Evin Garcia grew up in poverty and food insecurity in the small Rio Grande Valley town of Mission. His earliest memories of cooking are of when the kitchen cupboards were nearly empty and he was challenged to be creative with whatever he could scrounge up. He remembers one day when he collected enough ingredients to make pancakes for his mother. “She said they were the prettiest pancakes she ever had,” he says. “I like that I could feed her and make her happy.” He grew accustomed to making “something out of nothing,” as he describes cooking in his youth.
Garcia’s ingenuity and love of cooking for others continued as a young man. He traveled to places such as Taiwan, Kuwait, Nigeria, and Australia as a shutdown specialist and industrial mechanic for Chevron. Wherever he was, he’d cook for his crew with whatever provisions they could gather, which helped them bond. It was also a respite from the work—taking a rig or refinery offline and removing fuel, chemicals, or heavy equipment, such as reactors—that wore out Garcia’s body. Eventually, he wanted out, wanted to return home, wanted to cook, and wanted to give back to his community.
La Cocinita is the sanctuary from which he shares his good deeds and food that nourishes not only the body but also the spirit. It opened in June 2021 in the Mercado District food hall in McAllen. “My path is making people happy and helping others however I can, and cooking has always been a passion of mine,” Garcia says. “God blesses me so that I can help bless others.”
At the food stall, Garcia likes to work the cash register, strike up conversation, make people laugh, and perhaps make new friends, all while not letting customers know he is the owner. “I want to make people smile, man,” he says.
La Cocinita is tucked away in the far right corner of the building, but the location of the kiosk doesn’t prevent lines from forming. I broke my own rules of taqueria ordering by allowing a line to form behind me as I lingered in conversation with Garcia. During our chat, Garcia showed my friend and me a package of locally sourced nixtamalized tortillas from Tortilleria San Agustin in Palmview, west of McAllen. He answered questions about the taco names and preparations. For example, the Taco San Manuel is named after Chorizo de San Manuel, the producer of the dish’s juicy jalapeño, cheese, and cilantro sausage, in nearby Edinburg.
As we spoke, Garcia mentioned the international influences in the ingredients and cooking techniques that he picked up from his time as a shutdown specialist. As much as he liked the tricks and tips he’d taken in while working for Chevron, Garcia knew the key to making his restaurant successful would be adding a Mexican twist to what he had learned abroad. For him, that was best done with the taco. “I feel like everybody knows what a taco is—the taco is universal,” he says.
It’s not enough for Garcia to feed paying customers and make them laugh, though. He feels a responsibility to feed whomever he can, but he can be uncomfortable talking about it. Garcia tells me he’s discussed his community outreach with only a few others. “God’s seeing it,” he explains.
But since he’s dedicated so much of his time to helping others, it’s important to share how impactful Garcia really is. “Instead of throwing away food, I feed the homeless, because as a kid, [my family] never had it,” Garcia says. “There are so many people out there who don’t have money for food. I want to give it to them.” Sometimes the taquero gives unhoused people rides or takes them out to eat and just talks and listens. He holds toy drives, saying that sometimes even a five-dollar toy is enough to give people hope. It might let them know someone cares. Garcia is currently arranging with nuns in the Rio Grande Valley to assist in the feeding of migrants. The taquero also sponsors local mixed martial artists who train at a friend’s gym by helping them get to their desired weights, so they don’t have to worry about buying extra food. For Garcia, the tortilla-wrapped treat some of us take for granted is also a force for good.
Two of those tortilla-wrapped treats are the taco de chicharrón prensado, with a costra blanketed in a peppy salsa verde, and the taco with papaya-rubbed fajita, which retained a hint of the bright flavor imparted by the tropical fruit. One example of Garcia’s global culinary perspective is his chicken taco. The poultry is grilled on an open fire in the style of peri-peri chicken. The dish, which he learned to make while working in Australia, is believed to have been originally created by Portuguese colonists in southern Africa. It’s charred, lemony, and garlic-forward, with a penchant for frying taste buds with an intense—sometimes unrelenting—spice. Garcia toned down the capsaicin by replacing African bird’s eye peppers with chiles friendly to the Mexican palate. It still had a heckuva kick, one that required a cautious approach. Thankfully, the heat never overpowered the chicken or the other components.
As tasty as those tacos were, the pulpo al pastor was a misstep. At first glance, it seemed reminiscent of Revolver Taco Lounge’s flamethrower-blasted octo-trompo. Garcia’s approach to preparing the cephalopod, however, is Iberian in inspiration. Yet despite the use of a technique Garcia learned in Portugal, one in which the cook repeatedly lifts the octopus out of boiling water to soften the meat and remove the fishiness, the charbroiled Spanish octopus marinated in al pastor adobo retained its fishy taste. The flavor tore through those of the wedges of grilled pineapple and fine threads of onions.
Menu items that get their inspiration closer to home include the Nuevo Progreso–style lonches. Lonches are sandwiches made with small, crunchy bolillo rolls that are split open at the top and filled. In the Mexican border city of Nuevo Progreso, that filling is typically picadillo, with onions, cilantro, and salsa. However, any filling will do, and Garcia allows nearly every option for his lonches. Especially good were the threads of chile-and-spice-infused birria, which in this case is beef shoulder. That’s the only deviation from the recipe the taquero picked up during a visit to the city of Tequila, in birria’s home state of Jalisco.
The preparation is adapted from that of a goat birria served by Maria de Soto, a woman who operates a stand in one of Tequila’s mercados. The knowledge came from a chance but profound encounter that illustrates Garcia’s sense of community. When he expressed how much he liked the birria, de Soto offered to give Garcia the recipe to take back to McAllen. He declined. Instead, he offered to pay de Soto for her knowledge. She, in turn, declined his offer. “I told her, ‘Let’s help each other out. It’s the right thing to do,’ ” Garcia says. She finally accepted. “We still talk and I help her out sometimes,” Garcia adds. “I call her tía now.”
In November 2022, Garcia opened a freestanding brick-and-mortar spin-off, La Cocinita Comida y Bar, which I visited the day after my stop at the food hall. The full-service restaurant was spacious, with personal touches like a dried and varnished cactus as a stand for a glass table, something I had never seen before. Also different was the pulpo al pastor, among the other good dishes I ate during my time there. The pulpo’s fishiness was absent. In its place was the intended charred, earthy, and slightly spicy al pastor marinade. It was so wonderful, I have to confess, I was momentarily reluctant to share the plate. Then I looked across the dining room at a boisterous baby shower attended by women speaking Spanglish and passing around large platters of tacos. I saw a familiar joy, one that evoked kinship, fellowship, and tremendous smiles. I recalled Garcia’s words: “Eating together is a catalyst for joy.”
La Cocinita Mercado District
4400 N. 23rd, McAllen
Hours: Sunday 11–5, Tuesday–Thursday 11–10, Friday–Saturday 11–11
La Cocinita Comida y Bar
5921 N. 23rd, McAllen
Hours: Sunday 10–5, Monday–Thursday 10–10, Friday–Saturday 10–11