When Sandra and Carlos Salazar opened El Fogón Tacos & Beer in Brownsville in 2017, they did so in an effort to combat a misconception that the border didn’t have a rich culinary culture, says the restaurant’s general manager, Carlos Carvajal. Anyone who’s been to the Rio Grande Valley knows that’s not true, and El Fogón further reinforces the vitality and diversity of taco cuisine in the region. “We call it a little taste from Mexico,” Carvajal says. “Un pedacito de Mexico.”
From the pineapple-topped taco al pastor and the tacos matamoros (named after the owner’s hometown, Brownsville’s sister city, and the beef, cheese, and avocado taco found in both) to the vegan taco on a tortilla de nopal and a pillowy costra with New York strip steak, El Fogón’s menu offers a sweeping view of the taco’s possibilities. But it’s the sirloin al pastor that is the star.
To be clear, while the trompo-based taco al pastor is beloved across Mexico, it’s not exactly the most common tortilla-based snack in the cattle country that is South Texas and the border region. To see a trompo of stacked pork in these parts is a surprise. To see another made of beef is an even bigger (and better) one.
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Why did they add a beef trompo? “We decided to use something that here on the border people are used to, like the fajitas and carne asada, every day,” Carvajal explains. “They’re used to those meats, but we decided to do a little twist” with the sirloin al pastor.
The resulting taco is one of thin curls of soft beef resting in a light, aromatic corn tortilla made from nixtamal by nearby Tortilleria San Juanita; it’s garnished with nothing more than raw onions and chopped cilantro and kicked up a bit with silky red and green salsas. Made with dozens of ingredients, including jalapeños, habaneros, and dried chiles—but no blenders; everything is done by hand—the salsas masterfully prove that flavor, not Scoville units, is what gives a salsa its edge.
At El Fogón, the tacos are served in taco holders. I was disappointed at first. The contraptions are often used to come off as what I call “muy fancy.” They’re prettier than they are practical. But Carvajal tells me that the decision to use them was based on practicality. The tacos are composed in the V-shaped pockets of the holders, which are then given a brief blast of heat from the oven to keep them warm. “The tacos will be warm from the time they hit the table until you’re done eating them,” Carvajal says. “They won’t get cold for anything.”
It’s quite special to see such a wide array of taco options and learn how much thought and respect is put into each element—even the plating—while keeping respect, family recipes, and tradition front of mind. That doesn’t mean playfulness is prohibited. As Carvajal puts it, “There is this whole new taco world.”