Santiago Reyes was trying to impress a girl. The teenager told a young lady he could cook when he actually didn’t know how. Reyes’s brother took pity on the young man and introduced him to Chris Morrill, a chef and friend who could teach him some culinary skills. After a good chuckle, Morrill helped him out and encouraged Reyes to pursue a career in food. “Ever since then, we’ve just been cooking together,” Reyes says of Morrill, who is his business partner in Around the World Catering Services and their taqueria, Taco Shop, both based in El Paso.
The catering company came first. It was established in 2009 and was doing so well neither Morrill nor Reyes considered opening a restaurant. Why would they, when the pair could exercise their talents for large groups at weddings, concerts, and parties? “We saw people opening and closing restaurants left and right like it’s nothing,” Morrill explains. “Catering just blew up for us.” Operating Around the World Catering Services has taken them to locales like Los Angeles, Montana, and Chicago. Their friends and clients hoped for other plans closer to home. “People would always ask us, ‘So when’s the restaurant opening?’ ” In 2019, Morrill and Reyes began discussing the idea.
They brainstormed concepts over a meal after finishing a catering gig. “We were looking down at our plates, and it was tacos,” Reyes says. “That’s what we eat outside of our cooking, and we figured, let’s do something we love.” For Morrill, the type of restaurant had a lot to do with being from El Paso and the border; visiting Juárez, Mexico, regularly; and enjoying the diversity of tacos available to him. Morrill calls Taco Shop a passion project.
That perspective is critical to Taco Shop’s success. The taqueria opened at perhaps the worst possible time, March 10, 2020. The dining room closed a week later, and for several months it operated on a takeout basis with a menu that was and remains full of surprises. The food is based on Morrill’s and Reyes’s travels with their catering company, additional research trips across Mexico, and the traditional tacos of the borderlands. Among the last are flautas, which, at Taco Shop, are filled as commonly with carnitas or papas as they are jackfruit or stingray. Morrill and Reyes leaned into regional Mexican foodways while applying their own flair. Chapulines are aplenty, as is bone marrow. There are cheese-laden, consommé-dipped birria tacos, but they are generally filled with luscious lamb, not trendy beef.
The fillings get wild—much wilder than stingray. They once put kangaroo on the menu. Such wagers are typical for Morrill and Reyes. “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? We lose a couple hundred dollars? Our reputation is tarnished because we’re eating kangaroos?” Morrill says. “So we sit back and we kind of just shrug all that off and say, ‘Well, why not?’ ” The pandemic influenced this risk-taking foundation. The pair knew they needed to stand out. Their catering gigs were canceled, so they poured all of their money and energy into Taco Shop.
“I would say, ‘You know what, [Santiago]? I tried ostrich once,’ or ‘Dude, I tried alligator one time. Let’s see how that comes out in a taco,’ ” Morrill recalls. The unusual fillings just went from there. Morrill and Reyes asked the staff about each one. If the cooks and cashiers weren’t behind the ideas, they wouldn’t move forward with them. But they were as excited about the exotic meats as Morrill and Reyes. The alligator was particularly successful. Customers formed lines to try it every time it was put on the menu. Folks would call the taqueria asking when the next exotic meat would be available.
Not every special has been a hit. Traditional Mexican chicatana ants didn’t take off. A feature of invasive snapping turtles was confused for endangered sea turtles. “People thought we were getting a pet turtle and killing it or getting the turtles from the zoos,” Morrill says. “We had to put out a whole PSA about how we get the species. It’s not even remotely the same,” Reyes adds.
Recently, the chefs have focused their specials on traditional meats of Central and South America, including armadillo, which is also consumed in Oaxaca. The Taco Shop owners don’t expect customers to line up for every featured protein, but they do hope diners broaden their culinary horizons. What we know as Mexican food in Texas, even along the southern border, isn’t the extent of Mexican food. Rather, it’s a regional expression. If one person restrains a knee-jerk reaction, then Morrill and Reyes have succeeded.
While I haven’t been fortunate enough to sample most of Taco Shop’s exotic meat dishes, I support the chefs’ mission. (Although I’m surely not alone in my hesitancy as a Texan to try armadillo.) Mexico and the world are packed with gastronomic wonders we should be open to nibbling on. We shouldn’t restrain ourselves to thinking legitimacy is limited to our own experiences. This openness is central to my work at Texas Monthly and my book. Initial reactions shouldn’t prevent anyone from dipping a toe into new waters.
Of course, the Taco Shop owners have received pushback from some customers. Occasionally someone enters the taqueria to declare that a dish isn’t traditionally Mexican because “this isn’t how my mom makes it,” Reyes says. “We’re chefs. We want to be creative. Nobody wants to eat the same simple quesadilla every single day.” Morrill puts it even simpler. “I was raised [on the idea] that a taco has three major components. If it’s on a tortilla and it has a salsa and it has some form of something on the inside, it’s a taco,” he adds.
They have been smart to balance their experiments with more classic fillings like carnitas and juicy discada as well as offerings such as hibiscus flautas or rich bone-marrow tacos on costras, inspired by Morrill’s childhood visits to his grandfather’s ranch in Durango, Mexico. “We ate that a lot when on the rancho,” he says. “Eventually, we stopped going and I stopped eating bone marrow, so I thought why not bring it back?”
I applaud Taco Shop’s efforts, and yet I must admit I’m surprised (pleasantly so) by its success in a midsize, underappreciated market such as El Paso. The owners’ gamble has paid off. Their capabilities as veteran catering company operators have certainly helped. It’s as important to the vibrant Mexican food scene in the Sun City as Taconeta, Elemi, and El Charlatan.
Morrill and Reyes are currently planning to open a San Antonio location in July. San Antonio is Reyes’s father’s hometown. It’s also where Reyes nurtured his love of food and cooking during family visits. “My dad showed me all the little places he went to while growing up there,” he says. “So when it comes to food, San Antonio is very important to me.” They’d love to have Taco Shop outposts in Dallas, Austin, Brownsville, and Houston, but they’re smart enough to know they don’t know everything. “This is not something that’s very easy to grasp,” Morrill says about the restaurant business. That’s just as true for their exotic meat specials.
1920 N. Zaragoza Road, Suite 114, El Paso
Hours: Sunday 7 a.m.–6 p.m., Monday to Friday 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m.–8 p.m.