Taquero Benjamin Mondragon doesn’t fuss about whether he and his wife, Cynthia Perez, will have enough capital for their next project. He just gets started on the idea. “It will come,” Mondragon says of the money.
So went the process of opening Tacos al Carbón Cabrón, their five-month-old taqueria on San Pedro Avenue in San Antonio, between the Olmos Park neighborhood and Loop 410.
At first, they borrowed $15,000 to rent a long, narrow space for their restaurant. To save a bit of money on the red-and-white decor, the couple and their young children painted the walls. David Elder, host of the popular KSAT TV show Texas Eats, visited on the second day the spot was open, and posted a video about it on TikTok. By the end of the week, the couple had garnered sufficient business to pay off their loan. Next, they focused on adding more space.
They acquired the space next door, despite not having “even one cent,” Mondragon says. Perez wasn’t keen on the idea. “I was like, ‘We don’t have anything else. How are you going to pay for it?’ And he’s like, ‘We’ll make it work. We’ll make it work.’ ” They tore down the wall separating the two spaces, painted a mural featuring the restaurant’s name, and adorned the red tables with empty Jarritos bottles holding fake flowers. Tacos al Carbón Cabrón had taken its final form.
Perhaps Mondragon was so confident from the get-go because he knew they had the qualifications to make the restaurant work. He and Perez both have business degrees from the University of the Incarnate Word, as well as experience in culinary school. The duo has owned the catering food truck Mr. Meximum since 2011. Plus, their families gave them plenty of inspiration.
Perez’s father fired up the grill every weekend for carne asadas, festive occasions celebrated across northern Mexico, from Matamoros to Tijuana. “My father-in-law has been grilling for fifty, sixty years,” Mondragon adds. “I learned a lot from him.”
Mondragon’s father owned a ranch in the state of Hidalgo, and it was there he learned about mesquite-fired cabrito al pastor and in-ground barbacoa. “My father was more about classic Mexican flavors,” Mondragon says. He also spent time in the state of Baja California, and it was a major influence on the specialty dishes at Tacos al Carbón Cabrón.
In a black trailer in front of the restaurant, Mondragon and his staff grill top sirloin, chicken thighs, and pork for tacos, crispy vampiros, quesadilla-like mulitas, and loaded papas asadas. My favorite was the chiles cabrones. In the dish, a crispy cheese costra connects two grilled green chiles that are stuffed with cheese and meat. The whole thing is drowned in a mouth-puckering, norteña-style salsa negra, composed of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi seasoning, spices, and chiles. It’s black gold that opens your palate and demands you eat more after every taste.
Serving unique items like this helps Mondragon and Perez live up to the taqueria’s name: a cabrón, to translate the word in genteel terms, is a badass.
While mini tacos, like the ones served at Tacos Vitali, are popular in San Antonio, Tacos al Carbón Cabrón sticks to larger, Tijuana-style tacos. And the restaurant doesn’t charge for toppings like a lot of other local taquerias do. “There’s no extra, extra, extra, extra,” Perez says. Hand-painted signage on the wall explains that when you ask for a taco “con todo,” you’ll get everything, including guacamole.
A covered salsa station reminds diners there is more to taco condiments than “verde o roja” and “pica o no pica.” There are many varieties to try, and on my visit, I was in awe of the chunky red jalapeño-based salsa molcajeteada and the pickled habaneros with sliced onions. But those options are subject to change. “If I can’t get the ingredients for a certain salsa, I make something else,” Mondragon says.
Working alongside the couple’s culinary talent is their keen business sense. They hired an artist to paint an exterior wall with an image of the newest San Antonio Spur, first draft pick Victor “Wemby” Wembanyama, in the hopes of attracting the young player to the restaurant. The ploy worked: Wemby showed up in September, ate tacos, and posed for photos. The publicity brought Tacos al Carbón Cabrón instant attention. Perez even made an appearance on KENS5 to prepare the carne asada tacos the basketball player ordered. The exposure gave Tacos al Carbón Cabrón a bump, but as any restaurateur will tell you, businesses are sustained by regulars.
Turning visitors into regulars is difficult, especially in the crowded taco market of San Antonio. Not everyone can make an indelible, immediate impact on the taqueria landscape, and grassroots advertisements and gimmicks only go so far. So Tacos al Carbón Cabrón is investing in social media by partnering with local influencers.
“We believe that social media is a huge tool today and that could be a starting point in helping us achieve that goal,” Perez says. But it can also be a finicky model: even high-profile accounts that are paid for exposure eventually move on.
That’s part of the nature of operating a mom-and-pop restaurant. Even if you have experience, like Mondragon and Perez do, success isn’t guaranteed. Businesses must explore every possible revenue stream and investment. Sometimes it works. I hope that’s the case for Tacos al Carbón Cabrón. The taqueria isn’t just badass in name—it’s badass in quality.