El Paso doesn’t get the attention it deserves in Texas. It seems so far away from everything—except New Mexico. And the culinary influences of the Land of Enchantment are blazingly evident in the Sun City’s cuisine, from the use of green chiles to the wide range of burritos. Perhaps more important to the culinary landscape, El Paso is only half of a city—the other half is Cuidad Juárez, on the southern side of the Rio Grande. The original name for Juárez was El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North). Forty years after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the 1848 agreement that annexed Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande to the U.S., El Paso del Norte was rechristened in honor of former president Benito Juárez. El Paso and Juárez are sister cities in the truest sense: the same family will often have members in both cities who visit one another every day. This bifurcation means that El Chuco, as El Paso is affectionately nicknamed, is home to Mexican food and tacos found almost nowhere else. Here is a roundup of notable restaurants and taquerias and other food establishments serving up tacos in El Paso. Let’s kick it off with a couple of places that have a presence in both cities of what is known as the borderplex.
Avila’s Mexican Food
Opened in 1952, Avila’s Mexican Food is where folks go for a taste of old El Paso, pun intended. Its crispy picadillo tacos earned the restaurant a berth in the 2015 feature “120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die.” The interior’s ornate Mexican tile and ironwork are complemented by paintings of pastoral life south of the border. But we’re also fans of the beef-filled fried rolled tacos smothered in the restaurant’s sweet, tomato-based Spanish sauce that’s fused with melted shredded white cheese. Yes, they look like enchiladas, but they eat like flautas. Pick one up and start munching, a tower of napkins within reach—the rolled tacos are messy. avilas.co, 6232 N. Mesa.
On the subject of burritos, Burritos Crisostomo is another Juárez import that has several locations in El Chuco. As is typical in the region, its burritos contain a single filling with an optional slathering of refried beans. The beans help the filling—be it picadillo, barbacoa, puerco asado en salsa roja, or an egg mixture—adhere to the interior of the burrito. Choosing our favorite was hard: we recommend grabbing a burrito of huevos con weenies (soft, misshapen pearls of eggs mixed with salty sliced hot dogs) along with the chile relleno burrito—a breaded and fried chile relleno filled with joyously melted white cheese, the mass enveloped by a light layer of rich refried beans and a slightly sweet flour tortilla. burritocrisostomo.com, multiple locations.
When we paid a visit late last year to this spot in Anthony, just north of El Paso, the line for ordering stretched to the front door. We’re not sure what it’s like during a pandemic. But if people are spacing and wearing masks, what awaits are burrito fillings (see “Burritos” in the Tacopedia) brimming from hotel pans behind glass counters. The colitas de pavo (fried turkey tails) stuffed into a tortilla with sliced red and green chiles, seeds and all, and a cushion of refried beans makes for a pleasantly spicy and salty feast in a plump package. facebook.com/cazaresmeat, 717 S. Main, Anthony, 915-886-3144.
No roundup of notable El Paso taco joints would be complete without a mention of 67-year-old Chico’s Tacos. This mini-empire of flautas ahogadas, rolled tacos swimming in a watery tomato salsa and buried under a blindingly orange cheese (ahogadas is Spanish for drowned) has been lauded by the Texas Legislature and generations of El Pasoans. Some folks love Chico’s flautas ahogadas so much, they’ve had orders mailed to them. facebook.com/pages/Chicos-Tacos, multiple locations, 915-533-0975.
To experience the kind of exciting cuisine found in Mexico City, make a beeline to Emiliano and Kristal Marentes’s Elemi. The two-year-old modernist Mexican spot (see “Modernist Mexican” in the Tacopedia) in El Paso’s downtown is named for Kristal’s term of endearment for her husband, a play on the chef’s first name. Rustically appointed with down-home, welcoming service, Elemi is keeping the culture of heirloom native Mexican corn alive while leaping headlong into the future. The kitchen is overseen by Emiliano (like his wife, a native of El Paso) and centered on non-GMO Mexican corn varietals nixtamalized in-house and sourced from Tamoa, purveyors who also work with Comedor, El Naranjo, and other Mexican restaurants across the state. The resulting tortillas are redolent of the farm fields of Mexico. Their fragrance lingers throughout the meal. Pre-COVID, menu items went beyond tacos, including deep blue quesadillas and vegetarian huaraches. Alas, the pandemic has required Elemi to sharpen its focus on what’s carried them from the start: tacos. The duck al pastor that we raved about previously remains on the menu, as does the campesino, a vegetarian-friendly mix of mushrooms, avocado, eggplant, black beans, and quesillo (what’s called Oaxaca cheese in the U.S.). The campesino competes to be Elemi’s top seller with the suadero, a braised brisket preparation served with tart avocado salsa. The sleepers here, though, are tacos like the chicharrón de pescado, twists of fried fish skin intermingled with grapefruit and given a radiant lime aioli. facebook.com/elemieptx, 313 N. Kansas, 915-532-2090.
Flores Meat Market & Restaurant
This Zaragoza Road store is a catchall of Mexican goodies. In the back is the butcher shop mentioned in the name. In the center of the long building are cazos for carnitas, discos for discada, other kitchen appliances, groceries, and produce. Up front, beyond the registers, is the reason Texas Monthly jumps at the chance to visit Flores Meat Market: the diner dishing out mini tacos of a guisada of fried turkey tails (see “Guisados” in the Tacopedia), the colitas de pavo, crunchy, fatty, and greasy on in-house tortillas. 1781 N. Zaragoza Road, 915-857-6666.
H&H Car Wash & Coffee Shop
Second-generation owner Maynard Haddad is a curmudgeon whose business is an El Paso icon. Part car wash, part Formica-tabletop diner, H&H is one of the few spots in El Paso that serves breakfast tacos. We’re fond of the potatoes and eggs. 701 E. Yandell Drive, 915-533-1144.
While this El Paso staple has several locations, the must-visit outpost is the one with the King’s X bar in the back, accessible via the rear of the dining room. The conjoined businesses are next door to El Cometa, mentioned above. It’s at Lucy’s Restaurant, open since the late seventies, that we find a wonderful taco dorado (see “Tacos Dorados” in the Tacopedia): the Tacos Antonia special (a.k.a. Tacos Toni). Named for founder Lucy Lepe’s sister, the freshly fried crispy tacos are given several shakes of Lawry’s seasoning once cooked and are filled with machaca (reconstituted northern Mexican–style salted dried beef) and topped with cabbage, diced tomatoes, chopped avocado, and shredded Muenster cheese. The Muenster is a telltale sign you’re in El Paso—it’s used in place of pricier but similarly textured Mexican cheeses. lucysrestaurants.com, 4119 N. Mesa, 915-544-3922.
A newer modernist Mexican taqueria, located near Elemi, Taconeta is also owned by natives of El Chuco. Business partners Alejandro Borunda and Daniel Fox had been planning on opening their nixtamalized Mexican corn–focused spot long before the pandemic. They weren’t about to let COVID-19 stop them, either. Luckily, they had a taco window installed already. “Our taco window came out to be a great blessing,” Borunda says. From the street-facing window, customers can request classic tacos such as suadero topped with nutty oil-based and usually fiery salsa macha; a cochinita pibil–like taco mellowed out by avocado and cotija cheese; and a Baja-style fish on blue corn tortillas sourced from Tamoa. The building is beautiful too: white with a multicolored tile patio floor and modern industrial materials such as metal and glass alongside exposed brick. The beaded curtain depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe increases the charm. facebook.com/pages/category/Restaurant/Taconeta, 311 Montana Avenue, A-1, 915-303-8038.
On a commercial strip of Zaragoza Road, Taco Shop serves up creative renditions of taco standards, especially local favorites like sugary jackfruit-filled flautas ahogadas. Vegetarians and vegans might also find the brussels sprouts tacos and the sweet potato–grilled polenta tacos topped with kale and pepitas appealing. But there are plenty of other exciting options. Fans of birria de res won’t be disappointed, and bone marrow tacos have made a recent appearance. The purists aren’t forgotten, either. There are plenty of lengua, carne asada, discada, and other traditional fillings available. awfoodservice.com, 1920 N. Zaragoza Road, Suite 114, 915-800-1011.
Paying homage to the aforementioned legend of Chico’s Tacos and becoming a master in his own right, Tacoholics owner Jessie Peña serves flautas ahogadas (see “Tacos Dorados” in the Tacopedia) that are the best in El Paso. The key is a salsa verde and a couple different cheeses (queso fresco and asadero). But there’s more to Tacoholics than rolled tacos. Korean bulgogi beef tacos and the taco estilo Matamoros, an homage to Peña’s wife, a native of the Rio Grande Valley, are also popular. tacoholics.com, 1613 N. Zaragoza Road, Suite 201, 915-929-2592.
Taqueria El Cometa
Originally established in Juárez, this small local chain is home to a different kind of burrito (see “Burrito” in the Tacopedia). El Cometa’s burrita—an alternative name for the taco style—is folded, not rolled. Within the thin, pliable, and unusually soft flour tortilla are curlicues of chopped carne asada and white cheese. It’s a delightful alternative to the burritos that dominate the area. It’s also best enjoyed by slicing it in two and eating one half at a time. facebook.com/taqueria.elcometa, 4131 N. Mesa, 915-275-4215.