In 2016, when Asian-Mexican fusion restaurants like Austin-based Chi’Lantro were all the rage around the state, McAllen chef Gabriel Fuentes realized there wasn’t anything quite like that in his city.
He was interested in homing in on Korean-Mexican tacos that made use of the staples (like kimchi and salsa) and signature dishes (like bulgogi and elote) of both cuisines. So he convinced his wife, Hortencia Fuentes, that they should open a food truck.
Dubbed Nuri (which means “world” in old Korean, “my light” in Arabic, and “my fire” in Aramaic), the food truck intended to offer global cuisines served in taco form, with live fire or grilling as the foundation. At first, the couple served only Korean-inspired tacos. Six months in, they expanded the menu to include more international-inflected dishes. Fuentes took pride in the fact that his restaurant was one of a kind. But it wasn’t enough.
The food truck was floundering. Fuentes told Hortencia they needed to rethink Nuri as a business. “No one is coming,” he said to her. “This is it. We’re done.” The customers they did attract were often shocked at the price of their tacos. “They’d say, ‘Three ninety-five for a taco, what?’ I’d encourage them to try it,” Fuentes said. “They were throwing the tacos back in our faces.”
At that moment, a little well-timed media coverage offered some hope. Fuentes’s friend called to tell him Nuri had recently landed on Texas Monthly’s dining guide. The entry described the food truck as “so good they would have been solid contenders for our list of the  ‘120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die’ if only they had been around last year.” Soon, the McAllen Monitor came calling, and local TV stations wanted to spotlight the restaurant. “Business picked up, and we kept going,” Fuentes said.
The couple sought to open a permanent location. Initially, Fuentes thought the restaurant might be located next to his friend and mentor Larry Delgado’s house. wine. & bistro in downtown McAllen. The deal fell through, but they found the right spot in a former Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. They signed the lease for the building in July 2017 and opened in December 2017 as Nuri Fusion Street Kitchen.
On a recent visit, a friend and I ordered at the front counter, then sat at the bar. We enjoyed three tacos, which came on six-inch flour tortillas. The namesake Nuri Tako features salt-cured eye-round steak cecina on a griddle-crisped splotch of choriqueso made with sausage from Edinburg-based Chorizo de San Manuel. The meat is topped with arcs of sweet grilled onions, cilantro, and a tart salsa tomatillo. The Korean Karnitas Tako showcases bulgogi made of braised pork belly and shoulder with a crunchy lemon slaw. It’s joined by pickled onions, salsa tomatillo, and red salsa ranchera. There were pleasant hints of soy sauce, too. The Yard Bird Tako centers on spicy fried chicken dressed in Cajun-inspired seasoning. It’s amped up further with Sriracha-infused slaw, pickled onions, and melted mozzarella. The dish is finished with a heavy-handed serving of tropical orange salsa. Nuri Fusion Street Kitchen’s tacos are neither small nor subtle.
While Nuri’s particular kind of fusion is unique to McAllen, the border in general is well known for mixing and matching foods from different cultures. The concha burger—a sweet and savory burger with Mexican fixings in a colorful bun of pan dulce—was reputedly invented by brothers and chefs Adrian and Bobby Cruz in the Rio Grande Valley. Other examples include raspas and chorreados (a melee of Tostitos, elotes, fries, cheese, cream, and hot sauce spilling over like a volcanic eruption). In this regard, Nuri’s creative tacos seem right at home.
As we were finishing our tacos, Fuentes came over to talk to us. He spoke about the successes and disappointments of the restaurant. “You go through this honeymoon phase, you know, and you think it’s going to go on forever,” he said of the early days. But eight months after opening the brick-and-mortar, Nuri’s business dipped. The team worked through it. Nuri’s third year, which is when Fuentes said restaurant owners can suss out whether their operations will thrive or shutter—coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the severity of the pandemic became clear, Fuentes and Delgado bought boxes of doughnuts and drove around McAllen, passing them out to service-industry friends. Next, Fuentes turned Nuri into a community kitchen and grocery store. He offered free meals for students who were on spring break and unsure when they’d resume classes. Nuri’s staff passed out thousands of meals made of whatever Fuentes and his crew could get. To-go business was keeping Nuri open.
As common items such as toilet paper were difficult to find, Fuentes reached out to distributors to help package essentials like water, rice, beans, onions, meat, and, of course, toilet paper. Boxes started at about $60 and were customizable, but all of them had basics most folks couldn’t locate at supermarkets or big-box stores. Members of local police departments congregated at Nuri to cook breakfast for area residents. Fuentes drove the Nuri food truck to hospitals to feed health-care workers. Whatever needed to be done was done. The programs continued through December 2020.
For Fuentes, it wasn’t just about keeping the restaurant afloat—it was about family. His own family had gone through insecurity in the past. After the financial crisis of 2008, the construction company Fuentes owned went under. “I remember I had ten dollars,” Fuentes recalled. “I put five dollars worth of gas into my car and bought ten Jack in the Box tacos. My two girls had their fill. My wife had a couple. I had a couple. To this day, I can’t eat those ninety-nine-cent tacos.”
As things have returned to something resembling normalcy, Fuentes is mulling over expansion opportunities but won’t commit to a timeline or locations. When he’s confident quality won’t fluctuate with growth, he’ll look at other sites.
In the meantime, I can say that while Nuri wasn’t up for consideration in the 2015 taco issue, it’s certainly under consideration for the next one.