Although Laredo is important to the state’s history and economy, it’s a city that is difficult to love. The border municipality is the largest inland port in the country, with roads and bridges clogged with vehicles of all sizes hauling commercial goods. Little of the money earned from trade makes it to the pockets of Laredo residents, 23.9 percent of whom live in poverty, as of 2020. A section of a border fence cuts through a public park in the western part of Laredo, making it feel a world away from another public park near the city’s main plaza, where the Rio Grande quietly passes.
For all the negative attributes, there are plenty of wonderful elements to Laredo, chief of which are the tacos. Laredo is home to the mariachi, the city’s moniker for a breakfast taco. As I write in my book American Tacos: A History and Guide, the term “mariachi” that once dominated restaurant menus is now giving way to just “breakfast tacos.”
“Mariachi” is a remnant of a bygone era, but whatever label restaurant owners apply to that taco, one thing is certain: it’s the best way to begin each day.
That’s not the only specialty Laredo has to offer—the city also has a fascinating history with the barbecue taco, which I explain further below.
Ay Carbon Tacos and Hamburguesas
The city’s south side is dotted with myriad taquerias and tortillerias. The number of choices can be daunting, but the indoor-outdoor spot Ay Carbon is a good place to start. Order a fresh agua fresca and let your waiter assist you in selecting from the charbroiled dishes. The bistec combo, which is served with four tacos and roasted potato chunks on the side, is perfectly cooked and perfect for sharing. Pair it with a hamburger composed of a thin patty, a slice of salty ham, American cheese, avocado wedges, shredded lettuce, and discs of tomato on a toasted bun. facebook.com/Aycarbon.taquerias, 320 N. Meadow Avenue, 956-568-0217.
We can argue all day about whether dessert tacos are legitimate tacos, but it’s better to just enjoy them. Chopchop’s rolled ice cream treats feature typical Mexican ice cream flavors, such as blue-hued Cookie Monster and crunchy, hazelnutty Ferrero Rocher, in a U-shaped waffle cone. facebook.com/chopchopco, 5110 McPherson #3A, 956-441-1487.
The Palacios family has been in the restaurant business since the sixties. Since then, they’ve earned a place in Texas culinary history for being among the first (if not the first) family to commercially sell barbecued brisket in a taco. The dish at Los Jacales is now called the carne ranchero taco, and features a delicate slice of smoked brisket draped in a gravy described as “special sauce,” in a flaky-yet-soft flour tortilla. It accounts for approximately 75 percent of sales at the family restaurant, according to Imeldo Palacios, a brother of the current owner, Roberto Palacios. facebook.com/losjacales, 620 Guadalupe, 956-722-8470.
Obregon’s Mexican Restaurant #2
This thirteen-year-old restaurant occupies one of the most gastronomically historic buildings in Laredo. It’s here, when Las Cazuelas called the building home, that the mariachi was born. As I detail in my book, Las Cazuelas was a frequent breakfast taco stop for workers at the nearby rail yard. One morning, the cook told a boastful laborer who claimed the tacos weren’t spicy enough that she would prepare a special taco, “one that will make him yell out like a mariachi.” The very next day, the prankster cook got heavy-handed with the hot sauce when the worker requested one of those “mariachi” tacos, and yell he did.
Mariachis, which remain on Obregon’s menu, don’t have to be spicy. But they’re known for being served on fresh flour tortillas that come off the griddle on the side of the dining room. If one was brave enough, one could walk over and grab an inflating tortilla right off the plancha. Of course, that is ill-advised. One of the older cooks would likely slap your hand or throw you out. Just wait patiently for buttery flour tortillas cradling weenies (sliced hot dogs) and eggs or succulent barbacoa. facebook.com/Obregonsmarketst, 303 Market, 956-462-5298.
Luis Lara continues Laredo’s barbecue taco history that the Palacios family started. The formally trained chef and native Nuevo Laredoan serves oak-smoked meats in tacos and concha sandwiches at his six-month-old trailer, Proyecto Humo (Spanish for Project Smoke). The concha sandwiches, especially, are stellar examples of the cultural forces that shape border cuisines. Lara uses sharp cheddar for crispy costras that go around tortillas filled with chopped brisket, purple cabbage coleslaw, crema, salsa verde, and secret “amor” seasoning. instagram.com/proyectohumo1, 4210 S. Zapata Highway.
Raul’s BBQ No. 2
If Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is the uncontested champion of South Texas barbacoa, Raul’s BBQ is a close second. When Raul Perales opened the first location of his mini empire in the nineties, he smoked whole cow heads in the ground. Unfortunately, soon after he founded the business, a rain storm washed out the pits and the meat inside them. Now he prepares his barbacoa in huge steamers lined with maguey leaves atop a grill. Magically, a touch of smokiness remains in the barbacoa, which is served three ways: as mixed whole-head meat, cheek, or lengua. I prefer going to the business’s second location on Corpus Christi Street, which has a walk-up window and a red exterior wall with irregularly shaped white spots that resemble those of a cow. There, order all three barbacoa preparations on flour tortillas. The mixed selection pops with luscious fat and world-stopping juiciness. raul-s-bbq-tx.hub.biz, multiple locations, 956-723-6019.
Suadero Taco Shop by Pepe Gamez
The purple lighting, black-and-white walls, and graffiti accents give this taqueria a nightclub feel. While the decor is a bit unpleasant, the tacos estilo Matamoros—brimming with queso fresco and bathed in guacamole and crema—will help you forget all that. Another knockout dish is the rich sirloin tacos accompanied by bone marrow. Scrape the bone marrow (tuetano in Spanish) atop the chopped steak and consume it all on corn tortillas. It is a bit rich and palate-coating, so be sure to dig into the house specialty of suadero first. instagram.com/suadero_tacoshopbypepegamez, 5517 McPherson, Suite 7, 956-480-2653.
The most famous taqueria to come out of Laredo continues to go strong 36 years after opening. The first location of Taco Palenque on San Bernardo Avenue is a pilgrimage site for all Texas taco lovers. Order the pirata, filled with beef and cheese, and then take a photo with the plaque marking the building as store number one, opened by Juan Francisco Ochoa in 1987. tacopalenque.com, multiple locations.