In 2014, Karen Mata had a heart attack and went into a coma for three days. After her quick recovery, her husband, Gregory Mata, a 22-year employee at Anheuser-Busch in Houston, took the ordeal as a sign he needed to pray for a new path.
He believed his faith required him to sever his connections to alcohol, so he began to look for a new job. “During prayer and meditation and journaling, I just felt God had given me a vision,” Mata said during a phone interview.
At the same time, Cecilia “Mama” Santillan was praying to work in a restaurant kitchen. Although she had led a comfortable life as the matriarch of her family, she’d always dreamed of serving others through her cooking.
Mata soon became familiar with Santillan’s cooking when one of his friends—who happened to be her son-in-law—sent him pictures of her food. The photos were so enticing that as his plan to open a taqueria came into focus, Mata asked Santillan if she would be interested in working with him. During their first meeting, Mata shared that the foundation of the business was “to serve God more than it was about tacos.” But nothing came of the encounter.
Mata admitted he didn’t take the venture seriously at that time. “When the idea was thought of, it was kind of a joke,” he said. But he realized, “I really felt the Holy Spirit connected us for His purpose.”
Six months later, after Mata didn’t find employment elsewhere, he took the taqueria concept more seriously. He reapproached Santillan, and she was thrilled. “This is what I’ve been waiting for all this time,” she told him. “I feel like that’s what God wants me to do.” They began planning and gathering funding, but Mata still hadn’t tasted Santillan’s food.
Santillan eventually brought Mata her guisados recipes—like the ones for zingy red chile asado de puerco and salty-sweet bistec ranchero. He described them as a God-given gift. That’s generally how guisados are received in Mexican culture. The home-style dishes could be stews, stir-fries, or slow-cooked braises, but they are all expressions of love.
With that, Kingwood Taco Shop opened in May 2018. A euphemistic leap of faith, this was not. This was a real act of faith for Mata and Santillan.
When I recently visited the taqueria, I got a close-up look at the guisados that so impressed Mata. Steaming trays held potato-studded picadillo, silky barbacoa, and chicken speckled with bright salsa verde. I was in awe of those, as well as the vermilion potatoes in the chorizo and papas and the potatoes spiked with pico de gallo in the papas a la Mexicana.
Guisados are my favorite style of tacos, but they’re still relatively rare to find in Texas. Mata and Santillan knew that as they were planning their restaurant. “We wanted our customers to come in and change their palate from something they can get anywhere,” Mata said. Nevertheless, they do offer breakfast tacos, including standards like bacon and eggs and chorizo and eggs. But I encourage diners to stray from the dependable and try something special.
The tacos at Kingwood Taco Shop are unlike any in Houston’s northeast suburbs. Each guisado taco comes with an optional smear of rich refried beans that adds just a touch of sweetness to either corn tortillas made with masa harina or chewy flour tortillas. The cooks can also add plump and airy yellow rice to your taco. The beans and rice are necessary to absorb the sauce and protect the tortilla from disintegrating. (Barbacoa and carne guisada on flour tortillas are exceptions to the rule.)
On my visit, Santillan was cooking in the kitchen. Her son, David Santillan, a jolly bearded fellow in a large, floppy sombrero, was overseeing operations and greeting customers. He asked how folks liked the food and wished them well. “He calls the shots,” Mata said. David was one of the fifteen family members who volunteered to keep the restaurant open in those early days. (After recovering, Karen Mata worked at the Humble Independent School District.)
Mata remembered their opening with a chuckle. The first day was a nightmare, with a constant line. The tortilla press wasn’t working, so one of the two flattops became a surface for hand-rolling tortillas, and the blender, which Mata had brought from home, went on the fritz. “We looked at each other at the end of the day and were so exhausted,” Mata said. “But we were so grateful that so many people had showed up.”
As the taqueria became successful and family members were replaced with employees, David, who had been working as a landscaper, confessed to Mata that he believed his presence was required at Kingwood Taco Shop. “I had no plans of David being there, but God did,” Mata told me. He thought it was crazy that David wanted to work at the taqueria, knowing he was going to make less money. “Even though he’s not my blood brother, [David] and I both share the same passion of sharing God’s love and sharing it with customers, and allowing our customers to taste Mama’s cooking,” Mata said.
To enjoy Kingwood Taco Shop, you don’t need to subscribe to any one faith. But the Santillans’ dishes will nourish your soul, like every great guisado should.
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