Flauta, they are packed with a green chile (Hatch or its near-twin Anaheim) that is blistered, skinned, opened, and filled with queso asadero from Licon Dairy in San Elizario, just outside El Paso. The cheesemaker’s line of products is almost as legendary as Chico’s tacos ahogados. When sliced thin, the cheese melts like a communion wafer. When thick, it melts into a wide cushion of comfort, as it is inside of El Paso Flauta’s chile relleno burrito. 

As I munched on the untucked burrito, in the El Paso fashion, the downpour finally hit. My friend and I helped Reyes lower the canopy to an angle that would shield us from the rain as we continued to eat. The rain eventually shifted, and we helped Reyes adjust the canopy once more. 

Reyes later moved El Paso Flauta to Tree House Park, a South Austin food truck park. My second visit was to that location. Again, I ordered flautas, tacos ahogados, the chile relleno and chile colorado burritos, and the Kick Ass Fries smothered in Reyes’s award-winning queso. The dish lived up to its name. Again, the flautas and tacos ahogados were stellar examples of the Sun City’s signature foods. My heart beat faster and happier with each bite of the chile relleno. I was overcome with excitement.

When I shared my response with Reyes, he agreed. “Here I am, a kid who grew up in the projects, on food stamps and welfare, and now I have this. It’s pretty overwhelming.”

El Paso Flauta
7701 Colton-Bluff Springs Road, Austin
Phone: 512-516-7894
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 11:30–8, Sunday 11:30–5