I’ve had the good fortune of eating amazing food this year—not just the tacos I’ve featured weekly (you can check those out here)—and not just since I joined Texas Monthly in September. My favorite bites from 2019 run the gamut from surprising dishes and old-school offerings to deceptively simple noshes and culinary innovations. As I told Juan Diego Ramirez, co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast, on an episode this month (which made its own “best of” list!), my work as the taco editor involves traveling to the border and Mexico. So, as you might expect, some of my favorite foods spotlighted below were relished during trips south of the border as well as across the state.
The Flan Taco by Evil Cooks at José, Dallas
This shouldn’t have worked. I never thought it possible. It certainly wasn’t anything I had considered when I’ve said that eventually everything makes it into a tortilla. Yet, this dessert taco, which included custardy flan on a chilled half-corn, half-flour tortilla, was a perfect sweet and mint-punctuated nosh. The taquera behind the inventive treat was Elvia Huerta, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Evil Cooks, who made it during an October pop-up at José, a modern Mexican restaurant in Dallas. I immediately wanted another flan taco after finishing my first. I eventually got one, but the second taco had me hankering for a third. This is how a taco should work: It should leave you wanting another.
Bone Marrow Tacos at Comedor, Austin
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Sliced lengthwise and stacked on quelites (a class of Mexican greens) cooked with lime juice, salt, and smoked butter, the marrow-packed beef femur is a structural and fetching beauty. It’s topped with a hoja santa-pecan gremolata, while garnishes of pickled radish and lime wedges add shots of color. The platter, a signature item at Comedor, is accompanied by nixtamalized, house-made corn tortillas. Then come the server’s instructions: add the greens to the tortilla first, scoop on some of the marrow, and give it a spritz of lime. Ideally, the melting marrow will fill in the spaces between the greens, creating a balance propelled by the fragrant tortilla. But eat it anyway you like. “You can’t go wrong,” says Gabe Erales, the restaurant’s executive chef. He’s right. Just one thing: If you’re dining solo, beware that this is a very rich dish. It makes for an ideal appetizer for two to four people.
White Fish Tostadas at Fish Lonja, San Antonio
Chef-owner Alex Paredes makes some of San Antonio’s best carnitas at his Washington Avenue restaurant, Carnitas Lonja. They’re silky with crunchy accents. Behind the shop is a hut of sorts that goes by the name Fish Lonja, where customers can belly up for seafood tostadas and tacos. When I visited, there were only white fish and octopus tostadas available. But they were all I needed. Although I enjoyed both, I was surprised to have preferred the fish over the octopus. Large cuts of tilapia were held in place by a bright mayo and garnished with arches of pickled onions, fans of avocado, and greens atop crispy, curled-edge tortillas. The combination was messy and delightful.
The Tortilla Raspada at Xokol, Guadalajara
Whip out the credit card because this treat requires airfare. Made from masa scraped off the metate (the stone appliance used to hand-grind corn into dough), the tortilla raspada is like the thinnest, most corn-flavored cracker you’ve ever had, but even greater. I tried it for the first time at Guadalajara’s Xokol, a tiny chef-driven restaurant that consists of a few picnic tables and a counter facing the open kitchen. The tortilla is even presented in its own stand.
The Croncha at La Panadería, San Antonio
The Manteconcha, a cross between a muffin and a concha—the sweet, pillowy, shell-stencil-topped Mexican pastry—became popular in 2018 across Mexico and the U.S. (it was reportedly invented at Panadería El Manantial, in Querétaro). Baker David Cáceres, who co-owns La Panadería in San Antonio, is a fan of the hybrid treat, but he wanted to do something a little different. “It became very famous,” Cáceres says. Manteconchas “were so clever, and I wanted to honor them. Honoring them is not about doing the same thing. It is making something that is an inspiration.” For Cáceres, that meant using La Panadería’s flaky, light croissant dough as the base of the muffin-like pastry with a concha cap. Called the Croncha, the pastry is best consumed from the side. That way, you get bites of the powdery sweet concha and the buttery croissant bottom.
The Charales in Michoacán
Charales—tiny, minnow-like lake fish—are predominately found in the Mexican state of Michoacán. I enjoyed them a few times during a visit to the towns of Paracho, famous for its luthiers, and on the banks of Lake Pátzcuaro ahead of a ferry ride to Janitizo, the island famous for its Dia de los Muertos celebration and its 130-foot-tall statue of Mexican Revolution hero José Maria Morelos. In Paracho, the charales were served in tacos de guisados at a stand in the central plaza. One had the charales mixed with scrambled eggs; the other was topped with a masa-thickened stew. Both were fishier and saltier that I would have normally liked, but the made-on-the-spot airy blue corn tortillas, darkened in places and aromatic, evened out the imbalance. On the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, I purchased a plastic cup of flash-fried charales with chiles, happily wandering the embarcadero while munching on battered ribbons of fish before my trip to magical Janitizo.
The Combo Platters at El Conquistador, Hillsboro
Tex-Mex is sometimes stereotyped as being composed of intensely flavored gut-bomb combination platters. Not so at El Conquistador, a fifty-year-old family-owned restaurant chain with two locations in Waco and a third in Hillsboro. It’s at the latter where two friends and I stopped while driving south ahead of our National Taco Day road trip and ordered three combo platters. The enchiladas are liberally blanketed in brilliant cheese, chile con carne, and a cream sauce that refrains from crusting. Fajitas are sprinkled with a layer of pico de gallo. The platters are packed with food, yes, and spice, yes. They’ve got all the trademarks of great Tex-Mex (the experience comes complete with the faint aroma of Fabuloso used to mop the tile floors), but not enough to leave you pained and blabbering about needing to be rolled out of the restaurant. It’s just homey comida Tejas.