The concept of sobremesa is dear to me. Originally from Spain, the practice is enjoyed across Latin America, including in Mexico. Its details are simple: after a meal, diners do not leave the table. Instead, they linger in conversation, perhaps with coffee or liqueur. It’s a valuable time for me and the people with whom I share tacos to discuss the meal and the day’s work, and just hang out. It’s a conversational digestif occasionally paired with an actual digestif. But sobremesa is impossible at Tacos El Andaluz in McAllen. 

Opened in May 2023 by Mexico City native Juan Carlos Medina, the restaurant is always buzzing with customers, as a friend and I noticed during a recent dinner visit.

The suadero, the first taco we ordered, was sold out. The crowded dining room should’ve been a clue that popular dishes would be unavailable. So we went for the gaonera, a ribeye taco garnished with ringlets of sweet caramelized onions; the darkly spiced and chunky al pastor taco; and the herbaceous, silky barbacoa de lengua taco. All were served on nixtamalized corn tortillas from El Molino Maíz, outside McAllen. Each taco was evocative of Mexico City, especially the gaonera, a prime beef specialty of the capital. 

The legend goes that the gaonera taco was invented by the founder of Taqueria El Califa de León, on Avenida Ribera de San Cosme in Mexico City. Juan Hernández González created it in honor of bullfighter Rodolfo Gaona. The taco’s preparation was simple: a good cut of steak, such as filet mignon or ribeye, pounded thinly, seasoned with salt and lemon, and cooked on an open grill. Its garnish is equally simple: a salsa verde cruda blended from raw ingredients. Perhaps caramelized onions and French fries are added. Most important, it must be served on a fresh tortilla. Because the gaonera taco is so simple, it can’t conceal any flaws. The one at Tacos El Andaluz has no flaws to be hidden. 

Part of the taqueria’s menu pays homage to the food Medina grew up with and to his father, an immigrant to Mexico from the Andalusia region of Spain. “He is the Andaluz,” Medina says emphatically about the name of the restaurant.

A small serving of patatas bravas came with each taco. The creamy, pimenton-laced steak potatoes are a signature side dish of Spain. A stand of covered metal bowls also came to the table, each filled with a garnish like chopped cilantro, chopped white onion, lime wedges, and a pineapple pico de gallo with a surprising kick of spice.

There are other dishes reflecting Medina’s ancestry: chistorra con queso, whole links of Spanish chorizo in melted cheese, is an Iberian specialty. But those are few. The emphasis is on Mexico, specifically Mexico City, at Tacos El Andaluz.

Tacos El Andaluz owner Juan Carlos Medina.
Tacos El Andaluz owner Juan Carlos Medina. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Cochinita pibil tacos at Tacos El Andaluz.
Cochinita pibil tacos at Tacos El Andaluz. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Left: Tacos El Andaluz owner Juan Carlos Medina. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Top: Cochinita pibil tacos at Tacos El Andaluz. Photograph by José R. Ralat

Looking at the crowded tables during our initial visit, I noticed there wasn’t a flour tortilla in sight. That is unusual for the Rio Grande Valley, where the default is the flour tortilla. My dining companion and I weren’t even asked if we wanted our tacos on corn or flour, as is common in Texas. Medina said that is deliberate. However, he hesitantly admits to occasionally giving in to a request for a flour tortilla. “We have them if someone insists on flour tortillas,” he says. There aren’t many in stock, though. “People try the tacos, and that’s the end of the flour tortillas,” Medina says. 

That’s not to say there aren’t any nods to Tacos El Andaluz’s location. We also ordered a side of a carne asada–loaded papa asada. Loaded baked potatoes are a culinary staple of the border and northern Mexico. The one at Tacos El Andaluz doesn’t skimp on the potato or the toppings. The interior of the tuber was fluffy and buttery, the beef was tender and juicy, and the potato’s skin was thin and finely textured. Between the potato and the meat was a trampoline of melted cheddar.

The side dish was a welcome relief from the increasingly popular presentation of mashed potatoes piped into a crimped aluminum square with subpar toppings. Of course, carne asada is popular across Mexico and in borderland regions like the Rio Grande Valley and the northern metropolis of Monterrey, where Medina attended university and lived for years. However, the carne asada tacos at the restaurant are inspired by those served at Tacos El Francés in Tijuana. “They’re the best tacos in Mexico,” Medina declares.

Still, he loves the tacos of the Rio Grande Valley, which he’s called home for more than twenty years, many of which he spent working as a schoolteacher. Medina had long considered opening a restaurant in the area, just as his father wanted to do in Mexico City but never did. “Hey, man, what about tacos?” was a question Medina heard a lot.

Then, in September 2022, Yelp released its Top 100 Taco Spots in America list. Not one taqueria, restaurant, or truck from the RGV appeared on the list. “How could that be?” Medina recalls thinking. “That’s when I decided on tacos!” The tacos would be reflective of Mexico City, though, and the salsas had to go beyond the standard red and green, he insisted. The salsa chipotle balances its inherent smokiness with a fruity flavor, while the salsa habanero is more fruit-forward than scalding spice. The creamy green salsa is prickly, and the charcoal-grilled salsa verde is acidic and also a touch smoky. 

As my friend and I sat, I perused the dining room once more. I wanted to continue our practice of sobremesa, but the tables were being taken up as quickly as they were made available. A short line formed inside the front door. A gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard, a red bandanna, and a dark apron rushed to our table. (I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Medina.) He asked if we enjoyed everything. I took it as a hint that our time was up. I asked for the check and made way for other customers. We left determined to return the next day for the suadero.

When we did return after the next day’s lunch rush, only a few other tables had customers seated. The suadero tacos were nearly dry. I expected more from a taqueria advertising itself as foundationally chilango (the name for a person or thing of or from Mexico City). Medina came out of the kitchen to talk to us and eventually asked if we had ordered the cochinita pibil, a Yucatán specialty of annatto–and–sour orange–marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves and traditionally cooked underground. (It’s a cousin of barbacoa.) Medina insisted we try it, so I paid at the counter and waited patiently. 

The plated tacos were appropriately orangish in hue, with a healthy amount of salsa. They were accompanied by spicy pickled red onions and salsa habanero, typical garnishes for cochinita pibil. The tacos were stunning, balancing plenty of acid with sweet and mouth-puckering notes. I was momentarily speechless. Then I laughed with glee. Cochinita pibil is rare in the Rio Grande Valley. Great cochinita pibil is even rarer. On its cochinita pibil alone, Tacos El Andaluz is already among the best new taquerias in not only McAllen but the Rio Grande Valley. Just don’t spend too much time lingering during sobremesa. 

Tacos El Andaluz
1300 W. Trenton Road, Suite 340, McAllen
Phone: 956-658-9049
Hours: Sunday 9–9, Monday–Thursday 11–3 and 4–10, Friday–Saturday 11–10