Taco Capital, U.S.A.
Liz Carpenter, Author, Feminist, Austin. In San Antonio this lowly bundle has been elevated to an art form and a way of life. It tastes good too.
Consider the taco. In much of Texas it’s just an afterthought on the great Tex-Mex menu of life: a poor cousin to the glamour items of the Fajita Age, consigned to out-of-the-way barrio taquerías or to a few perfunctory entries on Mexican bills of fare. Not so in San Antonio, where the taco occupies an honored place in the civic consciousness. People spend time thinking about tacos in San Antonio. They argue about tacos; they swap tips on the latest taco hot spots; they zip through drive-in windows for tacos at odd hours of the day and night; they repair en masse to their favorite taco emporiums for weekend breakfasts.
Self-respecting San Antonians consider decent tacos a birthright and a necessity. “We’re spoiled here,” says art gallery director Stephen Vollmer, who admits to eating tacos four or five times a week and is subject to taco withdrawal when he travels. “I was so hard up in Houston last month that I actually went to the Whataburger and ate a breakfast taco,” he confesses sheepishly. After local éminence grise Maury Maverick steered attorney Tommy Smith to San Antonio’s downtown La Taquería, Smith ate there religiously—twice a day, breakfast and lunch—until it changed hands, a calamity of which he still complains.
Such behavior might strike Texans in less fortunate parts of the state as bizarre or, at the least, unaccountable. But if San Antonians are serious about their tacos, well, that’s because they have a lot to be serious about. Most Texans—the creeping popularity of the flour-tortilla-wrapped breakfast taco aside—equate the taco with its classic, none-too-thrilling Tex-Mex incarnation: a crisp, U-shaped shell (generally mass-produced) filled with a picadillo (ground beef that is often bland or overloaded with comino), dripping grease and sprouting a messy freight of shredded lettuce, tomato, and grated cheese all raring to splatter over your shirt front (just ask Prince Charles, who recently encountered one in Houston). San Antonians, however, gravitate toward tacos of a more elemental and ancient form—tortillas snatched hot off the griddle, folded around a wide range of fillings, and goosed up with chiles or hot salsa—a nice, self-contained little package. The genre is so highly developed that by now a rich and exuberant catalog of ingredients finds its way into San Antonio tacos, from basic carnitas to cactus pads, from esoteric offal like brains to strange New World hybrids like wiener-and-egg. Almost anything goes, including Polish sausage, chilaquiles, dried-shrimp cakes, or—would I pull your leg about something like this?—chopped-beef barbecue. Unseemly as that sounds, it’s squarely in the Mexican taco tradition, which requires only the tortilla as a constant. What you put in that tortilla is a function of what you like, what you’ve got, or what you’ve got left over. Versatility incarnate.
San Antonio has not been immune to the siren song of the Fajita Age, so these days the tortillas cradling your tacos are more apt to be made from flour than from corn; even taquerías deep within the West Side barrios are beginning to use flour tortillas as a matter of course. Hardly anybody bothers to ask if you’d prefer corn anymore, a disquieting development that applies all over the state. Granted, flour tortillas are admirably suited to Northern Mexico-style grilled meats, to cheeses, and to breakfast fillings; and granted, flour tortillas provide “better wet strength,” as San Antonio restaurant critic Ron Bechtol sensibly points out. Yet certain taco fillings seem to cry out for the character and texture of a properly mealy, layery corn tortilla: nopalitos, homey Mexican stews, and carnitas, for instance.
Eventually, I fear, Texans will lose their racial memory of what a well-made corn tortilla tastes like (some would argue that this loss has already occurred). Since there are fewer and fewer respectable corn tortillas around, you might ask whether it isn’t better to have a good flour-tortilla wrapping than a mediocre one made of corn; you could also, if you wanted to be picky, ask whether a flour-tortilla taco isn’t really a burrito. That way lies madness, though. What about flautas, which are nothing more than rolled tacos that have been fried and garnished? Or quesadillas—aren’t they, in their Americanized version, just grilled cheese tacos? Or how about soft tacos with sauce on them, some of them which look suspiciously like enchiladas? When is a taco not a taco, anyways? When you have to eat it with a fork, I say.
After all, in its purest form the taco is a street food, not a sit-down-restaurant food. It has the engagingly off-hand quality common to even the most elaborate of those masa-based Mexican snacks called antojitos. If you want to get historical about it, the taco has a nobler pedigree than that other North American fast food, the hamburger; a time-warp back to pre-Hispanic Mexico and you’d doubtless see Indians toting tortillas stuffed with this, that, and the other. Now, as then, the taco’s beauty as a fast food is its portable size. A perfect bocadita, or little mouthful, it stimulates without sating (and wears infinitely better than a burrito with its platter-size flour tortilla and its lumberjack heft). If one taco fails to do the trick, there’s always the lovely option of ordering a couple more—of different varieties, of course. My gripe against sit-down-restaurant tacos is that they mostly come three of a kin, which decreases my fun by two thirds.
There’s nowhere I have more fun eating tacos than San Antonio, which acre for acre boasts the best and most interesting tacos in the state. In fact, the city functions as the Manhattan of U.S. tacodom, where good—or even great—tacos are always within walking distance. With its size and its 54 percent Hispanic population, San Antonio has spawned a critical mass of taco artistes and taco consumers. The overall quality of Mexican food here has created a demanding local audience that grows up knowing what it wants. Among other things, it passionately wants tacos. Accordingly, the San Antonio phone books list nearly a hundred taco places that are designated by name as such, and that’s not counting the scores of Mexican eateries that reserve a prominent place on their menus for tacos or the back-street taco joints that aren’t listed at all. The very litany of San Antonio taquerías casts a spell: there are taco huts, stations, havens, ports, villages, houses, cabañas, haciendas, marts, factories, companies, palaces, expresses, and even a Taco Teria. Personages such as Alberto, Cindy, Connie, Don, Big Ern, Eddie, Gloria, Henry, Juan, Maria, Ninfa, Oscar, Paco, Pete, Rolando, Rosita, and Sukie have all attached their monikers to taco restaurants. There’s Tink’s Tink-a-Tako, El Taquito Millonario, Mucho Taco, Umm Tacos, and Taco the Town; you could dine for a month on the names alone.
You could also use the following modest tour guide to San Antonio’s best-of-breed tacos to get you started. Bear in mind that many of the serious taco dispensaries keep peculiar hours, opening at daybreak and closing by two or three in the afternoon; others stay open 24 hours. That has to do with San Antonians’ conviction that one eats tacos at prescribed hours of the day: for breakfast, for lunch, for snacks, or for late-night therapy after what is euphemistically known as a Big Time. Between three and ten lies a weird gray area … the Taco Twilight Zone.
Don’t hesitate to stop at any place that looks interesting (if you lose your nerve, you can always order bean-and-cheese). Serendipity plays a role in the ongoing taco search, and a taquería that the natives are raving about today may fall on strange times tomorrow. Happy taco hunting grounds for self-starters (not to mention a peek into a San Antonio the guidebooks don’t show you) can be found along the lengths of South Flores, Zarzamora, West Commerce, and Guadalupe. Money? You won’t need buckets of it. Most honest, God-fearing downscale tacos cost in the neighborhood of a buck; one San Antonio tacomaniac of my acquaintance righteously refuses to eat any taco that strays over the dollar barrier.
TORRES TACO HAVEN
This exemplary establishment in a blowsy quarter near the King Williams Historic District is my all-around San Antonio taquería. It’s cheap, friendly, utterly unpretentious, and authentic (although the clientele is largely Hispanic, the Taco Haven has acquired a coterie of Anglo followers). Best of all, the people back in the Torres kitchen really know how to cook.
What they do to the humble tongue taco is a case in point. Sautéed with an oniony ranchero sauce, the tender tacos de lengua are nothing short of sensational; I could eat two or three at a sitting. Don’t be put off by the idea of tongue, as gentle and unassuming a meat as they come. Besides, tacos are ideal for experimenting with things you wouldn’t otherwise dare eat; the familiarity of such Texas staples as the tortilla, hot salsa, or chopped onion somehow cushions the shock of the new. Even beginners can appreciate the Taco Haven’s version of cow’s head barbacoa, which — with its crisp exterior shreds mingling with unctuous interior ones — has more textural variety than most. It doesn’t even need the usual bracing squeeze of lemon. Adventurers should try the tacos de morcilla (blood sausage) that are occasionally on special; rich and earthy, studded with finely textured chunks of heart, serrano pepper, onion, and tomato, they would probably cause a riot in a Parisian charcuterie.
Not everything at the Taco Haven smacks of the unfamiliar, of course. You can check out San Antonio’s cherished bacon motif by sampling the Torres Special, a $1 steal that combines avocado, bacon, refried beans, and cheese in a surprisingly successful way. Plenty of crisp, salty bacon makes all that squishy stuff work together. Actually, the only less-than-wonderful taco here was the carnitas with avocado, stuffed with little fat-glazed bits of beef that tasted too much of cooked oil. Not bad, but not up to the high standards set by the rest of the food.
Mention must be made of the sweet waitresses and cashiers, deadly earnest green table salsa, the Mexican bread pudding (capirotada), and such esoterica as Polish-sausage-and-chile-con-queso tacos. Don’t expect a cosmetic ambience (lots of Formica, wood paneling, and fast-food-style booths), but do expect some of the best tacos around.
Torres Taco Haven, 1032 S. Presa, 533-2171.
A trip to San Antonio without a trip to Mario’s? Unthinkable. Usually I’m there within 24 hours of my arrival, partly because I’m obsessed with the chilaquiles con pollo and partly because of the great sense of place that the huge, down-to-earth restaurant exudes. The waiters in yellow jackets cut like abbreviated morning coats, the mini jukeboxes over each booth, the eccentric wall surfaces, and the manic mariachis all remind me that I’m in San Antonio just as surely as the Alamo Plaza does.
Mario’s sizable south-of-the-border menu is not really about tacos, but the restaurant does serve one taco specialty that demands to be eaten — the tacos de sesos. That’s brains, boys and girls, and you’re just going to have to trust me on this one: they’re killers, delicate and velvety as scrambled eggs from outer space, punctuated with scallion and a bit of cilantro. Tuck some crisp shredded romaine lettuce into the freshly fried corn tortilla shell to cut the richness of it all, and prepare to be won over. The kitchen is not always careful to keep the tortilla grease quotient in control, but so far that has failed to cast a pall on my enjoyment. Try splitting an order of three tacos, along with a lively bicolor plateful of guacamole and pico de gallo, chasing it all away with a couple of the world’s iciest Bohemias. See? Nerve pays.
Mario’s, 325 S. Pecos, 223-9602.
BLUE MOON CAFE
Whenever I get depressed because homestyle cooking seems to be a dying craft, I console myself with thoughts of the Blue Moon, one of those increasingly rare family-run spots where you’re convinced that somebody’s aunt is back in the kitchen and she knew you were coming. Outside of the little frame house on a faded stretch of South Flores stands a decrepit sign that cryptically notes, “Hot Fish to Go.” But red booths, blue trimmings, Christmas-wrap accents, and a wonderful Mexican jukebox make this a chipper place inside, as does an ample waitress who laughs uproariously when gringos order an oddball assortment of tacos.
Blue Moon tacos — all of them are served on flour tortillas unless you say otherwise — have undeniable personalities. Classy chorizo-and-egg is mildly spicy but restrained, not oozing outrageous seas of orange grease. Idiosyncratic carne asada is nothing more than a slab of tender pot roast lifted out of the ordinary by the small-textured Blue Moon table salsa flecked with red and green — chemistry is in action. Machacado of simple chopped roast beef is bound with egg and graced with tiny bits of green chile, another taco that blossoms under the influence of the house salsa.
But the real winners are the tacos filled with countrified stews and sautés that conjure up the spirit of provincial cooking. Blue Moon’s riveting carne guisada wafts the fresh, orange-scented pungency of comino; by some alchemy it escapes that tired, one-dimensional powdered-comino syndrome that afflicts too many versions of this dish. Tender slices of fine-textured tongue and green pepper (tacos de lengua) arrive in a well-seasoned sauce; another savory sauce sparked with jalapeño and onion fortifies the tacos de chicharrón. The gelatinous, almost oriental character of the pork skins inside may give skittish diners pause, but they’re very tasty; if you’ve ever thought about trying the strange thrills of chicharrones, this is the place to do it.
One last thing: at the Blue Moon the price is unmistakably right. Most tacos run about 70 to 80 cents (the most expensive costs a whole dollar). You can try six differet tacos along with two iced teas for a grand total of $6.76 — and depart pleased with yourself and the universe.
Blue Moon Cafe, 3228 S. Flores, 532-1231.
BIG ERN’S TACO PALACE
Big Ern’s is the kind of place you can‘t wait to describe to your friends in excruciating detail. The tiny dun-colored building hunches improbably on a downtown corner, its windows covered with red lettering. Inside it’s linoleum-and-fluorescent city, with nary a speck of natural material to be seen. The owner, a vast mountain of a man who does justice to his nickname, hands out collectors’-item “Big Ern” key chains that sport his likeness. And here’s the kicker: on one wall hangs a USA Today clipping touting Big Ern’s as one of the primo taquerías in the land.
Alas, not hardly. Disconcertingly soupy salsa with no discernible solids is one tip-off. A taco containing a whole Polish sausage that’s leathery along one side, as if it has been cooked and recooked, is another. The carne guisada taco may be eminently respectable, but Ern’s under-seasoned potato-and-egg filling is just not happening, having been left to sit around too long, the chief egg-taco sin.
Nevertheless there is a compelling reason to pay your respects to Big Ern as you wander the downtown sector between the Riverwalk and Alamo Plaza: he is the master of a San Antonio subgenre known as the puffy taco, sort of a cross between a sopaipilla and a gordita but airier than either one. Big Ern’s version is special. Its pillowy, golden masa wings are simultaneously soft and slightly crisp, topped with a discreet slather of light picadillo meat, shredded lettuce, tomato, and a tactful gilding of cheese. Texturally, it’s pretty sophisticated. Throw in one of those key chains, and it’s downright irresistible.
Big Ern’s Taco Palace, 203 College Street, 227-1830.
That’s right, a barbecue joint—a neo-Texan pseudo shack that reeks of woodsmoke and has posted some engraved nonsense about “best gawl dern viddles” over the door. I will admit I was horrified when one of my trusted San Antonio informants waxed lyrical about Fatso’s outré chopped-beef barbecue taco (they do barbecued-ham and sliced-beef versions too). “It’s a flour tortilla with a layer of refried beans, barbecue, and cheddar, plus a homemade hot sauce. I can eat a thousand of them!” he said dreamily. At first I thought it sounded like a mutant curiosity that should be investigated the better to make fun of, but to my mortification, I ended up liking the thing. Something about the good, fresh refrieds, the sweetly smoky barbecue, the gooey melted cheddar, and the mild bite of the salsa added up to much more than the sum of the parts. It may ruin my reputation, but I could eat a thousand of them.
Fatso’s Bar-B-Q, 1743 Bandera, 432-0121
You want the real thing? Journey into the heart of San Antonio’s West Side to Las Brisas, where you open the front door, find yourself on a breezeway, and—instead of proceeding ahead into the dining room—turn left into the domain of Señor “El Guero” Mireles. A combination butcher and grill man who has been plying his trade for 35 years both north and south of the border, the genial Mireles presides over a subsidiary world attached to the main restaurant, nursing his milky, crisply glazed carnitas along, dispensing crackly chicharrones to the neighborhood chicklettes, and superintending blackened, bubbling oil-drum caldrons of costillas de puerco that resemble something out of the witches’ den in Macbeth.
What you want here are definitive tacos de carnitas, served on either flour or corn tortillas that Mireles slaps on his griddle with an obligatory kiss of cooking oil. Brush up on your Spanish so you can acquire some chopped raw onion, fresh cilantro, and a froth of red salsa (“chile,” Mireles firmly calls it) to go along. If you’re feeling flush, $4.50 will buy you a plastic basketful of chunky, tender carnitas, and sinfully crusty fried pork ribs (the Pritikin people would not approve, I am happy to say), plus appropriate garnishes, and as many flour or corn tortillas as you need to assemble your own tacos. Retreat to the breezeway, talk shop with Mireles over a cold Schlitz from the restaurant, and consider yourself among the blessed.
Las Brisas, 1901 W. Commerce, 223-4891.
I find Rosario’s endearing for a number of reasons. For one, it possesses a highly personal style, in terms of both its food and its atmosphere; for another, it pulls off the all-but-impossible by being upscale without being denatured. In the center of King William, the restaurant’s cheeky tropical color-field walls, open kitchen, and neon-lit glass blocks speak both to our fantasies of Mexico and to our fantasies of the post-modern age. But the outsized jars of real fruit aguas and the comforting slap of homemade corn tortillas meeting a hot griddle speak to something else: our best instincts about what Mexican food should be.
Rosario’s latest menu features a new-age lobster taco that bears trying for the novelty of it. Shy shreds of lobster in a mild, tomatoey chile sauce are garnished with a slice of avocado and crunchy lettuce filaments. At $2.50 it’s nothing earth-shaking (and certainly nothing as luxurious as the amusing lobster fajitas that Tony Vallone has been serving to Houston high society), but it’s unusual and ingratiating, with a lot of interesting textural stuff going on. The effect is accentuated by what may be San Antonio’s finest corn tortillas, the kind that Diana Kennedy would approvingly describe as flabby.
Along more traditional lines, the restaurant offers an asado de puerco in a brick-red chile sauce that ought to taste terrific but is much too salty. The beef tips tampiqueña taco, in contrast, is well balanced and gratifyingly homey.
Although Rosario’s mixes a creditable, nonplastic margarita (all right, all right, margaritas don’t go with tacos, but can’t we make an exception for lobster?), don’t pass up a chance to sample to coolly pastel aguas; those tantalizing fruit drinks that you’ve longed for on the streets of Mexico can be consumed here without fear. The watermelon (agua de sandía) is particularly refreshing.
Rosario’s, 1014 S. Alamo, 223-0453.
LITTLE HOUSE CAFE
Lurking in a seedy block under the brooding hulk of the Bexar County courthouse, the Little House Cafe is an individualistic hole-in-the-wall that wends its own way down the taco path. From an arsenal of battered kettles, vats, and skillets atop a row of stoves and griddles, a couple of dozen taco fillings are ladled forth to feed the hungry downtown masses. The interesting custom here is to make a taco du jour out of the plate-lunch special: chicken with squash on Monday, chicken mole on Tuesday, tongue on Wednesday, chile relleno on Thursday, albóndigas de camarón (dried-shrimp cakes) on Friday. There are a few other unorthodox tacos on the menu too. I’ll confess to recoiling from the gruesome prospect of wiener-and-egg, but the unique chilaquiles taco—by no means the redundant tortilla taco you might imagine—could seduce skeptics with its gentle red salsa, molten cheese, just-so half-crisp corn tortilla strips, and soft-scrambled egg. The waitress suggested a flour-tortilla wrapper to contrast with fried corn tortillas in the filling; the waitress was right.
Little House also does a straightforward machacado-and-egg number that could calm your nerves after a court appearance, especially with a numbing jolt of the green liquid fire that you find in plastic squeeze bottles stationed throughout the cafe. They haven’t abandoned the corn tortilla here, a boon for taco fillings like mole or calabaza con pollo. But the best corn tortilla in the world wouldn’t be enough to rescue Friday’s spongy, pleasantly musty-tasting dried-shrimp-cake tacos from the surfeit of cooking oil that they soak up on the griddle. The main reason to try one is to say you’ve done it.
Although Little House isn’t going to win any beauty contests, there’s something engaging about the place, from its slightly tilted floor to the loving-hands-of-home murals. The best vantage point is unquestionably the low-slung counter, where you can watch your taco being made to order and — when the doors are locked at two o’clock — observe an exhilarating Chinese-fire-drill scene as the staff swarm the stoves to prepare their own lunches.
Little House Cafe, 107 S. Flores, 225-3344.
EL MILAGRITO CAFE
It would be hard not to like a place called the Little Miracle Cafe, especially when that place features (a) 26 different kinds of tacos at 70 to 85 cents; (b) a sepia-toned Zapata mural on its outside wall; (c) good Aztec calendar art plus a heart-rate machine; and (d) a museum-quality “Big Red” sign surrounded by big red lips. And of course there’s the fact that the food’s good. That’s due in no small measure to superior refried beans (important to a taco establishment where refrieds do yeoman service) and pebbly-textured, sturdy flour tortillas, blistery with charred places, that are folded into neat half-moons around the specialties of the house.
Those include the Taco Loco, stuffed with nicely browned potatoes, beans, eggs, and (ostensibly) sausage, although mine contained bacon — a fortunate and uncrazy combination. There’s also the bean-and-rice taco, an outlandish-sounding carbo-loader’s dream that puts those excellent frijoles refritos together with Spanish rice laced with big tomato chunks. I’m telling you that it’s more than passable, that in fact it doesn’t even need salsa, but I’m not really expecting you to believe me.
The Milagrito’s carne asada taco is merely serviceable, but the taco de nopalitos, long, delicate strips of prickly-pear cactus scrambled with egg, onion, and tomato, is possessed of an admirable subtlety. Unfortunately, this taco is available only during Lent. Even the guacamole taco, all too often a lifeless piece of business, has some spunk to it; avail yourself of the big bowl of rough-cut pico de gallo you’ll find on your table. But what to say about the Lalito taco of exceptionally soft-scrambled eggs and cheese dripping with butter, a decadent concept that falls flat because the butter has such a powerful off-taste? Only that it ought to be better.
The translations you’ll find on the Magic-Markered posterboard menu are baldly prosaic: picadillo equals “hamburger meat” in Milagritospeak, and machacado is “barbecue and egg.” Never mind. The key to remember — if it contains refried beans, order it. Service at the eight tables is fast and pleasant, even if after repeated pleas for ice a party of two winds up with seven plastic tumblers of iced tea and water, none with enough ice.
El Milagrito Cafe, 3012 N. Saint Mary’s, 734-8964.
So beloved is this rapidly proliferating San Antonio institution that new, gentrified pink-and-blue stucco branches are popping up all over the suburbs, complete with those all-important drive-through windows that have made the taco to San Antonio what the hamburger is to other American cities. Even so, the original Taco Cabana is the only one that a visitor should pay attention to; you could come here just for the sight of the nearby Butter Krust bread billboard, the slices tumbling endlessly from its infinite loaf. But that would beg the question of Taco Cabana’s true appeal — San Antonio’s ultimate weekend scene.
The after-hours action here is legendary. And by ten on a Saturday morning you will find le tout San Antonio crowding into the frowsy original, reading newspapers, customizing tacos with pico de gallo, swapping gossip and intelligence. “Persian rugs appreciate twenty-five per cent a year,” a career woman informs her mate. “ ‘The time has come, the walrus said…’” intones a young Hispanic, while two bandbox-perfect yuppies giggle over the exploits of a councilman, and a baby who appears to be mere hours old squints disbelievingly on its daddy’s shoulder. Outside, a ceaseless parade of cars rumbles through the drive-in circuit; inside, the babble and general mood rivals a Kiwanis picnic. Does Paris have its sidewalk cafes? This is San Antonio’s answer to the form — the semiopen shed wrapped in clear plastic, shaded by awnings, lined with picnic tables, and cooled by ceiling fans. “Patio cafes,” some of the more ambitious taquerías call them, but by any name they are important to the city’s life.
(Should you care to see the Versailles of this architectural genre, visit La Fogata, 2427 Vance Jackson, 341-9930. So highly evolved is this environment of fountains, topiaries, and twittering birds that you scarcely notice the roll-up shower curtain walls. While you gawk, try my favorite taco in town: charcoal-grilled pork chop on a flour tortilla with the bone on the side, the final luxury.)
Taco Cabana’s food is as democratic as it looks—quality tacos at more-than-reasonable prices (most of the breakfast versions are 69 cents). One of Taco Cabana’s main drawing cards, thanks to its awesome volume, is scrambled-egg tacos that haven’t had time to dry out and congeal on a steam table. That’s why the bacon-and-egg breakfast taco here is such a reliable standard: you simply can’t go wrong with it. Wish I could say the same for the chorizo-and-egg taco, the chief attribute of which is saltiness. Of the country sausage version, I can only take the name of Jimmy Dean in vain. Cross-cultural culinary pollination may be dandy; this isn’t. Order the bacon-and-egg, enjoy the surroundings, and pay no mind to natives who want you to try the fajita taco, a ropy, overseasoned mess that hints at some chemical-laden rub. Thousands of San Antonians can, on occasion, be wrong—even on such a significant subject as this.
Taco Cabana, 3310 San Pedro, 733-9332.
Once upon a time a young Mexico City go-getter with the grand-sounding name of Yves de Choulot opened a taquería deep in San Antonio’s West Side barrio. Tacomiendo’s menu had the ring of the Mexican interior: tacos al pastor, salsa-topped masa cakes called sopes, aguas de tamarindo, made-on-the-premises corn tortillas, and an extravagant all-you-can-eat salsa bar. Why, you might have been in a Mexico City taquería, which was precisely the point. Then De Choulot split with his partner and, with Anglo backers, opened a new taquería on the edge of San Antonio’s booming northwest suburbia. Adapting to local custom, he installed a drive-through window, brought in picnic tables and ceiling fans, and painted everything bright chalky-blue and Pepto Bismol pink.
De Choulot—a man born to wear Ralph Lauren—fit right into North Side yuppie land, but his old West Side menu didn’t. Out went quirky labels like the gringo taco; foreign-sounding names like tacos al pastor were banished, to be replaced with the infinitely less poetic “marinated roast pork taco.” Sopes were marketed as the more familiar gorditas, even though they were still flat instead of stuffed. Labeling wasn’t the half of it. Out went some of the best items on the menu, like the charred, chopped-up prime rib al carbón taco and the terrific taco stuffed with pork chop al carbón, tender and smoky and striped from the grill (“Nobody ordered it,” says the current manager; De Choulot is long gone). The food seemed to lose some of its early conviction and finesse. The roast pork on the taco al pastor was way too salty; the superb flattened masa disk that forms the base for the gordita (née sope), grilled until the bottom was beautifully crusty, seemed to grow heavier, doughier, and less fragrant.
The lesson? San Antonio’s indigenous taco culture has a powerful Anglicized streak that those who think big (and Let’s Taco’s money men do) ignore at their peril. Fortunately, the pull of the North Side has not been all-consuming. Let’s Taco is still worth a visit for its charcoaly steak al carbon taco, avocado-studded pico de gallo, good white cheese, and a first-rate flour tortilla grilled golden-brown. Grilled green onions and the lavish salsa bar stocked with racy green sauce of fresadilla and serrano chiles, a lethal red chile árbol salsa, and the pico de gallo of your dreams are still around, as well as imported Mexican beer on ice, a selection of tropical aguas, plus the strange yet soothing oatmeal beverage called horchata. Add a drive-through window open till 10 p.m., and I’ll have to admit that—creeping suburbanites or not—I’d like to have Let’s Taco in my neighborhood.
Let’s Taco, 6610 Blanco, 377-1213
MY FAVORITE TACO
Famous Texans Talk About Where They Eat The Tacos They Like Best.
Liz Carpenter, Author, Feminist, Austin. Soft tacos, Tres Amigos. “I like soft tacos with all the garbage — lettuce, tomatoes, picante sauce. But no sour cream. That’s a Yankee innovation.”
Henry Cisneros, Mayor, San Antonio. Fajita tacos with guacamole, Panchito’s Restaurant and Cantina.
Tony Vallone, Restauranteur, Houston. Tacos a la Ninfa, Ninfa’s on Kirby Drive.
Archbishop Patrick Flores, San Antonio. Homemade tacos. “I like tacos polacos, which is Polish sausage wrapped inside a corn or flour tortilla, and tacos de carne machacada, which is dried beef, eggs, and chile inside a corn or flour tortilla.”
John Alexander, Painter, New York. Doneraki Restaurant, Houston. “I like a taco that is hot, spicy, and greasy enough so that I’ll remember it a day or so later when I’m sitting in my studio back in New York. It’s called a taco with staying power.”
T. R. Fehrenbach, Historian, San Antonio. Tacos al carbón, El Fenix in Dallas or Houston.
Don Haskins, Basketball Coach, University of Texas At El Paso. Beef tacos, Casa Jurado. “I eat there two to three times a week. That’s why I weigh two-seventy.”
Jack Rains, Chairman, 3d/International, Houston. Makes cafeteria-style tacos at home. “I put out all the condiments and let everybody build their own.”
Jan Barboglio, Fashion Designer, Dallas. Soft tacos, Guadalajara restaurant.
Cristina Barboglio, Fashion Designer, Dallas. Eats them at home or in Mexico, never in Dallas.
Lou Ann Barton, Singer, Austin. They’re on the Pritikin Diet and don’t eat tacos.
Lou Ann Barton, Singer, Austin. Potato-and-egg breakfast tacos, Xalapeño Charlie’s.
Bernardo Eureste, Former City Coucilman, San Antonio. “My favorite tacos contain charbroiled salmon from Puget Sound with guacamole and pico de gallo wrapped in a corn tortilla, accompanied by a real cold Shiner longneck. I also like a butterflied charbroiled whitefish weighing about an ounce and three quarters from Lake Chapala near Guadalajara with pico do gallo wrapped in a thick, handmade tortilla and accompanied by a cold, cold can of Tecate. I get these at my restaurant, Magdalena’s.”
Lady Bird Johnson, Austin. Standard crispy beef tacos, El Patio Mexican Restaurant or Matt’s El Rancho.
Kim Dawson, Modeling Agency Owner, Dallas. Tacos al carbón, Chiquita.
Stanley Marsh 3, Eccentric, Amarillo. Homemade tacos. “We have the usual Tex-Mex tacos, to which we sometimes add chopped almonds, chives, onions (green and white), and even pickled beets. I like taco shells that are not too crisp, so that you can bend them enough to not have all the filling spill out all over your chin and shirt.”
Stephan Pyles, Chef, Routh Street Cafe, Dallas. House tacos, Pepe’s Cafe and Chiquita.
Max Apple, Writer, Houston. Avocado-tofu or soybean tacos he makes at home.
Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, Attorney, Houston. Breakfast tacos with chorizo, and chicken tacos at El Patio and Cyclone Anaya’s.
Johnny Holmes, District Attorney, Houston. Breakfast tacos, Merida on Navigation Boulevard. “The breakfast tacos have beans, hashbrowns, eggs, and bacon in them. I also get a side order of jalepeños.”
Cactus Pryor, Humorist, Austin. “The only way to properly eat a crispy taco is nude and alone. But if you’re going to eat a soft taco, get dressed and go to El Rancho.”
John Broders and Jeanne Twehous
The Best Taco In The World
Sometimes feelings matter more than fillings.
The issue of where exactly to find the best taco in the world is hardly a practical one: it’s intensely theoretical, existential even. And it’s a question to which a great many Texans insist they know the one true answer. Among the prevailing theories, a favorite of mine is one based on need. El Pasoan Ralph Briones, a Texas Department of Human Services employee, articulates it thusly: “The best taco in the world is the one you can eat at three, four, or five in the morning when you’ve had a big night out and you really need it. It’s what you eat before you’ve got the menudo ready.” No matter that the place may be a dive or the tacos—like the I-can’t-believe-I-like-this, four-hundred-napkin al carbon variety at El Tendero in Juárez—might give you pause in the cold light of day. This is the taco you can’t do without.
Another school of best-taco thought is rooted in idiosyncrasy. Ralph Briones’ philosophy-professor brother Ernesto still craves the peanut-butter-and-banana corn-tortilla tacos he ate as a child. Sometimes the quirk is a regional variant unknown but to the initiated few. For instance, Delbert Runyon, a Brownsville translator, thinks maguey-worm tacos—sautéed in butter, not embalmed in alcohol,” he specifies—are “exquisite,” especially with a dab of guacamole.
But the most powerful best-taco theory involves the taco that is made just for you. The descants on this theme are endless. State Rep Juan Hinojosa of McAllen asserts that “the best tacos are made by my mother. She sends them over to my law office two or three times a week.” McAllen attorney Tom Matlock is similarly insistent: “The best tacos? My wife, Molly, makes them.” As for me, I know what the bets tacos in the world are too. They’re the breakfast tacos that Texas Monthly staffer Hope Rodriguez brings in by the dozen just when you really need them—during deadline week. So there.