Before each Crowley High School football game, Maggie Santos would tell her sons, Matthew and Michael, “If you beat this team, I’ll feed you.” Most of the time she was joking as a way to encourage her boys. She got more serious in 2012, when Matthew was a freshman and the team made the playoffs after an undefeated season. That led to a series of feasts during the playoffs for which she’d happily rustle up chili con carne–topped cheese enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, pollo asado, and tamales for more than eighty players, team staff, and family members. “We made five hundred tamales for one night,” she says. Sometimes, Santos would have to take the day off from her job as a secretary at Crowley ISD, but she didn’t mind. “I love to cook!” was a line she repeated throughout an interview with Texas Monthly. At nearly the same time, when the Santos brothers would go to Mexican restaurants with their father, Salvadoran immigrant Mike Santos, they’d remark to their dad that as good as the food was, what their mother cooked was even better. They needed to start their own family restaurant, the brothers urged. But Maggie always responded, “It’s not time; not yet.”
In 2019, the Santos brothers, now adults, were working as servers at the Omni in Fort Worth when a coworker happened to be selling a food trailer. With no previous cooking or management experience, the Santoses promptly purchased the trailer and quit their jobs at the high-end hotel to start a taco operation. They set up to sling tacos anywhere they could, including car shows and breweries like Rahr & Sons. They catered wedding after wedding, and in early 2020 made the jump to a brick-and-mortar location in a former paleteria across from their old high school in Crowley. It was time. Maggie would take charge of the kitchen and be a business partner. The Santoses held onto the food trailer for catering gigs and events.
The restaurant, Santos Tacos, saw one thousand customers on its first day. It’s been a hit ever since thanks to its distinct mix of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Salvadoran foods. Among them are the best pupusas I’ve ever had. They were soft, sturdy, and warm enough to hold in my open hand without burning my fingers or disintegrating as I scooped them from the to-go box in the back of my hatchback. They were filled with a peppy, comforting combination of chicharrón and cheese.
The pupusa, a griddle-corn or rice-flour cake, is El Salvador’s national dish. The Central American specialty can be filled with a wide range of ingredients: chicharrón, beans, and cheese are all common. Pupusas are often accompanied by curtido, a kind of tart, pickled cabbage slaw, and by a tomato-based salsa. In the Dallas–Fort Worth area, the dish is a little-noticed but common menu item at taquerias in Latino neighborhoods. Pupusas don’t get much attention from the Texas food media, and many customers may overlook them as well, but I hope that changes. The North Texas metropolitan area is home to the fifth-largest Salvadoran immigrant population in the U.S. Right before Santos Tacos opened, Maggie visited El Salvador to perfect her pupusas, Michael Santos told me during our phone call.
While a pupusa should be your first choice at Santos Tacos, do not skip the tacos. The carnitas is pork butt slowly braised for at least two hours in lard bobbing with cinnamon, oranges, and onions. The barbacoa is slick, beefy Black Angus cheek meat. The carne asada is tender and also made from Black Angus. The chicken is cubed, juicy, and approximates a chipotle-simmered tinga. All of the tacos are made with Nixtamasa, a dehydrated corn flour produced by Maseca that is lower in preservatives than the more-common version found in many restaurants, tortillerias, and supermarkets—and thus closer to nixtamalized corn. This results in a damn good tortilla. The corn tortillas at Santos Tacos are thick, chewy, and irregularly textured, with tiny scalloped edges from hand-pressing. The only reason Maggie Santos isn’t nixtamalizing in the taqueria is lack of space. The kitchen is small.
That is set to change, although at least not for a year. Maggie Santos is slated to retire from Crowley ISD this December, and the family has secured a larger location. At the new restaurant, Maggie will be able to expand the menu. She plans to cook dishes that her grandmother taught her when she was growing up on a ranch in the South Texas border town of Zapata. There will be quail, carne guisada, carne con chile colorado, the works—especially nixtamalized corn tortillas. She made that clear during our discussion, noting that while she was growing up on the ranch, her grandmother would wake up early to nixtamalize corn. The elderly woman would then take the corn to the molino (mill), returning home with a heavy bag of masa for tortillas. Maggie was required to help make tortillas, of course. “I tell my sons, we need the nixtamal because that’s the way I learned to make it,” she says.
In the meantime, the first brick-and-mortar location remains open. You can also order birria de res tacos from the original trailer, which sits outside the forthcoming new restaurant and is open for service afternoons and evenings from Wednesday through Saturday. Unfortunately, I confused the hours of operation for the trailer and wasn’t able to try the birria. The excitement in the Santoses’ voices when they speak about their future leaves me eager to follow their business’s growth. I’m looking forward to returning for a taste of the ranch of which Maggie Santos speaks so often and so fondly.
1516 Highway 1187, Crowley (Birria-only trailer)
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.