C Rojo’s Taqueria sits on a hill near Tyler State Park. With blue sheet-metal walls, the restaurant’s unremarkable exterior belies the vibrant dishes served inside. Here, you can find tacos that incorporate mangoes and coconut, served alongside brightly hued pineapple and watermelon aguas frescas. Chef-owner Rogelio Tellez, who hails from a town near Toluca in central Mexico, calls his food “Chamex.” The word is a portmanteau honoring his background and that of his wife, Carrie, who’s from the Northern Mariana Islands, near Guam; she has Indigenous Chamorro heritage. In practice, “Chamex” means notching up the tropical elements of C Rojo’s dishes, including tacos. “You see a lot of fruits like pineapples and mangoes in Chamorro food,” Tellez says. Coconut is plentiful too.
The integration of cuisines is not much of a leap, considering that tropical fruits abound in Mexico and pineapple is often an essential component of tacos al pastor. There are also shared cultural elements. Like Mexico, the Mariana Islands were held under Spanish colonial rule for centuries and were part of the galleon trading route—a shared history that influenced culinary traditions in both nations. But, as Tellez explains, Chamex is also a way to distinguish his food from that of other Mexican restaurants and to celebrate Carrie. It was she who encouraged him to act on a lifelong dream and open his own taqueria. “[Chamex] helps me stand out,” he says. “Tacos is tacos, but the best taco is not the one you’re going to find just around the corner.” Indeed, C Rojo’s is the only Pacific Islander–Mexican or Chamorro-Mexican joint I know of in the continental United States.
After more than a decade working in fine dining and big-box chain Mexican food in College Station, including a stint as kitchen manager of an outpost of the Abuelo’s Mexican restaurant chain, and time spent as an executive chef in Tyler, Rogelio Tellez established C Rojo’s Mobile Cuisine in March 2019. In addition to the brick-and-mortar restaurant, the couple also operates a neon-green mobile food truck. It serves lunch and dinner daily in different parts of Tyler, announcing its mealtime locations via Facebook and Instagram. At both locations, the menu includes more than just tacos. Tellez and crew offer crispy-edged carnitas capped with brambles of slaw and kimchi salsa, blending roasted tomato salsa and pickled cabbage. They also serve Brussels sprouts with blackened shrimp, a wagyu cheeseburger with candied bacon and a side of parmesan-dusted fries, and smoked brisket tacos capped with emerald-green guacamole and punchy pico de gallo. For Tellez, the truck’s menu is wide open and ever-changing, in part because of customer demand. He also relishes the opportunity to cook Chamorro dishes, including lemon-coconut chicken kelaguen served in a coconut shell—which makes for a fetching presentation—and a spin on crispy lumpia rolls.
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The brick-and-mortar counterpart, on a country road just off Interstate 20, opened in March, four days before Texas’s statewide dining room shutdown was implemented. The building, which resembles a spartan church social hall on the inside, is a sit-down taqueria with long tables and a stand-up dining counter. Near the front door is a hand-sanitizing station. The taqueria shares the space with a pizza-focused concept and a seafood truck that parks outside on weekends.
I visited the restaurant on a Wednesday and ordered four tacos, all of which were served on thin but sturdy house-made corn tortillas. Handmade flour tortillas are also available. They’re not traditional Mexican flour tortillas, Tellez says. “They’re a mix of Mexican flour tortillas and my wife’s tortillas,” he explains, referring to tatiyas, the coconut-infused Chamorro analog.
Back to the tacos. I had two favorites. First, there was the shrimp taco filled with plump, perfectly cooked crustaceans mixed with a mango pico de gallo on a swipe of creamy chipotle mayo. Following that was the velvety, herbaceous, house-made chorizo verde with diced potatoes, browned at the edges and buoyed by a scoop of guacamole. The sprinkle of queso fresco added a subtle saltiness, and ribbons of tart pickled onions paired well with the sweet touches of the pork.
The beef barbacoa was silky and straightforward, served in a generous portion. However, as much as the taco showcased the owner’s and the kitchen’s expert knowledge of the dish, it was simply unexciting in contrast to the aforementioned items. The taco al pastor, pepped up with pineapple and garnished with dashes of cilantro and white onion, starts from a traditional trompo, or rotating vertical spit. The even slices and minute stratification of color in the pork show that a masterful hand is working the vertical rotisserie. Visually, the al pastor is stunning. Unfortunately, it was underwhelming. It lacked the expected full, earthy spice flavor that can be amplified by a squirt of lime.
To be clear, it’s not that the taco al pastor wasn’t a solid taco—it just couldn’t compare with the shrimp and chorizo verde options. Those dishes are a rarity in Texas, not to mention hard to beat when prepared with such reverence. Chorizo verde’s presence on the menu isn’t surprising, since Tellez hails from a town close to Toluca, the home of the green pork sausage. But the blend of flavors you can sample here is unique.
C Rojo’s Taqueria is a gem of a spot. Order your food to go and eat off the trunk of your car—it’ll make for a refreshing meal after a trip to Tyler State Park. Don’t forget a large Styrofoam cup of agua fresca to wash down the tacos. I recommend the pineapple.