Last year, night after night, Jaime Elizondo and Navin Chatlani stared at each other across the street. Elizondo was working at the second location of his Tejano barbecue joint, Smoke Crafters, a yellow trailer stationed in a McAllen food truck park. Chatlani was running his Mexican seafood restaurant, La Bahia. During the many slow nights, they’d wave to each other.

“We would stand outside looking at each other’s businesses, wondering what the hell was going on,” Elizondo says. “It was a really slow year for a lot of businesses, you know, especially us.” Eventually they mustered the confidence to talk to each other. 

The two Rio Grande Valley natives brainstormed what was and wasn’t working. As the conversations continued, they agreed there was at least one potential path forward: building something new. “We said, ‘If something happens, we’ll do it together,’ ” Chatlani recalls. The friends decided it was time to close their individual endeavors and collaborate.

Their new project is ¡Tacos! Mi Gente, which uses the Smoke Crafters trailer that they relocated to the parking lot of London Grill & Tavern, managed by Chatlani and owned by his parents. The only visible sign of the business is a streetside banner with the taqueria’s name. 

The taqueria has been open mere weeks, but if my recent visit is any indication, ¡Tacos! Mi Gente is already serving some of the best classic pork-beef-chicken tacos in the Valley. 

Chicharron tacos at ¡Tacos! Mi Gente.
Chicharron tacos at ¡Tacos! Mi Gente.Photograph by José R. Ralat

Chatlani and Elizondo worked on recipes for their signature barbacoa and chicharron tacos while operating their other businesses for seven months. They still haven’t given up their day jobs. Chatlani manages London Grill & Tavern, while Elizondo keeps the original Smoke Crafters, in Mission, running.

“We’ve committed to two projects, but because of our faith in our chicharron and barbacoa, we don’t mind working late,” Chatlani says. “Last night we were up until twelve-thirty.” Yet every morning the partners wake up excited to push themselves and their tacos during their service hours, which extend to midnight. “We still have to maintain our regular restaurants and do this, but we have faith in the path.”

They of course bring their experiences from their other restaurants to the taqueria. Elizondo adds a touch of barbecue to the beef cheek barbacoa. He starts by placing the wrapped meat in the Smoke Crafters smoker next to his brisket, but just briefly, for just a trace of smokiness. The finished product glistens under the lights of the parking lot but isn’t too fatty.

Atop beef tallow–dipped nixtamalized corn tortillas, the barbacoa pops with beefiness. Friends and acquaintances told Elizondo and Chatlani they’d be nuts to serve their barbacoa at night. “We heard a lot of warnings about it not selling because it’s typically a morning dish, but it’s our biggest seller,” Elizondo explains. Two out of three orders include barbacoa. It’s also great enough that Chatlani breaks his religious edict as a Hindu not to eat beef.

The chicharrones aren’t the soft, sometimes overly chewy chunks and rings of pork skin in red or green salsa that are served by most taquerias. Instead, the cubed protein is fried, allowed to cool, and fried again. It’s a process similar to cooking Korean fried chicken, and the end result has terrific crunchy strata of soft fat above shredded white meat. The saltiness of the chicharron is balanced by the addition of pickled onions and salsas. 

The carne asada—a menu requirement in beef-loving South Texas—is chopped small but doesn’t suffer from drying out on the flattop griddle. It’s juicy! The tallow-coated tortillas offer an extra meaty boost.

Chatlani and Elizondo know it’s difficult to open a new taqueria in the Rio Grande Valley, much less diverge from the standards beloved by locals, such as tacos estilo Matamoros. “McAllen is starting to get better at that,” Chatlani says. He also believes their location gives them a better chance. ¡Tacos! Mi Gente is parked along a busy street and has a built-in customer base with crossover traffic from London Grill & Tavern and the surrounding shopping centers.

Nevertheless, Chatlani and Elizondo aren’t willing to take a day off. They’ll be the ones customers see Thursday through Saturday nights. “If you come in a month or you come in two months, it’s going to be me on the truck taking orders,” Chatlani says, laughing at the fact that although he is a co-owner, his daily responsibility is that of lead cashier. 

But just as they weren’t in a rush to open ¡Tacos! Mi Gente, the partners aren’t willing to get ahead of themselves. A second location will not be opening anytime soon. If the taqueria is successful enough to warrant a move to a new location, Chatlani and Elizondo will consider it. Sustainability is more important than expansion. In the meantime, they are focused on ¡Tacos! Mi Gente as it is. “We just need to give it our all, and be the best Navin we can be and the best Jaime we can be,” Elizondo says.

¡Tacos! Mi Gente
129 E. Nolana Avenue, McAllen
Phone: 956-246-1008
Hours: Thursday–Saturday 8 p.m.–midnight