When Chilangos Tacos opened its first location on Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas in 2019, I hadn’t seen anything like it in Texas. Owner and Mexico City native Jon Garay says the taqueria’s red-and-white color scheme that appears on the hand-painted signage, tables, and logo were inspired by the taquerias of his youth. “Chilangos is a representation of paying homage to the old-school, real taquerias from the nineties,” Garay explains. What I didn’t know then was how influential the red-and-white color palette really is and how it would proliferate across taquerias nationwide in subsequent years.
Garay has stuck with the color scheme as Chilangos Tacos has expanded to more locations, including a third Dallas outpost that opened in September. At that newest location, the dining room and open kitchen—with a spinning trompo as the centerpiece—explode with red and white, including in the hand-painted rótulista-style signage (“con todo” and “tortillas hechas con mucho amor” are two of them) and more splashed across walls, counters, and sneeze guards. To say it looks festive is an understatement.
Between my visits to the first Dallas Chilangos Tacos and the third, I began to see similar designs across the U.S. (at El Primo Red Tacos in Miami and New York and Los Tacos No. 1 in New York) and Mexico (at the Monterrey-based Taqueria Orinoco chain). Even though taquerias come in all designs, colors, and forms—some utilize pop-culture iconography and anthropomorphic animals, while other showcase pastoral scenes—the bold combination of red and white still dominates. And I wondered why.
One answer points to the influence of a famous red-and-white brand: Coca-Cola. More soft drinks, and specifically Coca-Cola products, are consumed in Mexico than in any other country, with “an average of 163 liters per person per year, which is 40 percent more than the United States,” according to Gaceta UNAM, reporting on a 2019 Yale University study. That makes sense, because what are tacos without Mexican Coke? Taqueria orders, like many of mine, often end with “y una Coca Mexicana, por favor.”
It wasn’t always this way. Prior to his Mexican presidency, Vicente Fox was a longtime employee of Coca-Cola Mexico, and eventually became the company’s CEO in 1975. Throughout his career, he helped deliver and oversee Coke’s domination of the Mexican market by persuading taquerias and other businesses with cash, coolers, awnings, or whatever it took to increase the soda’s market share, including sponsoring the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
John Paul Valverde, the creative director of Dallas-based restaurant design firm Coeval Studios, says Coca-Cola’s influence in Mexico can’t be overstated. “You could look at color psychology,” Valverde says, “but for me, I think Coca-Cola is part of Mexican culture, in general.” He credits Fox’s business savvy for the prominence of red and white. “That just kind of trickled down slowly and surely. [Coca-Cola] continued to sponsor taquerias with red and white. Now, it’s a symbol of comfort.”
Indeed, Garay says the presence of Coke in his childhood in Mexico City inspired Chilangos Tacos’ design. “Back then, Coca-Cola would pay for all the interior design,” he says. And Garay honors that with red, Coke-branded tables at the newest Chilangos Tacos location. While in the U.S., Coke is associated with polar bears and Santa Claus, in Mexico, it’s connected to taco culture. “There are Coca-Cola logos all over my taco photo album,” says Hallie Davison, director-producer of the Taco Chronicles and former Mexico City resident.
Now the aesthetic has journeyed north. But it has less to do with Coca-Cola as a brand and more with hard-wired associations. When Valverde and a friend were working on opening their own taqueria, “We didn’t say, ‘Oh, this should look like Coca-Cola,’ but our default was red and white automatically in our heads,” he says.
It’s proven powerful for Tacos Vitali, which has two locations in San Antonio. The restaurants have a red-and-white color scheme, and there are near-constant long lines at both of them. Owner Oscar Breton Echeverria Gonzalez explains his reasoning for incorporating the colors: “What I’m trying to do is just to share a piece of taco culture in the U.S. . . . We sell nostalgia.” This goes right down to the imported white-label Mexican Coke in glass bottles.
Echeverria also understands the psychological impact of color. He knows white implies purity and cleanliness, and industry experts suggest red is appetizing and therefore increases the desire to consume more food. Davison, too, gets symbolic about the color scheme. “To me, the white represents hygiene (battling an unfortunate stereotype) and the red is the heat, the chile,” she says. Tacos are welcoming, in part, because of the colors. The red and white captivate, and the smell of sizzling meat and nose-scratching salsa lifts you off your feet and carries you into the taqueria, like Tom the cat mesmerized by a freshly baked pie set to cool on a kitchen window ledge.
Cynthia Perez, who co-owns Tacos al Carbón Cabrón in San Antonio with husband Benjamin Mondragon, is all about striking the senses. The color white is used to show the sanitary condition of the dining room because white can’t hide a mess. “It gives [the taqueria] a sense of cleanliness and people feel it’s cozy,” she says. But the color red is used to draw customers in to try the mesquite-grilled sirloin tacos. “[It] triggers all the senses. It stimulates appetite and hunger. It attracts people,” she continues. “Red is passion,” Mondragon adds.
The colors remind Erik Leal, owner of Tacos Frontera in Houston, of the restaurants he visited as a little kid. His taqueria, which opened in July, has red-and-white signage on its exterior announcing the name and its Tijuana-style tacos. Inside, red and white welcomes you, literally. “Bienvenidos” is spelled out in capital letters on corrugated metal above the ordering counter. Patrons have remarked that Tacos Frontera reminds them of places in New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Monterrey, Mexico, and that it makes them happy.
An adjacent counter with red metal stools has the taqueria’s name emblazoned above it. A string of miniature Coca-Cola flags hangs above the dining counter. “Customers tell me when they walk in that it feels like they are in Mexico,” he says.
Of course, a red-and-white color scheme doesn’t necessarily mean superior tacos. But you will get a taquero who understands heritage and tradition, and that the red-and-white combination is a beacon for taco lovers in search of the classics.