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In 1908, Ambrose “A. C.” Saenz was born in New Braunfels to working-class Mexican immigrants. His parents, Crespin and Refugia, came north in the late nineteenth century. They met in Comal County and married in 1901, later moving to Bryan, where A. C. spent his childhood on the poor, Mexican side of town. As an adult, he played the violin in a band called Los Bolero Kings, and often liked to say that music was the food that nourished his soul. The Kings played their first show in 1941, at the hall of the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas. But it was the smoked brisket tamales and beer that Saenz and his wife, Mary, sold at their restaurant, Saenz Tamales and Barbecue, that paid the bills and offered the community a gathering place.
At first, Saenz Tamales and Barbecue was more of a cantina, says A. C.’s grandson John Avila, 48, who began working there at the age of six. Men would come in to buy a beer and half a dozen tamales with a bowl of chili con carne and crackers or chips. Eventually, the Saenzes added tables and chairs, and families began to stop by. A. C. greeted them in fluent Spanish, English, or Czech, ensuring that everyone felt at home. He went on to open a second barbecue-and-tamale shop and ran both until shortly before his death at age 92 in 2001. Today, Avila is carrying on his abuelo’s legacy about a hundred miles southeast, in Houston, where he co-owns the Henderson & Kane General Store.
Located in Houston’s Sixth Ward and named after the intersection where it stands, the white clapboard building that houses Henderson & Kane has been a family-owned shop since the late 1930s. Originally it was Scardino’s Food Mart. Before the Avilas took up the space three years ago, the building was a convenience store owned by a Vietnamese couple who sold food out of the shop. They lived behind the store, where they raised six kids. Now, Henderson & Kane is part taqueria, barbecue joint, restaurant, butcher, coffee shop, purveyor of local goods, and community gathering place. It’s a family affair: John works together with his wife, Veronica; his brother, Christian, and Christian’s wife, Jennifer Hermier; and Veronica’s brother, Jesse Gallegos. Spend a few minutes inside, and you’ll soon see Veronica or John greeting neighbors, asking about their families, and helping them sort through the bounty of Houston-made goods in stock.
These treats come from a who’s who of Houston makers. There are fresh tortillas from Papalo Mercado, coffee-based beverages from Amanecer—my favorite is the horchata cold brew—tamales and salsa from Cochinita & Company, salsa macha from Salsa Macha Felix, and so much more. The stock is reflective of Houston’s diversity and the ethos Avila learned from his grandparents and shares with his co-owners. In addition to the aforementioned products from Mexican American makers, there are also pierogies from Pierogi Queen; a selection of gelatos from SweetCup Gelato & Sorbet Originale; tempeh and teas from Indian and Chinese families, and other surprises. “If you meet all our vendors, there are so many families, so many partners, of every race, of every religion, of every sexual orientation,” Avila says. The store attracts similarly eclectic customers who want to support makers of high-quality, small-batch local products.
When I visit the shop, I make sure to order Henderson & Kane’s egg-based breakfast tacos in thin, brown-spotted flour tortillas. But they aren’t packed with scrambled eggs. Rather, as a nice surprise, the eggs are rolled French omelets. Peppery lean brisket or rich green chorizo (which gets its color from cilantro, other aromatic green herbs, and chiles) is carefully laid inside, with a flick of spice. Breakfast tacos are available daily. But Tuesday night is reserved for Henderson & Kane’s taco night. If the green chorizo—house-made, like the other sausages in the butcher’s case, by Aaron Lazo Sr.—is available, get it for dinner too, but on a corn tortilla. The nixtamalized corn tortillas from Papalo Mercado, mostly blue varieties, are striking in color and smooth to the touch, with a fantastic, earthy fragrance that complements the Mexican sausage.
Like Saenz Tamales and Barbecue, Henderson & Kane (and soon El Burro and the Bull, the Avila couple’s other venture that’s set to open by week’s end in Cypress) also sells fresh tamales filled with brisket. The aroma of smoked beef and masa is a foundational memory for Avila. The pitmaster and co-owner says his grandparents weren’t in this business to sell the brisket as barbecue. Rather, the Saenzes made smoked brisket as a tamale filling. “I grew up smelling smoked brisket and masa,” he says wistfully. “When I smell those, it’s not really barbecue that I think of. I think of the inside of their little cantina.”
The warmth and comfort in those memories manifest in the rustic and vintage decor at Henderson & Kane. You can eat while perched on a stool at a wooden barrel. One of the most comforting dishes, which will also be available at El Burro and the Bull, is the boudin eggs Benedict torta. It’s a hearty, rich, Cajun- and brunch-inspired take on the classic Mexican sandwich. The bolillo, a traditional French-style, breadlike roll, is stuffed with smoked boudin, which is topped with a poached egg and finished with hollandaise and a pinch of paprika. It’s a worker’s meal probably best consumed with a fork and knife at one of Henderson & Kane’s vintage metal tables. To be fair, it is possible to walk and eat the torta, although that would be a messy meal.
There are also touches of El Paso, interjected by Sun City natives Veronica Avila and her brother Jesse Gallegos. One of these is the shop’s occasional El Paso dinner pop-ups featuring signature dishes like taquitos ahogados. Another is the brisket flautas, which have a story behind them.
When they were dating, the Avilas smoked brisket in their apartment complex’s community cooker. After John removed it from the smoker, he began to slice the beef, as anyone born and raised in and around East and Central Texas would do. Veronica was shocked. In El Paso, brisket is shredded. “I kind of looked at him and I was like, ‘What are you doing,’ ” she recalls. That was the moment when Veronica realized how wildly brisket techniques can vary from region to region. After she composed herself, she took a quarter of the brisket and began to shred the beef, thinking surely they’d be making flautas or tacos out of the meat. Today, they serve brisket flautas as an homage to the famous Chico’s Tacos flautas ahogadas, submerged in a warm, thin tomato salsa, for their El Paso pop-ups. It was through Veronica that John began to see the wide range of Mexican food in the state.
Avila compares this regional culinary variation to that of Italy. For example, butter is a popular component of northern Italian dishes, while olive oil is prominent in southern Italy. Pasta shapes vary wildly. That same type of diversity is present in Texas Mexican food and barbecue. Flour tortillas are the default tortilla in northern Mexico and in the U.S. border states that once belonged to Mexico, while corn tortillas are more prevalent in central and southern Mexico. Breakfast tacos are popular in South Texas, but breakfast burritos are more common in West Texas, especially El Paso. The Avilas and their crew know this, and they delight in offering the full spectrum of Texas Mexican gastronomy at Henderson & Kane. Soon you’ll be able to taste it at the new El Burro and the Bull too. Houston is better for it.