South Texas diners offer everything great about their classic American counterparts but with Mexican food, including top-notch breakfast tacos. Among the best is Los Jacales Mexican Restaurant in Laredo. Originally operated by Luis Palacios as Luis’ Steakhouse before being sold to Palacios’s brother, steakhouse cook Imeldo, and his wife, Isabel, Los Jacales began operating in 1973 at the corner of Market Street and North Meadow Avenue. It moved to its current location in 1992.
After Imeldo’s death in 1977 and, later, Isabel’s retirement, ownership passed to Roberto, one of their sons. “He dropped out of college and decided to help my mother when my dad passed,” says Roberto’s brother Imeldo “Melo” Palacios, who takes care of ordering equipment and handling work schedules, other administrative duties, and media from his home in San Antonio. “After [Roberto ran] it for so many years, it was decided as a family that the business belonged to him. He was the only one. It was my dad’s philosophy: if you really sweat in a business and you put your time in the business, that business will be yours.” With another brother, Eddie, as the restaurant’s general manager, Los Jacales is a family operation, one built on great food and an understanding of the fundamentals of borderlands Mexican food.
“Most Mexican restaurants, the main thing that will make them or break them is the flour tortillas,” says Melo Palacios. “You can have the best ingredients in there. But if your flour tortillas aren’t right, that does it right there. It kills them.” The house-made flour tortillas, flaky with a thick cushion, make Los Jacales’s breakfast tacos among the finest in Laredo—and Texas. Chief among them is the carne ranchera taco, thinly mesquite-smoked brisket (pit-cooked onsite every other day) in a light, mouth-puckering “special sauce” that I’d define as more of a gravy. The barbecue taco was first sold by Luis and Imeldo Palacios at Luis’ Steakhouse in 1967, making it one of the earliest brisket tacos in Texas that I’ve been able to find in my research. Today, the carne ranchera accounts for 75 percent of total sales at Los Jacales, according to Melo.
However beloved and historic the carne ranchera is, what I consider the best breakfast taco on the menu is a tweaked version of the top seller: the Robert Special. Named in honor of the current owner by old-time regulars Chano Aldarate, Robert Summers, and Celso Uribe, and officially added to the Los Jacales menu in 1992, the taco adds cracked bacon atop the ribbons of mesquite-smoked brisket. If the waitress asks whether you’d like refried beans too, say yes. Not only do they add an extra punch, the beans hold the taco together.
While I use the term “breakfast taco,” in Laredo the dish itself is sometimes called a mariachi and is listed as such on Los Jacales’s menu. There are several theories for the genesis of the name, but Melo Palacios has his own tale. He says the term was coined in the sixties, while he was a dishwasher and busboy at his Uncle Luis’s other restaurant, Farmer’s Grill, but that the term is specific to Los Jacales because of family continuity. “The original mariachi is the papa con chile that we make,” Melo says. “One guy used to come over from Mexico for it, and he said the taco was so hot—it was spicy hot—that ‘the taco would make you sing.’ So, he named it the Mariachi. He would come in and ask for a Mariachi, not a papa con chile. His partner called the bean taco El Mexicano—because, you know, Mexicans like beans—and he would come in and say, ‘Hey, give me un El Mexicano.’ They weren’t on the menu as such, but we knew what they wanted.” Everyone else would ask for a bacon and egg taco or a chorizo and egg taco. “But then everyone started calling all of them mariachis. I believe it was in the early seventies—somewhere around then.”
Melo’s story is one of many similar tales. The truth is never tidy, nor is the Robert Special. But it’s part of a rich tradition of Mexican Americans consuming smoked brisket like they might anything else—in a tortilla. Barbecue is always better in a tortilla.