As I crossed the Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville, I saw an imposing white tollgate with the words “Bienvenidos a Mexico” on the structure’s facade. I felt joy. Beyond was Matamoros, a city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas that I last visited in February 2020. Accompanying me was Nathan Burkhart, a native Brownsvillian and Tejano (he was part of the 2020 excursion too), and my friend Rodrigo Bravo, from San Antonio. My happiness turned into excitement as we passed through the gate and entered a plaza featuring a towering abstract sculpture that had a vaguely Mesoamerican style. We met up with Oscar Zertuche, who grew up in Matamoros, went to school in Brownsville, and has been a longtime friend of Burkhart’s. He would guide the four of us on a tour of some of Matamoros’s top taco joints that afternoon. We came hungry, and we were not disappointed.

Our first stop was Mi Pueblito, which has been operating since 1994. The restaurant was filled with the scent of smoke from an open grill under a decorative thatched roof held up by rough-hewn wood beams. Near the bathrooms, green parakeets perched in open cages. I watched a child carefully feed one. The birds’ chirps and tweets and the occasional fluttering of wings punctuated our aperitif of mezcal, which we drank alongside chips and guacamole that came in the same bowl as an umber-colored salsa. The salsa gave the scoops of mashed avocado a wonderful pep. I considered lifting the bowl to my mouth and slurping what was left like the last bits of soup. Before I could commit, though, I hiccuped from the spice.

Next we drove over to Los Tacos de Chicho. The brick building, painted bright blue and distinguished by the flourishes of traditional Mexican hand-painted signage, had the taqueria’s menu on an exterior wall. A trompero (trompo master) quietly worked his vertical rotisserie of flame-scorched pork. We quickly ate our traditional tacos al pastor and bistec before moving on to the next stop, and one I always look forward to visiting—El Último Taco: Los Originales.

Established in 1982, El Último Taco: Los Originales is arguably the most famous taqueria in Matamoros. Its name should be familiar to anyone who lives in the Rio Grande Valley or has visited Brownsville. It’s often confused with a taqueria north of the Rio Grande bearing an almost identical name. That’s unfortunate. Marcela Araujo, daughter of Los Originales founder Jaime Araujo, urged her father for years to acquire the U.S. trademark for the name. Yet the elder Araujo never did, Marcela told me in May 2020. But Los Originales is most known for its claim of creating the city’s signature taco, the taco estilo Matamoros (commonly referred to as the Matamoros taco). It’s the iconic border taco. 

The taco estilo Matamoros begins with two tiny corn tortillas dipped in oil and warmed on a plancha. The filling is usually beef—bistec, tripitas, mollejas, barbacoa, or other types—topped with a wedge of avocado and a heavy-handed dose of queso fresco. The fat slices of caramelized onions served on the side should be added to the tacos before dousing them in salsa de chile de árbol or a salsa verde charged by serranos. The onions add a sweet balance to the otherwise salty tacos. They are glorious, edible representations of the Texas-Mexico cattle country. It’s puro norteño devoured in two bites. 

A bright orangey-red cone of pork on a trompo stands in a corner of El Último Taco: Los Originales. You might be tempted to order tacos al pastor, and I won’t stop you. They aren’t bad, but they’re not the specialty. There is a much better al pastor at El Super Taco, where a spinning top of seasoned pork backlit by flames is installed inside the front window. It’s obscured only by the trompero as he carves meat off with quick, surgical motions. The taqueria’s menu is painted on its walls, but, as you probably figured out when you walked in, your first taco should be a taco al pastor. Order at least one more taco, preferably a bistec. 

A Food Tour Through Matamoros Shows Off the City’s Signature Taco Style
Queso fresco–topped tacos at Los Tacos de Chichos. Photograph by José R. Ralat
A Food Tour Through Matamoros Shows Off the City’s Signature Taco Style
A section of El Último Taco: Los Originales’ interior. Photograph by José R. Ralat

The pastor tacos are served rolled in coated-paper tubes to maintain their shapes. (El Último Taco: Los Originales and Otro Rollo, along Brownsville’s storied taco boulevard, Southmost Road, also serve their tacos al pastor this way.) El Super Taco’s are rolled tightly, and each is about the size of two half-smoked cigars side by side.

We ended the night at Patio 1826, a northern Mexican–style steakhouse. The interior dining room hosts a dressier crowd, while the side courtyard has an open grill and tables of more casually dressed diners. The latter is where our group sat. It wasn’t my first time visiting Patio 1826. However, this time, the soundtrack of electro-tinged Rat Pack covers and nineties pop songs piped through the PA system was new and didn’t gel with the vibe of the place.

However, the odd music choice didn’t prevent us from enjoying the menu’s regional cuts, like the succulent agujas, from the beef short plate. Agujas literally translates to “needles.” The narrow slices of steak more closely resemble fat strips of bacon when raw. Time on the grill gnarls the beef, much as it does bacon. Unlike those well-cooked pork strips, though, agujas are juicy and pliable. They fit perfectly in corn tortillas. 

The chopped agujas tacos served with bone marrow were another matter. The sliced femur had little in the way of marrow, and what we managed to scrape out didn’t have much of that rich, mouth-coating quality. Slightly better were the frijoles con veneno, refried beans topped with asado de puerco, a brownish-red pork stew popular in northern Mexican states. At Patio 1826, the asado wasn’t as punchy as versions I’ve had elsewhere in Tamaulipas and in the neighboring state of Nuevo León.

An up-and-down experience at our final stop didn’t sour the mood, although a few of us complained of overeating as we walked, not too quietly, to the car. We talked about which taquerias to visit next time. We chuckled at the uneven sidewalks and the haphazardly parked SUVs and BMWs. Our spirits were bright. Why wouldn’t they have been?

Despite record waves of migrants and a reputation as a center of narco warfare, the Matamoros I visited is not the same as the violent city of the 2000s and early 2010s. It’s not the city that restaurant owners fled to open businesses north of the Rio Grande. Rather, it’s the city whose citizens and civic leaders are proudly campaigning for their home’s designation as a pueblo mágico. Receiving the coveted classification would bolster tourism and commerce while improving the city’s bad rap. Matamoros’s name would be uttered in the same conversations as San Miguel de Allende, Pátzcuaro, Tulum, and Santiago—something I believe should already be the case.

El Último Taco: Los Originales
Calle Bustamante entre 5 y 6, H, Zona Centro

Los Tacos de Chicho
Avenida Álvaro Obregón 6, Jardín

Mi Pueblito
Calle Cinco 13, Zona Centro

Patio 1826
Calle Río Bravo 107, San Francisco

El Super Taco (Sexta)
Calle Sexta 1618-C Tecate Bar, Moderno
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