One day in the late 1980s, Juan Francisco Ochoa Sr. meandered through an H-E-B in Laredo. His new restaurant, Taco Palenque, didn’t have a menu yet, but he had a vision. A bell had rung—the same one that inspired his other Mexican restaurant chain, El Pollo Loco.

That grilled chicken franchise became a sensation in Mexico after he opened the first in his hometown of Guasave, Sinaloa, in 1975. By 1980, he and his family operated more than 90 restaurants across the country. Eventually, they decided to try their luck in the U.S., and by 1983, California had seventeen El Pollo Locos.

Could he do it again? During that visit to H-E-B, Ochoa grabbed a package of beef cut into fajitas strips, along with salt, and pepper.

Weeks later, on July 1, 1987, on San Bernardo Avenue in Laredo, the first Taco Palenque opened its doors. The romantic Mexican-style dining room featured colorful tile, arched passageways, a playground out front, a self-serve salsa bar, free totopos (tortilla chips), and a drive-through. Ochoa—known as Don Pancho—remembers his architect handing him the keys to the front door. He gave them back. 

“I don’t need them,” he said. “We’re never going to close.” 

Since that day—save for some pandemic-era dining room closures—the original Taco Palenque has kept its doors open all day, every day. Today, the chain business boasts 31 locations. It has grown beyond their South Texas empire, creeping up into the central part of the state, on the precipice of joining Whataburger, H-E-B, and Buc-ee’s as Lone Star cultural icons.

Visiting the original location was intrinsically tied to the experience of bar hopping just across the border in Nuevo Laredo in the late 1980s and ’90s. After drinking in Mexico and crossing back into the U.S., partiers would stop at Taco Palenque to sober up before heading home. “I remember we used to make what we called a poor man’s taco,” says Marisa Michelle Lacey, a Laredo native who now lives in Alpine. “If you asked, they’d give you extra tortillas and we’d just put salsa on them, because they tasted so good.” 

Penny pinching teens would take apart their piratas—which were made with two flour tortillas—making two tacos out of the one. Free totopos and makeshift salads with cucumbers, radish, and lime from the salsa bar made for a square meal. And no phone book was safe from hungry youths, scouring neighborhoods for the unattended yellow pages that contained the precious buy-one-get-one-free coupons that meant you could feast like a king. 

“The pirata just tastes like Laredo,” says Maite Gomez-Rejon, a food historian and native of Laredo who now calls Los Angeles home. “But specifically Laredo, Texas, not Nuevo Laredo.” The fajita—beef marinated and grilled to juicy perfection—and brown refried beans are both staples made popular by the rancheros that were eventually split by the border. The yellow cheese, which you won’t find in Mexico, Gomez-Rejon says, is what grounds it firmly in Texas. “That flavor combination with the chubby flour tortillas, there’s nothing more telling of Laredo,” she says. “It should be the Laredo logo.”

The Ochoas, however, have ambitions that stretch far beyond the 956. For decades, the company could only be found in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. Today, still family-owned, it is going through a robust growth period, expanding as far north as the Austin suburb of Round Rock and as far east as Houston, with several more locations to open this year. 

That growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year Food & Wine magazine named Taco Palenque “the Best Fast Food in Texas,” beating out the orange giant, Whataburger. After 35 years of steady growth, Don Pancho, now 79, says he can already see the next 35. “We’ll be all across los Estados Unidos,” he says.

Congressman Henry Cuellar has been compadres with Don Pancho since before Taco Palenque was born. For the last ten years, he has hosted an annual Laredo Day party in Washington D.C., transporting Taco Palenque employees and ingredients to cook their food on-site to feed politicians from both sides of the aisle. “You can ask anybody on the [Capitol] Hill,” he says. “It’s the most popular event.” Cuellar represented Don Pancho when he sold El Pollo Loco’s U.S. branch to Denny’s Inc in 1983. (Cuellar worked as an attorney in Laredo at the time.) During their trip to Los Angeles to sign the paperwork, he recalls Don Pancho abruptly stopping their taxi. He had seen an El Pollo Loco and wanted to taste the food and talk to the manager. “Here he is about to sell the franchise to Denny’s and he’s still very interested in the quality of the food,” Cuellar says. “That told me this person is very different.”

Before opening the first El Pollo Loco in 1975 in his hometown, Don Pancho sold shoes. “My father,” Juan Francisco says, “is a natural salesman.” Even after El Pollo Loco’s U.S. sale in 1983, the bug to own and operate a restaurant franchise stateside never left Don Pancho. It would take another iconic Tex-Mex franchise to inspire his second hit. 

It was a late Thursday night in 1986 and the Ochoa family was hungry. Don Pancho and the family regularly drove from where they lived in Monterrey, Mexico, up through Laredo, to San Antonio. They decided to eat at Taco Cabana. Founded in 1978 by Felix Stehling from Fredericksburg who knew diners would like late-night Mexican food, Taco Cabana was—by the time of the Ochoa family’s visit in 1986—the highest volume restaurant chain in the country. At the pastel pink location on Wurzbach at Bandera Road, Don Pancho remembers the long line snaking through the dining room. “We got there and it was packed,” he says. 

Don Pancho asked for two fajita tacos on corn tortillas instead of flour.

It can’t be done, the woman on the register said. Just take the corn tortillas from the enchiladas and use those to make the tacos, he suggested. The woman insisted it wasn’t possible. “Fine,” Don Pancho said. “I’ll take two tacos with flour tortillas and an enchilada plate.” 

Don Pancho took his ticket to the bar where the cook was working on the grill. “Listen, don’t make me the enchiladas, just warm up the tortillas—” But before he could finish, the same woman from the register came stomping over, yelling at him to leave the cook alone. That’s when the bell rang in his head. “I told myself ‘Pancho, this is the next business that’s going to succeed. I’ll give the customer what they want.’ ”

And that meant choice. Why wait for barbacoa or menudo until the weekend? He’d serve his full menu all day, every day—holidays included. Instead of making customers ask for salsas or condiments, he’d put them right out in the dining room in a salsa bar, a novel idea at the time. Any taco could come on either flour or corn. 

Obsessed with cock fighting as a teenager, Don Pancho decided to name his restaurant after the arenas where they, and other types of entertainment, were staged: on a palenque. The word ‘taco’ was added after some debate as to whether anyone would know what a business called “Palenque” did. 

Laredo and McAllen, close to home for the Ochoas and steady with traffic from Mexicans who came to the cities to shop, were both considered for the start of the new venture. “I didn’t have a preference,” Don Pancho says. 

As fate would have it, the perfect lot on Laredo’s historic San Bernardo Avenue became available and a deal was signed. The restaurant would be designed like the original El Pollo Loco. “We decided if it didn’t work, well, I had two more years on my non-compete, so I could turn it into a chicken restaurant like El Pollo Loco.” 

But it didn’t matter. Everyone in Laredo—the paisanos just passing through, the families after church, the drunk kids who had snuck across the border and back again—loved Taco Palenque, especially after the pirata made its debut.  

A pirata is a taco originally from Monterrey that typically features white cheese, beef fajita, and sliced avocado griddled in a folded flour tortilla. Don Pancho’s sons, who were in high school in Monterrey at the time, frequented an auto body shop that had a grill at night and sold tacos, including piratas. Don Pancho wasn’t familiar with the pirata, but three months after Taco Palenque opened, his sons asked him to add it to the menu. He decided he would, but it needed some changes. First, it needed beans. Second, it had to lose the avocado, as it was too overpowering. Finally, the crucial yellow cheese. According to Don Pancho, the cheese was an aesthetic choice, the same as the white cheese, except in color. “And we needed two tortillas,” Juan Francisco says, “because it was just too big.”

By 1993, the original Taco Palenque, according to an interview in La Opinion, was making upwards of $5 million in sales a year. The restaurant was so popular, customers didn’t even fit inside anymore. “People would be eating outside in the parking lot,” Juan Francisco says. “We grew that place until we couldn’t anymore.” In 1995, Taco Palenque bought out a local Taco Cabana and turned it into its second Laredo location, aptly called Taco Palenque Jr. By 1998, the family had bought out two other Taco Cabanas in McAllen, establishing their South Texas empire. 

Ana Maria Jaramillo, cofounder of La Tejana, a South Texas–inspired taqueria in Washington, D.C., says Taco P (as Valley folks call it) is a McAllen institution as well. She frequented it after soccer games and partying in Reynosa for much of her youth. “I think about the Panchos all the time,” she says, referring to the fajita-topped nachos, named after the founder. She remembers when she first spotted the iconic red sign outside of McAllen on a drive to San Antonio. “I hit the brakes and took the exit,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, they made it.’ ” 

Recently, part of its success has come from Taco Palenque aggressively courting non-Latino customers. That’s meant murals inside new restaurants explaining what a palenque is, changing its marketing materials to be English-first, and even expanding the menu to include more familiar items, such as burritos. Palenque Grill, a sit-down, fine-dining sister restaurant, which has five locations, is also being used to court diners who might at first not consider stopping by the drive-through stores.

So far, it’s working. Juan Francisco says sales across all Taco Palenque restaurants in San Antonio rose after the company opened a Palenque Grill in the La Cantera shopping mall. The new Taco Palenque we’re sitting in for this interview, on the north side on San Antonio, sees about 90 percent Anglo clientele according to Don Pancho. 

Fidel Martinez, who was born and raised in the Valley and is now the Editorial Director of Latin Initiatives at the Los Angeles Times, says he adores Taco Palenque, but is concerned what its attempts to reach more customers might mean for his hometown favorite. “What does that say about them and their mainstream audience?” The border, he says, is what gives the restaurant credibility, and he wonders what will be lost as it expands. 

Juan Francisco insists the food will never change. “Our food is more Mex and less Tex,” he says. “We don’t compromise the recipe.” 

That doesn’t keep the family from dreaming. The third generation of Ochoas has just entered the family business and is keen to keep it growing, including beyond Texas. “My kids ask me what’s on my bucket list,” Don Pancho says. “And ya, it’s almost done.” He’d love to take Taco Palenque back to where El Pollo Loco struck success almost half a century ago: Los Angeles. Company executives just did a tour of California and is in the beginning stages of figuring out how to bring its version of Tex-Mex cuisine to the Golden State by 2025, for the 50th anniversary of the first El Pollo Loco’s opening there. Meanwhile, Juan Francisco has tasked his two daughters who live in New York City to keep an eye out for a location where an “express” concept could operate. “In Manhattan, you know,” he said, “you have a hot dog, a slice of pizza, and hopefully a pirata.”