Despite the struggles of a global pandemic and the subsequent recession, 2020 has been an extraordinary year for tacos and Mexican cuisine. The creativity and resilience with which taquerias and restaurants have responded to unprecedented adversity is uplifting. I’ve eaten better this year, in and out of dining rooms, than ever before. Before COVID-19 swept through Texas, I was able to squeeze in a quick trip into Matamoros, Brownsville’s sister city across the border. Had I been able to get back to Mexico at least one more time, I’m sure this list would’ve been longer. It is nevertheless a roundup of excellent eats (in no particular order) from across the state and just across the Rio Grande. I’d eagerly scarf all of these again, pronto.
Kitchen Sink wet burrito
La Morena, Andrews
La Morena came as a recommendation from fellow Texas Monthly staff writer and Permian Basin native Christian Wallace when I asked for places to eat in the oil patch. I was rolling through the area while working on the Ultimate Texas Tacopedia, and I thought there might be something special in Wallace’s hometown of Andrews. There is! La Morena’s Kitchen Sink wet burrito looks too big to eat in one sitting. No one would blame you for thinking that. But sample just one forkful of the melee that is refried beans, carnitas, french fries, and melted cheese—all drowned in a tawny gravy—and you might just eat the whole thing.
Hebrew National Sonoran hot dog
T-Loc’s Sonoran Style Hot Dogs, Austin
Originally from southern Arizona and northern Mexico, this hot dog is a squishy, messy beast. Served in bolillo bread shipped from Tucson, the Sonoran hot dog at T-Loc’s comes in two varieties. The first is the regular, good ol’ bacon-wrapped frankfurter, while the second (and my favorite) uses a larger, beefier Hebrew National frank. Both are loaded with pinto beans, chopped white onion, and diced tomato. The nosh is finished with a flurry of mayo and stripes of jalapeño salsa and yellow mustard down the center. I’m not usually a fan of yellow mustard. However, this combination of flavors and textures—snappy, salty, acidic, crunchy, tart, and creamy—makes the condiment an ensemble player that I wouldn’t skip at T-Loc’s. Consider your spice tolerance before munching on the blistered chile güero served on the side.
Carne asada taco
La Resistencia, Dallas
I have a love-hate relationship with carne asada tacos. Outside of Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona, their filling is often a cheap generic stand-in for the real thing. The beef is usually hacked to bits after being overcooked and rests in greasy, flavorless corn tortillas. The carne asada taco at La Resistencia, the reservation-only seafood-inspired dining space from Revolver Taco Lounge, is an exception. During my visit, the taco started with a bluish-purple tortilla made from nixtamalized non-GMO Mexican corn ground in a back room. Swiped across are lard-infused frijoles puercos, which keep in place a small slab of A5 wagyu beef. The salsa molcajete is red with balanced chiles guajillo and de árbol. A sprinkle of cilantro and the top of a radish, including the stalk, finish the taco. But the plating isn’t done yet. On one side of the plate, a blistered serrano chile is sliced to stand like a shiny, wrinkled green octopus. A lone rectangular slice of cooling queso panela rests across from the chile, and is meant to temper its heat. There’s salt, heat, spice, sweetness, and an earthy, zippy aroma—all making this a taco that stands out.
Enchiladas huastecas con cecina
Speedy Tacos, Dallas
In early December, a friend shared a Facebook post about walk-up gas station spot Speedy Tacos. The business was in financial trouble and needed community support. After the post went viral, so many customers placed orders that the owners briefly ran out of some dishes. I’d hoped to try the taquitos rojo estilo San Luis Potosí and the off-menu enchiladas potosinas. Neither was available, but I didn’t leave disappointed. I ordered the enchiladas huastecas con cecina (thin, grilled, salted beef), and they were phenomenal. A serrano-infused salsa verde fills handmade corn tortillas, which are stuffed with crumbled queso fresco, folded, and then topped with more cheese. The creamy texture and salty notes of the cheese offset the steady spice of the salsa. Served with a slab of deliberately chewy cecina, the enchiladas make for a very pleasant lunch.
Nixtamalized corn tortillas
Tatemó molinero and owner Emmanuel Chavez has been an essential source in my documentation of the tortilla’s foundation and evolution. Chavez is one of a growing number of chefs returning to making tortillas the slow, difficult way, using the ancient process of nixtamalization. I’d heard amazing things about his tortillas, but I had to wait several months after our first phone conversation to sample his product. A friend and I adjusted our itinerary for a Houston day trip to include Tatemó’s booth at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. We were rewarded with yellow-flecked blue corn tortillas that blossomed, as a fresh corn tortilla should do, when released from a closed hand. These are flavorful enough to eat alone, with only a pinch of salt.
Tacos estilo Matamoros
El Último Taco: Los Originales, Matamoros
Brownsville’s signature beef tacos are served with a blanket of queso fresco and an avocado wedge on a couple of greasy tortillas. This two-bite delight isn’t originally from Brownsville. Rather, the taco was first served in the border town’s sister municipality of Matamoros, the city that gives the taco its formal name. They may have been invented in the 1980s at El Último Taco: Los Originales (not to be confused with the unrelated, similarly named taqueria in Brownsville), but this is a matter of controversy. What’s clear is that these tacos are pure sustenance and comfort. Beef is the classic filling, and it reflects the area’s cattle-ranching past, whether in the form of bistec, sweetbreads, barbacoa, or crispy tripe tacos. Gobble them up and go.
Tacos de aguja norteña Angus con tuétano
Patio 1826, Matamoros
A stylish open-air eatery, Patio 1826 specializes in beef tacos, paying tribute to the border region’s cattle-ranching tradition. The restaurant isn’t far from the birthplace of tacos estilo Matamoros, either. My favorite item is the chopped black Angus flank steak tacos in oil-slickened, deep yellow corn tortillas. They’re served with a side of roasted tuétano, or bone marrow. Scoop some of the marrow onto the taco and chow away for a blast of charred, beefy richness whose intensity is ramped up with mezcal or a glass of wine.
King Kups, Mckinney
Birria de res madness shows no sign of abating. Usually served with a cup of consommé on the side, this beef taco came to Texas via a wave of Californian taqueros relocating to the state. Social media hype has played a role too. Now it’s morphing: birria ramen is gaining a foothold, as is birria grilled cheese. Among the most unique and tastiest variations, though, are the birria wontons at King Kups. Developed by taco trailer owner Frank Hernandez and business partner Jen Hui and introduced this month, the wontons are crispy purses of beef and the salty cheddar-quesillo cheese mixture that the trailer uses for its birria tacos. The dish is usually served with plastic injectors filled with a consommé that customers shoot into the fried dough before consuming. When I visited, the woman working the trailer instead poured dark cinnamon-colored, chile-steeped juice into a tiny sampling cup for dunking. While I love the idea of a juicy wonton filling, dipping the salty bantam pouches allows for personal control of the amount of consommé. It was perfect.
Birotes Tortas Ahogadas, San Antonio
Birotes Tortas Ahogadas is a small West Side full-service spot with a front counter for to-go orders and a side dining room. It’s a welcoming place where customers (pre-pandemic) could take their time deciding what to order. I always choose the restaurant’s namesake sandwich, the Guadalajara-style tortas ahogadas. It begins with a stocky baguette-inspired birote loaf, sliced lengthwise. The loaf is smeared with refried beans and packed with tumbles of delicate carnitas. Finally, the sandwich is splashed with a thin, slightly spicy tomato-based salsa. The liquid softens the crusty bread just enough, and the heat of the food requires patience. It’s served with pickled red onions for flavor and cabbage for crunch. Don’t forget to squeeze a little juice from the salt-crusted lime wedge that comes on the side. More important, take your time. Relish a moment of quiet with this hearty torta.
Bonus: Abasolo el Whisky de Mexico
Jilotepec, Mexico (available across Texas)
I first came across Mexican whiskey two years ago, in the La Nacional spirits bar in Mexico City’s La Roma neighborhood. Whiskey is fast becoming more popular in the country that gave the world corn (one of the key components of the spirit). This summer, I got a late-night phone call from a representative of Abasalo. He was dining at El Paso’s Taconeta, whose owners I had interviewed a few days prior. The man on the phone, whose name I didn’t catch (I was half asleep), urged me to try Abasolo El Whisky De Mexico at Las Almas Rotas in Dallas. I’m glad I took this mysterious recommendation. The spirit is the first brand of whiskey made from nixtamalized corn. It’s rife with maize, specifically non-GMO cacahuazintle corn, an ancient variety that has subtle chocolate notes. Hints of corn and chocolate are evident in the aroma and flavor. There are also notes of paprika and aromas of toffee and toasted caramel. The spirit is available across the state, and it’s become my go-to whiskey.