“I have twenty-five tortilla presses,” says Leo Davila, chef and owner of Stixs & Stone in San Antonio. It might sound like bragging, but really, Davila is just fastidious about honing his tortilla-making skills. “I wanted to make corn tortillas so good me and everyone else forgot about the local flour tortillas,” he says. “I made a lot of bad tacos. I made a lot of bad tortillas too.” He tinkered with different press sizes as well as materials, from aluminum to wood to cast iron. He also brushed up on nixtamalization, learning the ideal hydration times for different corn varieties and the right water temperature for adding to the masa.
Eventually, Davila figured out how to make great tortillas, but he wasn’t content. He wanted to distinguish himself from other taqueros in San Antonio. For him, that meant telling his story and taking risks. Stixs & Stone is the result. Its fare is a blend of his Mexican American and Chinese American backgrounds. There are skewers and rice bowls on the menu, a nod to his mother and grandfather. “Fried rice was my comfort food,” he says of childhood days spent hanging out at one of his aunt’s five Chinese restaurants. The menu also features one of Davila’s other lifelong staples: the Sunday morning combination of barbacoa and Big Red. Like most native San Antonians, Davila knows of the cultural importance of the pairing, and he loves it.
At Stixs & Stone, Davila presents the combo in a wholly unique way. He replaces the water used in making tortillas with Big Red to produce brilliantly red discs. They’re smeared with strawberry–Big Red jam and pecan pesto, and then topped with shredded beef cheek, queso fresco, and thinly sliced, pickled watermelon rind. The three tacos are served on an aluminum tray and accompanied by a twelve-ounce can of Big Red. The meal has all the markings of an Instagram-driven gimmick. Yet it’s not.
Davila confesses that the taco flight’s striking appearance attracts customers who believe they’re about to be fooled by a stunt. But, like me, they’re floored by the interplay of the beef’s richness, the queso fresco’s saltiness, the watermelon’s tartness, the zing from the salsa de chile de árbol, and the chewy tortilla. The Big Red infusion provides a bold, brief finish. Thankfully, there is no lingering, face-contorting aftertaste. There is no syrupy coating on the inside of the mouth. There is only astonishment.
What makes the tacos really stand out is the 72-hour preparation process for the barbacoa. First, the beef cheeks are trimmed, marinated in a guajillo-based adobo, and smoked low and slow overnight with applewood. The next day, the barbacoa is chilled until the fat separates and can be easily removed. The refrigeration also concentrates the beef’s flavor. When it comes time to finish the barbacoa with each order, Davila adds a small bit of fat to the flattop griddle to give the beef crispness.
The components and the process are inspired by the taquero’s childhood. “Growing up, Sunday was for barbacoa and Big Red in my grandpa’s backyard, but it was also for watermelon,” Davila says. That explains the pickled watermelon rind, which is a nice substitute for the typical onion and cilantro. “My mom does not like onion and cilantro,” he adds. While Davila and his siblings waited for the barbacoa to finish, they would pick, crack, and munch on pecans from the tree in their grandfather’s backyard, inspiring the pecan pesto in the tacos.
Memories of his youth also influenced the elotes appetizer. Halves of corn cobs—so intensely roasted that they’re scorched in spots—are topped with queso fresco, spiced nuts, pickled red onions, and a dash of chili powder. The starter is plated beautifully, with the corn stacked askew alongside tangy green goddess dressing.
The pork belly, which is featured in a taco, is cured for 72 hours, smoked for eight hours, roasted in the oven, and fried quickly on the plancha. It’s finished with a house-made Chinese barbecue sauce and a crunchy, tangy slaw atop a blue corn tortilla. It’s a sweet, spicy, and savory taco. While the Big Red and barbacoa tacos are overtly complex, this one is more subtle. Another remarkable taco stars smoked creamed corn. Inspired by his mother’s creamed corn, Davila’s version is smoked and tucked into a tortilla with nutty salsa macha, creamy salsa verde, and pickled onions to cut the spice and smoke.
Davila puts rigorous thought into his food. He coaxes out flavors and textures that juxtapose and harmonize. From the outside, these types of tacos might put diners off if they were created by chain restaurants and given goofy names. But Davila’s tacos go deeper because he channels his youth and heritage. He wants to be successful but not at the cost of his integrity. “Every bite has to make sense,” he says. “I don’t throw [ingredients] on the taco because I want to make a fancy taco.” If only every taquero desperate to make a splash were as thoughtful as Davila.