Until last month, I did not know there was a sandwich referred to as a taco de pan. My first encounter with the term for bread taco came during a conversation with Roxanna Treviño, who, along with her husband, Alfredo, owns Nana’s Taqueria, in Weslaco. I had visited the Rio Grande Valley restaurant to order a platter of three Nuevo Progreso-style lonches, sandwiches made with small, oblong, quick-fried bolillo rolls that are cut open from the top and stuffed with lightly seasoned ground beef, cabbage, tomato, avocado, a mound of crumbled cheese, and cilantro.
Lonches cover a broad category of foods that can be enjoyed as light midday meals or snacks; in Mexico, a lonche typically refers to a sandwich or torta. Just a few miles south of Weslaco, Nuevo Progreso in Mexico is the hometown of the Treviños as well as the birthplace of this particular style of lonche, which features ground beef as its signature filling. Roxanna Treviño credits the genesis of the Nuevo Progreso-style lonche to a man named Cirilo Ramirez, who in the seventies started a puesto (food stall) on the corner of her block. The bolillo rolls (a type of mini-baguette also known as birote) were specifically made smaller for Ramirez so that his customers could eat them like tacos. His lonche was thus sometimes referred to as a taco de pan. “It’s everything you put in a taco but in a bolillo,” she says.
When the Treviños moved to the United States and opened Nana’s ten years ago, they put the Nuevo Progreso-style lonche on the menu. In the early days, sometimes customers would come in and ask for a taco de pan, which confused servers unfamiliar with the nickname. “Sometimes, we’d bring out a taco with ground beef, cabbage, and avocado in corn tortillas, and our customers would say, ‘No, no, we meant the taco de pan!’,” Treviño recalls. The dish’s popularity has increased over the years. “People stopped going over to Mexico because of the violence, and these people who came in would say [that] these lonches taste just like the ones from Nuevo Progreso,’” she adds.
Although she rarely hears “taco de pan” anymore, Nana’s lonches certainly do resemble bread tacos. The roll shimmers much like the grease-slicked corn tortilla of a street taco. The sandwich is eaten in the same manner as a taco. At Nana’s, the fried bolillo cracks pleasantly when you bite into one. Inside the roll is finely ground meat cooked with garlic, salt, pepper, and other spices and herbs that Treviño wouldn’t divulge. The abundant garnishes add necessary fat and texture. They also fall onto the plate in pieces—again, sharing similarities to a taco.
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The original Nana’s was built on the same property as the family’s home, and it had six tables. It’s named not for Roxanna Treviño or a “nana,” as in someone’s grandmother, but for her youngest daughter, Mariana. (At the time of the opening, Mariana was two years old, and when she attempted to say her own name, “nana” was all she could get out.) As successful as the family business has been since then, it hasn’t been easy for the Treviños, who have survived debt (“we started out broke,” Treviño tells me) and floods. As the business grew, the family moved out of their home and converted it into the current restaurant space, which gives customers a sense of being across the border. They also built other structures, including an adjacent gift shop selling Mexican jewelry and crafts, and added lots of patio seating.
In 2014, they decorated the exteriors in Otomí-inspired patterns of birds and plants—a colorful nod to the Estero Llano Grande State Park (about four miles away) and other nearby wildlife refuges that attract birders to the area. “Tour guides make it one of their stops,” Treviño says.
Nana’s offers an extended menu of tacos and other offerings, but I recommend the lonches, which come three or five to a plate. There is also a vegetarian option, which subs avocado for the beef. That’s all well and good and accommodating, but, as Treviño says, “It’s got to be ground beef” to be truly Nuevo Progreso-style. “That’s what I tell my customers.”