The Rio Grande Valley
Taco consciousness in The Rio Grande Valley is nearly equal to San Antonio’s. So rife with taco fans is the region that one hopeful soul tried to market his spit-roasted gyros as Gyro’s Greek Tacos (didn’t work—he’s out of business). On weekends, from roadside stands to urban Mexican spots, everyone breaks out the barbacoa—pit-cooked cow’s head—with tacos of brains and tongue to go along. So enmeshed are tacos in the fabric of Valley life that a Brownsville drive-through called Jerry’s advertises “Videos, Taquitos and Pizza” along with car washes and beer. They’re addictive taquitos too: savory, spit-cooked pork, marinated with a surprise hit of pineapple and tucked into small corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and salsa. At 49 cents each, Jerry’s taquitos are inspired fast food (1235 Central, 542-1521).
The Valley is a bubbling crucible for change in Texas taco culture. At a franchise-looking spot such as Taquito Hut in Weslaco, you’ll see traditional stuff like the plainest, tenderest tongue alongside mondernisms like hand-rolled flour tortillas and hybrids like tacos of beef brisket bathed in Texas barbecue sauce (211 W. Highway 83, 969-3539). At Armando’s Taco Hutt in Pharr (which without the slightest justification bills itself as the “Taco Capital of the Valley”), you’ll encounter a latter-day quesadilla that bears an eerie resemblance to the grilled-cheese sandwiches of your childhood, just good old orange cheese inside a griddle-cooked flour tortilla the size of an LP (106 N. Cage, 781-1091). Weirdest of all to an outsider is the peanut-butter-and-jelly taco on a flour tortilla sold at El Pato Mexican Food to Go, the Valley’s homegrown mini-chain with locations in six towns. El Pato reminds me of San Antonio’s Taco Cabana: it’s an institution that occupies a similar role in local life (if El Pato stopped making its potato-and-egg breakfast tacos, the whole Valley would probably grind to a halt), and like Taco Cabana’s, its food is adequate without speaking the mysterious, gratifying language of home cooking. After grazing among the flour-tortilla “patos” at the Harlingen and McAllen branches, the Chihuahua-cheese-with-chorizo combination was the only one that roused my enthusiasm.
Directly across the street from the Harlingen El Pato is an upscale place where home cooking is spoken, however. With its strips of grilled rare beef, the taco al carbón at Mamacita’s Mexican Cuisine would do Texas al carbón goddess Ninfa Laurenzo proud. Tillie Alvarez, the owner, makes creditable tacos de carne guisada and mean Mexican break pudding (capirotada) too (521 S. 77 Sunshine Strip, 421-2561).
My favorite concentration of Valley tacos resides down the pike in Brownsville, though. Morning would find me at Maria’s Better Mexican Food, a homey place where half the area’s border patrolmen hang out, talking bilingual shop and feasting on Maria’s carefully made breakfasts of angelically light chorizo-and-egg gorditas and homemade-flour-tortilla tacos with delicious egg fillings, each big enough for a whole Border Patrol station (1124 Central, 542-9819). After a decent interval, I’d repair to comfortable Los Camperos Char Chicken, where smoky-to-the-bone charbroiled chicken comes with a stack of corn tortillas and searing green-and-red salsa for make-your-own tacos. Two people can also taco-ize the pollo pibil that swims in a tart broth loaded with cilantro fronds, red chile pods, and slices of potato and tomato (1440 International, 546-8172). After another decent interval, it would be time for a snack at Taco Cabaña, a minuscule kitchen where two solicitous ladies dish out three-for-a-dollar, munchkin-size taquitos, everything—well-browned carne asada, cilantro, onion—minced to the same tiny scale. To go along, there’s salsa picante (a mild, brothy tomato sauce) and a relish of pickled, oregano-scented chicharrón—a refreshing surprise (1823 Southmost, 541-4324).
Over in McAllen I’d start my taco day with one of the straightforward, well-made breakfast tacos at the Hi-Way Inn Restaurant, where they also do a tasty understated taco de carne guisada. Weekend barbacoa is moist but texturally varied, with those all-important crusty bits mixed in (2017 W. Highway 83, 687-5945). For a definitive egg-bacon-cheese taco topped by a heart-stopping green salsa, I’d part with 80 cents at Don-Ramon’s Mexican Food, a downtown hole-in-the-wall (1216 Beaumont, 686-9962). By lunchtime I would be ready for Maria’s Restaurant, an incredibly cheap downtown lonchería, where the carnitas de puerco tacos are nasty in the best sense of the word, and you can build your own tacos out of worthy plate lunches like tongue in salsa ranchera (1609 Chicago, 686-9644). At nightfall I’d head to the considerably more uptown La Casa del Taco, where its Mexican national owner puts out one of the state’s most distinguished make-your-own taco platters. Dubbed the Sombrero, it arrives under a hat of top-quality handmade corn and four tortillas; underneath is a mixture of judiciously grilled biftec and fajitas spiced with Canadian bacon, suave melted white cheese, devastating grilled onions, frijoles a la charra, and—if you ask for them—serrano peppers instead of the usual tamer bells. At $4.75, Huerta’s Sombrero is some buy (1100 Houston, 631-8193).
What a difference eighty miles makes: the Capital City’s taco repertoire is neither as expansive nor as provocative as San Antonio’s. In eatery after eatery you find the same offerings—“Austin’s short list,” as I have come to think of it. Always most prominent are the breakfast items, the particular taco form on which Austinites dote (some restaurants have taken to advertising “breakfast all day,” while a few invite you to “build your own breakfast taco”).
The best breakfast tacos in town can be had at Las Manitas, a high-ceilinged downtown lunch counter where Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers look-alikes, frazzled construction workers, and buttoned-up bankers chow down together, and short order is superb. Fine flour tortillas come wrapped around scrambled eggs so fresh they’re positively pearly; try them with awesome, garlicky refried beans or a slice of crisp bacon or browned cubes of potato (just add salt, pepper, and a dash of high-octane salsa to that one). You can’t go wrong with the fresh orange juice, the endlessly replenished coffee (very important, that), or the cinnamon-scented Mexican hot chocolate. Sole taco caveat: too salty chorizo-and-egg (211 Congress, 472-9357).
Mark White eats at the bare-bones family-run taquería called Seis Salsas, and so should you. The hospitable Montemayors, from Mexico City via Piedras Negras, make their own tortillas by hand and offer a drop-dead bar of salsas in many colors. There are six salsas, of course: snappy tomatillo, explosive red chile árbol, no-fooling-around serrano, and sultry and smoky chipotle, plus your basic pico de gallo and ranchera. All are good news for the Montemayors’ judiciously seasoned potato-and-egg taco, the chunky guacamole, the gentle guisada, or the excellent chorizo with whole pintos, an off-menu variant that the owners like (2414 S. First, 445-5050).
In the All-time Great Lunch category, check out the chicken tacos on semi-puffed, barely creased corn tortillas at Amaya’s Taco Village, a long, spare, immaculate place in far East Austin. Everything about these tacos works, especially in tandem with a very cold beer in an iced-down glass (4821 E. Seventh, 385-7534). An Austin breakfast landmark ought to be the El Jorge Special taco at the felicitously named Don Juan’s and Only Taco Palace, a funky red-vinyled barrio spot. Egg, potato, chopped bacon (not sliced, a signal difference), and finely shredded cheese that melts up satisfyingly, all on a good, thin flour tortilla—Jorge should be proud (2300 E. First, 472-3872). I’m also crazy about the picadillo-and-potato taco at the charming Mexico Típico Restaurante, admiring of their plump, carefully wrought egg-potato-and-bacon taco, and nuts about their frothy fruit licuados, particularly the banana (1707 E. Sixth, 472-3222).
On the all-important take-out front, the upscale pint-size Inocente’s Cafe on the east side features a drive-through window and worthy barbacoa tacos, enticingly smoky, black-peppery tacos de chicharrón, and perfectly serviceable guisada, fajitas, or chorizo-and-potato (2337 E. First, 479-0218). More soulful by half again is Dos Hermanos Tortillería, with a frumpy outdoor produce stand and zesty tacos to go. Chicken fajitas here couldn’t be better, with grilled onions, peppers, and laid-back marinade; picadillo is the real, down-home thing, and the guisada is no slouch. Only beware of the oversalted, overshredded gallina taco (2730 E. First, 474-9655). The time-honored, workhorse take-out tacos from Austin’s Tamale House rate a nod; their unique character comes from onions and pickled jalapeños rather than from salsa. This is the place to sample that Austin standby, the “regular flour taco”—picadillo and beans, basically; order the guacamole version and you’ll get avocado, lettuce, and tomato too. Also reliable: the guisada or the warmed-over (but still decent) potato-and-egg (2825 Guadalupe, 472-0487).
Tacos aren’t a big deal in El Paso proper. Chile rellenos, burritos—now those are big deals, which is only fitting given El Paso’s New Mexican orientation. Likely as not, the tacos you order in an El Paso restaurant (be it humble or not-so) will turn out to be of the humdrum, hard-shell Tex-Mex variety. Breakfast tacos? Such newfangled notions have yet to take hold in this strongly traditional, relatively isolated city. For the liveliest tacos one must venture to the other side of town—across the Rio Grande to Juárez, that is. There norteño-style grilled-meat tacos are served far, far into the night, along with a constellation of taco accoutrements: green sauce, salsa cruda, steaming stacks of corn and flour tortillas, sundry chiles, lime wedges, grilled green onions (cebollitas to the locals), and the nearly obligatory side dish of molten white cheese, queso fundido.
Chihuahua Charlie’s, a festive place in the ProNaF that appears deceptively tourist-trappy, does a prime version of the norteño-style spread known as the taco tray. Ensconced on a Carta Blanca platter, it is taco-doctoring heaven—small bowls of shredded pork, chicken, and beef, moist inside and crusted on the outside, multitudinous condiments, plus that vital supply of small, handmade tortillas hot off the open-to-view comal. Try the pork with chunky guacamole, a squeeze of lime, and a lightening bolt of salsa cruda; fix up those thin shards of beef with a fat, smoky chipotle chile and maybe a flour tortilla; douse the chicken with smooth, sassy green sauce. Refritos, chopped onions, and jalapeños further gild your lilies. At about $3.50 U.S., the taco tray is an astonishing bargain. A final indulgence: a side order of queso carioca, a slab of white cheese discreetly breaded, fried until warm and subtly spongy, then showered with a whole meadowful of cilantro, some crunchy onion, and a lake of green sauce. Yum-ola, as one serious El Paso eater says eloquently (2525 Avenida 16 de Septiembre, 011-52161-3-9940).
A far less slick Juárez purveyor of grilled-meat tacos is El Abajeño, an old-timey, sobersided place with good, basic queso fundido (called queso abajeño here), rough guacamole, and meats that are hacked small and thoroughly griddled—they’re not succulent, but they’re tasty. Good bets are the carne adobada, tiny crusty pieces of pork spiked with red chile and spicy chorizo; pork tenderloin; charcoaly steak revved up with chorizo or bacon; and the excellent chile relleno tacos, really poblano rajas meshed in pully white cheese. This is the place where you can practice your cebollita-eating technique: bite down over the bulb, squeeze the stalk, and pull. More fun than crawfish, huh? (2349 Escobar, 011-52161-3-9940).
For your essential Juárez street-taco experience, duck into El Taquito Mexicano, an open-front cubicle on Avenida Colón just south of the famous Kentucky Club bar. One guy slices pork off a vertical mesquite-fired spit while another slaps a jot onto a tiny corn tortilla and hands you four of them wrapped in a napkin for 50 cents. Put some dangerous red-flecked green salsa and some tart marinated onions in plastic cups, and either join the young bloods snacking outside on the sidewalk or tote your taquitos into the Kentucky to nosh on with margaritas. Okay, okay—pick out the morsels of fat if you must.
Back across the bridge, in tamer El Paso territory, the mesquite-roasted, marinated-pork tacos al pastor are worth sampling at the lushly bemuraled El Cerezo. So are the chicken tacos, which boast the welcome texture of roasted rather than damp-boiled fowl. Avoid the salty, congealing queso fundido; it features Chihuahuan cheese, but it needs work (610 N. Mesa, 542-1745).
Don’t leave town without visiting any one of four Lucy’s Restaurants for a machaca burro—an honorary taco in my book, its overgrown format notwithstanding. Full of dryish, shredded beef and sautéed onion barely bound by egg and sealed up with chile con queso, this is good chow.
I confess that I held out few hopes for tacos in Dallas, a town that’s swell for expensive food and terrible for cheap food. Surely goat cheese and sun-dried anchos were the order of the day, I sniggered from afar. But I reckoned without the vital Hispanic working-class population in Oak Cliff and east and west Dallas, where plenty of just-folks fuel up at taqueriás so funky they’d steam the wrinkles right out of the linen-clad Apparel Mart set. Take the daily taco lineup at the Imperial Tortillería alongside Love Field: robust adobadas of pork or beef laden with vivid red chile shards; spicy, practically greaseless chorizo-and-potato bound with a smidgen of egg; chicharrón in a salsa verde so pugnacious it could drive the roof of your mouth straight into your cranium. Even the picadillo-with-potato and the refried beans have what it takes. Good sign: everyone from airline pilots to employees of the nearby Chevy dealership feel proprietary about the place (8116 Denton, 352-4881).
Grocery stores are another prime Dallas taco source. Witness Jerry’s Supermarket in Oak Cliff, where an obliging señorita favors vacillating gringos with samples of barbecued beef, tomato-laced chicken, or green-chiled milanesa. Jerry’s is where I finally met my taco Waterloo: chutzpah failed me in the face of pigs’ snouts and ears (trompas y orejas), which resemble bizarro fatty squids (532 W. Jefferson, 941-8110).
The nabes also harbor no-nonsense workingmen’s joints like Taquería Pedrito’s three branches, the Oak Cliff outpost of which features a winning Grandma Mosesesque mural and an impressive taco steam table that the young black South Carolinian in front of me described as down-home cooking. The asado de puerco, chopped and garnished in Mexico City style by the friendly counterman, is a good choice; tongue and brains, while adequate, are less soulful than they appear to be. The taquería’s Mexico City bias means tacos come in double-deck corn tortillas, a redundancy that has more to do with function than with taste (321 E. Jefferson, 941-1864). At the Taqueria Pinocho in east Dallas (one of two locations) the spare, tatty surroundings are, amazingly enough, mitigated by get-down carnitas with a dynamite salsa, tongue that benefits mightily from the same salsa, and scrambled huevos rancheros that are better than they have any right to be. The steam-table vats bubble with whole chilies, and the taco format is again Mexico City style — cilantro, onion, and double corn tortillas (118 S. Carrol, 823-4272).
At the opposite end of the scale is pretty-pink Chiquita, where polite Dallas dines on Texas’ most elegant tacos: rajas con crema of earthly poblanos, delicate diced zucchini, a whisper of onion, white cheese, and cream. You feel pampered by this graceful combination, since it’s whisked neatly into a flour tortilla by the waiter. Also conducive to self-satisfaction are the tiny, pan-fried taquitos (pipos)—neither too crisp nor too soft—swaddling a whole grill shrimp with its tail sticking out. Chiquita makes the Dallas establishment’s tacos al carbón of choice, smoky and tender but with an unsettling braised texture (3810 Congress, 521-0721). Instead, I’d opt for the feistier tacos al carbón at El Tío Lupe, where the pico de gallo is mixed right in, the guacamole sparkles with lime, the sopaipillas are flaky, and the collection of Mexican-restaurant-décor icons is even flakier (4307 Bryan, 824-4787).
Dallas isn’t enamored of breakfast tacos (“because they don’t come in taupe and mauve,” snipes resident food pundit George Toomer); perhaps that’s because Dallasites haven’t made their own out of the macho machacado—scrambled eggs, mucho dried shredded beef, tomatoes, onions, and green chile—at La Cocina Alegre, a cozy Oak Cliff luncheonette (1001 W. Jefferson, 946-0151). Or maybe Dallas taco-eaters have been burned at Gonzalez, a popular drive-through where the breakfast tacos (called burritos here) are sabotaged by flour tortillas that resemble bready pancakes. That would be a pity, since Gonzalez’s carne guisada and hotter guiso mexicano are sterling stuff. Gonzalez does a very Dallas thing by allowing you to drive through and pay for your tacos with American Express (4333 Maple, 528-2960). Border Stop, a fast-food fajita place, does Gonzalez one better with two drive-through lanes at which credit cards are legal tender. Don’t laugh. The breakfast taco of migas and fajitas, which I tried as a joke, turned out to be a fetching amalgam of well-seasoned eggs, soft-fried tortillas, good beef, crunchy grilled onions, and chile con queso. And the fresh-tasting chicken fajita taco with guacamole convinced me that if this is the fast food of the eighties, all is not lost (3923 Lemmon, 522-3770).
The taco scene is bigger, more specifically urban, and—dare I say it?—a tad more interesting in Houston than in Dallas. A few generalities apply: breakfast tacos haven’t taken the town by storm, everyone is preoccupied with fajitas, and an underground gringo tradition of late-night taquería slumming persists. In the broad light of day, several taco standbys have withstood the test of time. Let’s be honest — Ninfa’s tacos al carbón, catalysts for the Texas al carbon craze, have worn awfully well, and its make-your-own tacos of carnitas, green tomatillo salsa, avocado, onion, and sour cream are a polished example of the breed. Merida, just down from Ninfa’s original east-side barrio location, goes right on producing the same tender, savory tacos de cochinita pibil—Yucatecan-marinated pork sheathed in handmade tortillas that resemble flat corn cakes, with snappy pickled onions as a final flourish (2509 Navigation, 227-0260). And the east-side version of Doneraki Restaurant, the late-night Mexican eatery owned by Greeks (in Houston, that makes a kind of cockeyed sense), still turns out the same revelatory tacos de tripitas, plus particularly good tacos al carbon especiales of either beef or pork, and a molcajete full of guacamole fixings that are a taco doctor’s dream. But avoid Doneraki’s tacos al carbón del trompo, ultramarinated and grilled to a frazzle; ditto the goat-entrail tacos (tacos de machitos), which are strictly an acquired taste (416 N. Seventy-sixth, 923-1906). For a brand-new (and expensive) eighties’ classic, try the mesquite-grilled chicken taco with self-assured red salsa at barbecue-tycoon Jim Goode’s nuevo-wavo hot spot, Goode Company Hamburger and Taqueria. Goode’s witty, neon-lit outdoor patio gets my vote for the environment I would most like to eat my tacos in (4902 Kirby, 520-9153).
In the Homey Hole-in-the-Wall category, there’s the Cortés Meat Market and Deli, a neat inner-city cubbyhole where the pertinent question is, How can a bean-and-cheese taco possibly be this good? By virtue of bacony seasoning and a killer green salsa, that’s how. I’ve never been nuts about the meat tacos here, but I’ll swear by the fresh-tasting guacamole; just add pico de gallo and a dash of that green sauce (2404 W. Alabama, 522-7771). Another small find is La Mexicana Supermarket and Deli in Montrose, a Houston Grand Opera staff haunt where the crew of literally little ladies fusses over a stove to turn out exhilarating red-chiled de guisado de puerco, fajitas in sprightly red salsa mexicana, and picadillo con papas made for the house green sauce. They even serve a good egg-potato-and-ham breakfast taco, a Houston rarity (1018 Fairview, 521-0963).
One legacy of Houston’s late-lamented boom is a whole new taco school represented by urban taquería minichains far slicker than their Dallas cousins—crisper, brighter, cleaner, more formularized. They keep Latin-late hours (you need never go hungry at two in the morning again) and offer almost identical menus: tortas, gorditas, and a standard array of meat tacos, plus funkier items like brains and tongue. The Chimney Rock branch of Taquería Tepatitlán is a perfect prototype of the genre, filling double-deck corn tortillas with good-quality meats—pork al pastor, tongue, baby goat, beef al carbón—that are plain to the point of austerity, cilantro and onion garnish or no. Even the red and green salsas can’t give these tacos soul; they just don’t have the depth, a trait too common among urban-taquería salsas (5708 Chimney Rock, 666-1330).
Higher up the soul scale is the Taquería del Sol, which dishes out some respectable tacos at its east-side location. Prevail on the counterman to give you the filling of poblano chiles and white cheese wrapped in a corn or flour toritilla instead of a gordita—great stuff. The beef-and-pork al pastor, sliced off a vertical spit, is quite nice, and licuados satisfy your sweet tooth (8114 Park Place, 644-0535). My favorite of the new urban taquería school is the Sharpstown branch of the Taquería Mexico. More comfortable than your usual citified taquería, the place feels almost clubby: soft chairs, a schizy disco jukebox, and incandescent lights. They actually grill the outside of their double-deck corn tortillas, and the fillings sport touches of home, from tomatoey chicken guiso to an almost-Mediterranean-tasting milanesa that demands a fillip of onion en escabeche to go along. Sure, their barbocoa is dryish and their tacos al pastor oversalty, but the mammoth goblets full of coconut-spiked horchata, the 95-cent ceiling on tacos, and the 24-hour weekend schedule more than make up for it (7626 Clarewood, 271-0174).