Rolled tacos, or flautas, are everywhere along the Texas-Mexico border. At Brownsville’s Easy to Go Tacos, they’re served with cueritos (pickled pig skin); at Sonora’s Taco Grill, you get six in one order, and they come topped with cabbage. But the most famous rolled taco joint in Texas is arguably Chico’s Tacos in El Paso. Chico’s is such an institution that the Texas Legislature honored the local chain in July 2003, to mark the company’s fiftieth anniversary. However, Chico’s Tacos’s signature dish—small flautas, topped with a flurry of orange cheese bits, immersed in watery tomato salsa in a paper serving boat—makes for a love it-or-hate-it experience. Some folks live and die by it, going so far as to have orders mailed to them. Others avoid stepping into a Chico’s Tacos. Place me in the latter camp, and I am no stranger to the city—my wife’s family settled in El Paso after making the trek from Taxco, Mexico, in a covered wagon. Flautas ahogadas—drowned flautas, so named for the sauce they come bathed in—are an El Paso specialty, steeped in tradition and perfected over decades. Until now, few chefs have dared to experiment with them much.
Across the city, flautas ahogadas are typically bathed in red salsa, following the precedent set by Chico’s. You can find them at restaurants like La Tapatia, Fast Lane, and the Taco Shop. The latter even offers a vegan filling option of jackfruit. At Carlos & Mickey’s, they’re called Chiquis Flautas and gussied up with an avocado wedge. At Lucy’s Restaurant, yet another El Paso stalwart, they’re known as taquitos and served as an appetizer of four drowned flautas. Still, despite these small variations, most flautas are served topped with crema, lettuce, tomato, maybe a scoop of guacamole, and queso fresco, plus salsa on the side.
At Tacoholics, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shopping-center storefront restaurant on the city’s East Side, they do things a little differently—and the result is the best flautas ahogadas in El Paso. Here, the dish barely resembles the version served at the aforementioned spots, and it all starts with the salsa: a salsa verde. “When we first came out with those, it was us paying homage to the most popular street food in El Paso,” says owner Jessie Peña. In 2015, Texas Monthly named these tacos among the best in the state, and that description still holds true.
But if you don’t plan ahead, you might be in for a wait. As the pandemic continues, Tacoholics remains open for pickup and delivery only. When I placed my order over the phone, I was told the single box of flautas ahogadas wouldn’t be ready for an hour. (It ended up being more like twenty minutes.) However long you wait—and you should wait in your car—the order of five flautas ahogadas will be served nearly deconstructed for quality assurance. The flautas arrive tightly rolled and stuffed with your choice of filling: sirloin, chicken, pork, or even tofu. They’re drizzled with a zippy crema and sprinkled with queso asadero (an El Paso favorite cheese), chopped cilantro, and diced raw white onion, all wrapped in foil in a paper boat. A Styrofoam cup of steaming tomatillo salsa comes on the side, and everything is delivered in a clamshell container. No, it’s not as striking a presentation as it would have been had I been seated in the dining room. The garnishes would’ve arrived atop the salsa in that case. For takeout, the dish comes disassembled for maximum freshness and safety. Peña says that’s a priority, especially since the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Latinos. (El Paso is more than 80 percent Latino.)
“We’re not competing for the dining experience anymore,” he says. “So our to-go has to be that much better. It has to be packaged right. We want to make sure that we seal it correctly so that it stays fresh.” He tested the setup himself by taking an order home, he says, to make sure the dish didn’t get soggy in transport—a common problem he noticed while tasting to-go flautas from some of his competitors. Peña adds that after taking an initial 70 percent hit because of the statewide shutdown imposed to slow the virus’s spread, Tacoholics has recovered all but 30 percent of its pre-COVID-19 sales. “I’ve got no complaints,” he says.
Ultimately, for Peña, the flautas ahogadas, which I favor filled with richly seasoned carne asada, are a childhood comfort food that he gets to tinker with as an adult. “It affected me enough in my childhood, when it was a great leftover comfort food at home, that I acknowledge it in my restaurant,” he says. “Hey, if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do this right and we’ll do our own spin on it to honor the city and the region we’re from.”
In other words, don’t fret about how to assemble the dish. Just pop open the Styrofoam cup of salsa verde and pour its contents over the fried rockets of delight. There is enough sauce, and the flautas can take it. Then go to town, preferably while sitting on the hood or trunk of your car. Yes, I realize it’s hot in El Paso right now. It’s hot all over Texas right now. That’s just how it is. And Tacoholics’ flautas ahogadas are worth the minor suffering that triple digits bring.