The Dallas enclave of Oak Cliff is renowned for its taquerias. Taco shops—be they sit-down places or walk-up joints—dot the roads of the quickly gentrifying Mexican American and Black Dallas neighborhood. Robert Rodriguez’s two-month-old Tacos y Chelas sits next to a wine bar in the redeveloped Bishop Arts District. “Everything is so different,” says the 37-year-old Rodriguez, who grew up in the area. The taqueria—owned by Rodriguez; his wife, Gracie; his brother Nicholas; and Nicholas’s wife, Olga Ortiz—is the latest business to take over a space on Davis Street. It’s a short walk from the heart of the touristy area, which is slowly replacing craftsman homes with indistinguishable multiuse apartment complexes held up by boutiques too expensive for many residents. But Tacos y Chelas offers a counterpoint to the the many pricey restaurants surrounding it, with classic and straightforward tacos, soups, and drinks. The new taqueria is promising, if still improving.
On my initial visit, the tortillas were so greasy, they were difficult to hold. “Los mexicanos like them greasy,” chef Edna Reese, a native of Guadalajara, told me. However, the fillings made up for their wrappers. My favorite was the taco de chicharrón en salsa verde. The stewed pork skins retained a firmness, so they weren’t rubbery or slimy. The salsa coating was light, herbal, and slightly sweet, although I would have enjoyed more of it.
When I entered the taqueria for a follow-up visit, Reese admitted to adjusting the too-greasy tortillas for me. “I remember what you said,” she said. “I know what you like.” The barbacoa nestled in them was in a tight bramble, augmented by glimmering marbles of savory fat, and had a wonderful beefy flavor. It was even better with a squiggle of tart salsa verde. The fajita was a no-nonsense taco of carne asada that thankfully lacked the all-too-common gritty bits of beef that often sully this type of taco.
Less stellar were the shrimp tacos, bursting with curlicues of the crustaceans, creamy coleslaw, and mild chipotle mayonnaise. They weren’t only too messy (the ingredients got on everything from my beard and my shirt to the table and my photo equipment)—the flavors were, unfortunately, a melee. The vegan taco was commendable, but it left me wanting more. Ortiz told me that taco changes depending on what Reese has on hand and what inspires her. On my second visit, the vegan taco was filled with sautéed spinach, onions, and yellow rice. It was a fine homestyle taco, but I wanted something more than what I could make at home.
The tacos al pastor were much better. The mildly seasoned sliced pork was a pleasant change from the cakelike, astringent pastor that dominates the market. Such a restrained, knowledgeable hand in the kitchen was yet another sign of the promise of Tacos y Chelas.
Meanwhile, the birria plate—a customer favorite, according to Rodriguez—was served with three consommé-dipped tortillas filled with spicy shredded beef and stretchy mozzarella. The beef was replete with cinnamon, chile, and clove. It created a comforting scent, one that is lacking from many cheesy birria tacos. The pleasant attributes continued in the bowl of consommé, cloudy but not too oily, for further dipping. It would be a welcome treat on a chilly winter day—not that we’ve had a lot of those this season.
Regardless of the weather, a serving of atole, a hot beverage made with spiced corn masa, ignited a joyful furnace in my chest. It was sweet without eliciting a grimace and refreshing as it cooled throughout the meal. The agua fresca de sandía was made from real watermelon, with seeds tumbling and bobbing in the sugary pink drink.
The Rodriguez brothers, both of whom worked in construction, have changed the once drab and dark space—previously occupied by a different taqueria, an Italian restaurant, and a pan-Mediterranean joint—into a light-filled room. The cream-colored walls are decorated with hand-painted nopales and agaves by artists Denise Davila and Ferrarizzz. A narrow section of wall near the bar seating is covered in faux ivy and strung with white Christmas lights. The patches over sections of the wall that once held sconces are visible. They add a rustic, lived-in feel the most comfortable taquerias often have. The work shows how the Rodriguezes do things at Tacos y Chelas: fresh and by hand.
“I told my wife, ‘I know if we open up a restaurant, I know it’s going to be good because I know what food is coming out of the kitchen,’ ” Rodriguez said. “If it’s not good, we don’t send it out.” All four owners had some prior experience working in service and hospitality: the brothers spent time in their youth busing tables, working as servers, and cooking in mom-and-pop shops and fast-food chains, and Ortiz and Gracie also worked in restaurants as teenagers. Although, Rodriguez mentions, industry experience isn’t enough to run a good taqueria. It takes knowledge of sales and marketing, including knowledge of point-of-sale systems (modern cash registers), which Rodriguez said he learned during a stint at AutoZone. And while Tacos y Chelas isn’t excellent just yet, “it’s getting there,” Rodriguez said. I agree.