The Rio Grande Valley is special. The 4,300-square-mile region, which stretches from Rio Grande City to Brownsville and the Gulf of Mexico, gave rise to much of what is quintessentially Texas—from Charro Days and Kris Kristofferson to Tex-Mex food. The area is known for its unique border cuisine, which is worth celebrating in its own right. Throughout the Valley, you can find excellent breakfast tacos (which locals sometimes call simply tortillas de harina, “flour tortillas”). The RGV is also known for Sunday barbacoa, the iconic beef-head dish whose Texas roots began with vaqueros crafting luscious delicacies out of heads discarded by ranch owners. The Valley is known, too, for tacos estilo Matamoros, small corn-tortilla tacos cradling beef nestled next to an avocado wedge and topped with queso fresco. These are all amazing foods—and they’re also time-honored ones that haven’t changed much over the last century. By and large, the Rio Grande Valley is known for hewing closely to culinary tradition, not for innovating in the kitchen. Of course, there are exceptions. One of the best is Neighborhood Molino, a one-year-old brunch pop-up in McAllen.
Andrés M. Garza and Cristina Castillo opened this wonderful, trailblazing tortilleria in August 2020 as a way to reconnect the local community with traditional corn-based practices. Both raised in McAllen, the pair met and fell in love at the University of Texas at Austin, where Garza (who uses they/them pronouns) was studying anthropology and working a series of restaurant jobs. Garza gained a range of experiences that would later shape their cooking: they worked at a sushi restaurant, sweated it out in food trucks, and eventually cooked under chef Edgar Rico at one of Austin’s most creative taquerias, Nixta.
When the pandemic hit, Garza and Castillo decided to return to the Valley to help Castillo’s mother at her bakery, CC’s Sweets, which was struggling to adapt to the pandemic. “She didn’t know if the bakery was going to stay open,” Garza says. “I was going to have to figure something out.” That “something” turned out to be a revolutionary idea in a part of Texas with firm food traditions.
Garza began nixtamalizing non-GMO, heirloom corn sourced from across Mexico. Castillo and Garza started by selling the masa and tortillas through a pay-what-you-can system at local farmers’ markets. They also sell to Valley restaurants. In May 2021, the couple began serving brunch out of CC’s Sweets. In addition to tortillas, the rotating menu at Neighborhood Molino also includes a range of savory dishes. Diners can sit at picnic tables just outside CC’s Sweets, which offers artfully decorated cupcakes and other treats from its unassuming location in a strip mall.
The Sunday brunch pop-up gives Neighborhood Molino another revenue stream and a creative outlet, with rotating selections of knockout dish after knockout dish. The soft, fragrant blue-corn pancakes are a standout. An order includes four deep cobalt–hued triangles with waves of brown from cooking, topped with a star-shaped pat of butter. They are an easy entry into the menu, with a whimsical twist: a side of house-made chorizo-maple syrup. Tiny orbs of seasoned pork sit at the bottom of the vermilion-infused syrup, which began as a craving. “I just woke up one morning and wanted it,” Castillo says. “So we made it with regular pancakes and asked ourselves how we could make this more thoughtfully.”
Then there is the Zacahuil Benedict, featured in my tamales Tex-Mexplainer. I described it as “a stunning pyramid of vermilion-hued pork speckled with grains of corn masa and topped with thin medallions of carrot and radish, twirled rings of white onion, splotches of salsa verde, squiggles of cream, and a luscious poached egg.” It’s marvelous.
You might be tempted to say that Neighborhood Molino, with its slightly upscale vibe and high-quality ingredients, is “elevating” the RGV food scene. Garza isn’t a fan of the term. “Elevating food is when people implement European techniques, the techniques used by their colonizers,” they say. “And in that way when you say you’re elevating the food, that’s disrespectful to the cuisine itself.” Castillo says she prefers the term “grounding,” since the couple’s cooking seeks to incorporate the flavors of their grandparents and ancestors: “We want to really respect the ingredients; respect the processes.”
Tradition is front of mind, but playfulness isn’t far behind. Case in point: the one taco on the menu, which is far from your average tortilla, protein, and salsa product. Rather, the base consists of a dashi-infused white-corn tortilla with toasted nori (dried seaweed). On top is a soft-scrambled Japanese omelet. Seared Spam (used in both Mexican and Japanese dishes) is shot with cacahuates japoneses (a Mexican snack of plump, fiery peanuts invented by a Japanese immigrant). On the side is a creamy togarashi sauce, a Japanese condiment packed with chile flakes, citrus elements, and a mixture of spices. In creating this taco, Garza drew on their experience working at a sushi joint, as well as careful research. “I realize I have to tread carefully and intentionally when conceiving and executing a dish [from another culture],” Garza says.
I also enjoyed the squash tostada, which is bright and sweet, with a layer of corn hummus holding it all together. It offered a chewable respite from the Valley heat until the salsa macha kicked in with a wallop. Next to the tostada was a dish that bridges Texan and Mexican culinary traditions: the “Q” Tlaco. It’s inspired by Laredo Taco Company’s signature Q Taco, itself created in 2004 as an homage to Q 94.5 (KFRQ) in Harlingen. Stuffed with eggs, potatoes, and refried beans, the Q Taco is a hearty morning starter. Like many South Texans, Garza loves it. “It’s just so famous here,” they say. “Growing up, people would bring it to school to bribe teachers in an attempt to not get marked as tardy.” However, Garza wanted something that hews closer to Neighborhood Molino’s mission. They swapped the taco for a blue-corn tlacoyo, an oblong, open-faced street food whose history stretches back to before the Hispanic conquest of Mexico. This iteration comes stuffed with cheese, smeared with refried beans, and sprinkled with hash browns. It’s topped off with soft scrambled eggs and a solitary, crispy slice of bacon.
This kind of remixing and reinventing is what’s most striking about Neighborhood Molino. It is an outlet for the reclamation of Mexican foodways from colonialist influence while exploring how Mexican cuisine is connected to international cultures via trade. For example, everyone loves breakfast tacos. They’re part of Texan DNA, but their foundation, the flour tortilla, is a wheat product. Wheat was brought to North America by the Spanish, and the Europeans attempted to supplant corn with wheat. Corn was mistakenly viewed as the food of poverty, while wheat was glorified as the commodity needed for the Eucharist. Yes, flour tortillas are very much Mexican and critical to border-food culture. But that wasn’t always the case. Garza and Castillo are plating that lesson in a showcase of inventive options alongside regionally familiar fare. The message is never heavy-handed, because the food is a series of creative, restaurant-caliber dishes. We could all stand to learn something from Neighborhood Molino.