The carne guisada breakfast burrito is the go-to order at La Popular Bakery #1 in Abilene. Its dark brown gravy is silky, salty, and rich. The chunks of stewed meat shred under the lightest pressure of teeth, exposing layers that reveal the expertise of the cook. The flour tortilla is rolled inward to form a crested wave of sweetness that balances the savory filling. It’s an excellent West Texas taco (yes, taco), and if what I’m about to describe next isn’t available, order the heck out of it. Get there early. The carne guisada regularly sells out.
But I’m here to advise you to sample another item on their menu: the puffy taco. Scarcely spotted outside its city of origin (San Antonio), the puffy taco has garnered an obsessive following. It’s made from raw corn masa deep-fried and crimped into a U-shaped shell that results in a snappy exterior to contrast the chewy interior. Whenever this South Texas specialty is encountered away from its usual environs, it’s worth noting—especially when it’s as satisfying as La Popular’s. It’s an off-menu special at the restaurant opened on Pine Street by Ricardo Arias in the eighties. (There’s a second location on Treadaway Boulevard.)
By “off-menu,” I mean that masking tape covers up the listing of the puffy taco on a wall-mounted menu at the cashier’s counter. “We sell them, but they’re not always available,” the gentleman manning the counter tells me when I ask about the possibility of ordering one. Thankfully they were on the day I visited.
Small and fried to a crispy ochre brown, La Popular Bakery #1’s puffy taco is best ordered packed with picadillo—cubed potato-studded ground beef—and garnished with the Tex-Mex trio of shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and grated cheese. Give it a generous pour of minced onion-speckled salsa roja to deliver a soft punch. But don’t expect the fat, inflated puffy taco of San Antonio and its surroundings. The version at La Popular Bakery #1 doesn’t have the look of a taco capable of floating off the plate. Nevertheless, it’s a knockout.