When I spoke to Maria Hernandez, co-owner of Encanto Market & Cocina, it was just days after the massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Hernandez’s day job is as an assistant principal at a Dallas Independent School District campus, so she was understandably nervous about the last day of the scholastic year. “I’m just trying to get my babies home,” she said. But when the conversation turned to her side business, excitement crept into the voice of the twenty-year veteran of public education.
That business, Encanto Market & Cocina, located in a small enclave between Dallas’s Pleasant Grove neighborhood and the Great Trinity Forest, began as a dream. Hernandez always wanted to own and operate a “little store” in the neighborhood where she grew up. “There was nothing there,” she said. “It was a food desert.” Residents lacked access to fresh fruit and treats, especially within walking distance of their homes. Then, one day last year, Hernandez drove past an abandoned building in her old South Dallas neighborhood. Upon seeing it, she knew that building could bring her dream to fruition. Her husband, Victor Ochoa, agreed immediately. There was one difficult variable: the couple’s three children under the age of nine. Hernandez and Ochoa didn’t want to be away from their kids for long, so they partnered with Hernandez’s sister and brother-in-law to open Encanto in February 2022. “It’s a passion project,” Hernandez says.
The building, with its white exterior and corrugated roof, seemingly appears out of nowhere in the working-class neighborhood. You can get a bit of everything there: dry goods; snacks; canned foods; cooking essentials, including Knorr bouillon; fresh bread from local panaderia La Birotería; fruits such as pineapples, limes, apples, and bananas; frozen and refrigerated goods; decorative figurines; and, of course, an all-star list of Mexican eats. “People don’t have to get in a car to go get coffee or go get milk or go get chorizo when they run out of the food,” Hernandez says.
In just a few short months, Encanto has become a community hub, with neighbors who stop in every day. During my visit, a local construction worker came in for lunch and started a cordial argument with the staff because they had set up a table and folding chairs for me and a friend, when there is normally no interior seating. With a twinge of guilt, we nonetheless happily feasted on several tacos, a torta, elotes, and aguas frescas.
The taco options at Encanto are predominantly guisados, slow-cooked stews, braises, and other homey dishes packed from breakfast through lunch. The tacos usually come with yellow rice, beans, queso fresco, and/or a hard-boiled egg. On the day we stopped in, my friend and I went with nopales and eggs, nopales and pork in a chile salsa, barbacoa en guiso, and pastor. All were served on on commodity yellow-corn tortillas.
Hernandez assures me she and her family are working on installing hardware for nixtamalization. The owners also plan to open a meat counter and a small farmers’ market in a concealed back room. But the growth will take time—most of the store’s business still comes from word of mouth. “[Four months] in, we’re still in version one-point-one,” Hernandez said. “I foresee in maybe three more months or in a year to be in version two-point-oh.”
As for the tacos, my favorites were the nopales and pork and barbacoa en guiso. The latter was juicy, with a wonderful beefy flavor showing through the nectarous salsa. It’s one of the most popular dishes, too. In the former taco, the combination of nopales and pork had a woodsy sweetness, and the red-chile salsa gave it a good kick. It also had a grandmotherly essence. One look at the taco and I could imagine an abuelita inviting me—commanding me, really—eat. Both tacos kept their fillings in place with a smear of creamy refried beans and rice, which also soaked up excess sauce. The nopales and eggs had the classic presentation familiar to breakfast taco–crazed Texans.
The pastor surprised me. Usually, pork pastor not cooked on a trompo is dry, gristly, and completely unappetizing. Encanto’s pastor, which is marinated and then griddled, was tender, with charred edges, and well seasoned with chile and citrus notes. The torta we ordered was also filled with pastor and swipes of mayonnaise, refried beans, and crema. The sandwich is finished with queso fresco, lettuce, tomato, and avocado in an excellent bolillo roll.
I was relieved when I dove into the elote and didn’t see a clumpy soup at the bottom of the cup. Instead, I savored tender kernels of corn with crema, queso blanco, mayonnaise, and a joyous, heavy-headed dusting of chile powder, which gave a spike of spice on the tongue. I washed it down with a refreshing, mouth-puckeringly sweet agua de jamaica (hibiscus).
Before we could get our hands on the food, though, we had to go through a dizzying ordering process. Customers order from the cashier near the front door. Then the cashier sends the receipt to the kitchen staff. However, before my lunch companion and I decided what to order, we needed to ask the kitchen staff what fillings were available, making for a lot of crisscrossing the store and an unnecessary confusion about what differentiated a breakfast taco (served on a flour tortilla) from a lunch taco (served on a corn tortilla). But I wanted all of my tacos on corn tortillas. The aggravation continued when I ordered my agua fresca de jamaica and torta de pastor. It would’ve been comical if it hadn’t been so frustrating.
As initially annoying as the ordering process was, it was worth the trouble. As Hernandez noted, her family continues to fine-tune and grow the business, whose purpose is to serve the community. I couldn’t be more excited to see—and taste—Encanto Market & Cocina evolve.