Before Mexicans kiss relatives, they kiss tacos—or so goes a popular saying. They must stop by their favorite taqueria before visiting home. “There’s no question about this,” a chilango (the demonym for a Mexico City resident) once told me. “A taqueria is like a Mexican’s home.” Phoenix isn’t my home, but I did make a beeline for MB Foodhouse, a Tex-Mex taco truck near the airport, before checking into my hotel.

Owned by El Paso native Kristen Martinez—a tall Afro-Mexican trans woman with sharp features; long, wavy, frost-tipped brown hair; and, when I met her, a thin, lace-patterned choker around her neck—MB Foodhouse is an expression of Tex-Mex reenvisioned in Phoenix. Martinez has a commanding yet friendly presence, which I noticed while we were sitting across the table from each other, talking about her food and the struggle to keep her business open.

“I got destroyed last night,” she said. “I made nine hundred dollars and sold out in three hours, which is a lot for here, but that was a decent day in Minneapolis.” Though it had been a profitable evening, it still wasn’t enough to make up for some recent setbacks. “I just racked up so much debt in the last eight months moving here, and the business being on and off, that, like, I really can’t leverage anything,” she said. “I can’t get a loan. I don’t have any assets.” But, she added confidently, “I’m getting there.”

Martinez lived in El Paso when she was young, until her family moved to Phoenix. She eventually relocated to Minneapolis as part of the noise rap band Moodie Black. There, Martinez opened the first iteration of her trailer in 2020. MB Foodhouse found quick success, but that was followed by stumbling blocks such as the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic and the brutal Upper Midwest winters.

By 2023, Martinez had finally had enough. She hooked her trailer to her car and headed to her parents’ house to start anew in Arizona’s capital. Her plans immediately went sideways. She got into a car wreck, which nearly totaled her trailer. Martinez didn’t have the funds to repair the mobile rig. Yet she pressed forward. From what I could tell from her food—like the fried rolled taquitos filled with shredded beef, bathed in a tomato-based salsa and capped with a peppy slaw (her take on Chico’s Tacos’ taquitos ahogados)—the struggle was worth it.

MB Foodhouse was just one of the stellar examples of Tex-Mex and border cuisine I encountered during my visit to Phoenix. The next day, I attended the Devour Culinary Classic festival as a judge. The two-day event showcased the city’s finest chefs and select restaurant groups from across the state. Among the best was the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, or GUT, southern Arizona’s equivalent of Austin’s Taco Mafia. Its members include Juan Almanza, Kelzi Bartholomaei, Mat Cable, Michael Elefante, Obadiah Hindman, Sarah Lamberth, Roderick LeDesma, and Devon Sanner. At Devour, the group used local ingredients to highlight heirloom foods in both unique and familiar dishes. My favorite was the squash-and-cascabel-filled taco de canasta topped with bands of fuschia pickled shallots and bright delicate greens. 

Phoenix Tex-Mex
The Gastronomic Union of Tucson’s taco de canasta at the Devour Culinary Classic.Photograph by José R. Ralat

Another notable chef present was Lawrence Smith of Chilte, who, along with Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin, owner-chef of Best Quality Daughter, in San Antonio, recently partnered with Taco Bell to reimagine the Crunchwrap Supreme. He and his team served slices of pork tomahawk steak straight from a wood-burning grill on a blanket of mole made of nutty huitlacoche and featuring the short-lived burst of spice of chiltepin. It wasn’t lost on me that his team members were wearing aprons branded with a small Taco Bell logo.

The chaos and caloric consumption of a food festival can leave one physically uncomfortable and pining for a nap—or a salad. But a couple of my fellow judges and I marched forth for drinks and dinner after the festival’s first day. After a quick stop at Barcoa for mezcal and bacanora, the regional mezcal of Sonora, Mexico, we walked across the alley to Huarachis Taqueria

The recently opened taco spot was awash in pink, Mexican knickknacks, and images of Selena Quintanilla. The chef of Huarachis, as well as of its sister restaurant, Bacanora, is a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist. Overall, my visit was good but not great. The appearance of the old-school Tex-Mex appetizer of flour tortillas and butter on the menu showed promise. Unfortunately, by the time we had paused our conversation to try the tortillas, they had hardened and cooled to a disappointing crackerlike consistency. I guess we should’ve gotten to them quicker. I enjoyed the potato and smoky carne asada tacos but had to remove a lot of cabbage topping that obscured the main fillings.

Phoenix Tex-Mex
Flour tortillas and butter at Huarachis Taqueria, in Phoenix.Photograph by José R. Ralat

Ta’Carbon, a local chain specializing in wood-grilled carne asada and gauzy but sturdy flour tortillas, proved a better late-dinner stop. The original Phoenix outpost was packed with families, most of them gathered near the counter while their children milled about, sitting wherever they could to play on tablets. The air inside was permeated with the homey smell of open-fire cooking and beef. I loved it.

The tacos were just as wonderful. The soft, chewy flour tortillas gave the juicy, charred carne asada a flavor that evoked years of backyard gatherings. The campechano’s al pastor added dark spice and a zesty kick to the mixed-in beef. The Taco Hazz, a delightful mess of green chile and melted queso blanco netting carne asada, acted as a bridge between El Paso and Arizona. My quality of life increased, if temporarily, because of Ta’Carbon. 

Two days after returning home, I learned that Martinez had suffered a brief but severe illness. It was so bad that she had to close MB Foodhouse. The taquera set up a GoFundMe campaign for $10,000. At the time of writing this, Martinez had only raised $1,050. She was able to scrounge up enough funds to open a tiny pop-up named for her band, Moodie Black. On the small menu were her signature El Paso–style taquitos ahogados. As any lover of the Lone Star State specialty knows, that’s enough to attract Texans for miles. And with the influx of additional Tex-Mex joints in Phoenix, there’s no better time to visit.