Francisco Estrada and his wife, Lizzeth Martinez, had successful careers in Mexico City. Estrada was a lawyer, and Martinez was an interior designer and chef. But threats of kidnapping—possibly connected to Estrada’s work as a federal attorney—led them to relocate to San Antonio nearly four years ago. For Martinez, the professional transition was smooth. She was born in Laredo, went to college in San Antonio, and quickly found work at a design firm in San Antonio. It was difficult for Estrada. His years of legal experience didn’t mean much in Texas, and the couple’s savings didn’t go far in the United States. “When you convert all those pesos into dollars, you realize it’s like twenty dollars,” Martinez says. While waiting for his residency status to be secured, Estrada began renovating their home and attempting to line up work. “He was fixing the house, playing housewife, and all that,” Martinez laughs. The story of Naco Mexico Eatery, Estrada and Martinez’s taco trailer, is one of both struggle and levity.
Estrada told his wife that he’d do whatever was necessary to help bring in financial support, even if it meant selling tacos on a corner. That’s what he set out to do. The couple bought a trailer at an auction and refurbished it with their “bare hands, fingernails, and boogers. Uñas y mocos!” Martinez says, laughing again. In 2018, they opened Naco Mexican Eatery. The trailer’s name refers to its location along the old Nacogdoches Road, which follows one of the routes of the old El Camino Real de los Tejas, established in the eighteenth century by the Spanish for trade. “Naco” is also slang for lowlife, low class, or lowly. “Mexicans immediately recognize the word and know the business is Mexican-owned, while it’s short and catchy for non-Spanish speakers,” Estrada explains. The food at Naco Mexican Eatery is anything but lowly. Even in the crowded taco mecca of San Antonio, this place stands out. Naco’s tacos are some of the best I’ve tasted so far this year.
I ordered four tacos. The huitlacoche taco was served on a yellow-flecked blue corn tortilla whose textures oscillated between creamy and chewy as it bore a thin splatter of a costra, or fried cheese. The funky, soft huitlacoche was almost completely concealed by a hearty shower of salty queso fresco. The salsa is a macha, but Martinez and Estrada call it chicharron de chiles, an oil-based line of salsa packed with serrano, silvers of garlic, and dried chiles that turn the mixture a mahogany hue. (Jars are available for sale at the trailer.) This rolling series of flavors and textures came together in an exciting bite.
Full-sized costras, which swap the tortilla for a shell of griddled cheese, are also on offer. Invented in Mexico City’s nightclub scene in the early aughts, costras were originally intended to soak up booze-fueled street shenanigans after the discotheques let out. But at Naco and many contemporary taco operations, their popularity arose after customers requested tacos without the tortillas. “Keto is so big!” Martinez says. That’s why Naco lists its costras under a special keto taco section on the menu. They’re a customizable lot, and the best is the chicharron en salsa verde. The pork is crunchy, coated in a green salsa, and pepped up with narrow arcs of sliced red onions. Although the exterior of my costra looked charred, nothing tasted ashy or burned. Perhaps the char was offset by the interior’s gooeyness. Parts of the queso Chihuahua used for the costra adhered to the twists of chicharron, creating cheesy cables between filling and shell. Eating the costra (or keto taco) was exhilarating. Huitlacoche and squash blossoms, which are in season now, are popular fillings at Naco, whether you choose a costra or a traditional taco.
The three other tacos I ate will be familiar to Texans. Shredded, moist brisket and scrambled eggs rested in a large blue corn tortilla that makes for a satisfying, hearty breakfast taco on the go. The spinach, egg, and avocado trio in a flaky, buttery flour tortilla was light, with crisp baby greens sprinkled atop fluffy scrambled eggs. The avocado wedges were whimsically and haphazardly plopped on top. Also served in a flour tortilla was the taco de chilaquiles with chorizo, with salsa roja–soaked chips covered by cascades of crumbled, red-stained pork sausage. The taco’s strength was its earthy flavors and textures.
The one disappointment was the chilaquiles torta with chorizo. The roll wasn’t the typical bolillo or telera employed in the Mexican sandwich. Rather, the bread was ciabatta-like and overly chewy for my taste. But the chilaquiles with chorizo filling were as good as they were in the taco, the runny egg made for a bit of a pleasant mess, and the potato chips were a surprising side that made for a good palate reset. “People want chilaquiles on everything,” says Estrada. One supposedly keto customer went so far as to request a keto taco with chilaquiles. “That kills the whole keto thing,” Martinez notes.
The Naco Mexican Eatery trailer shares a corner lot with Smoke Shack barbecue and Theory Coffee trailers, two San Antonio favorites. But for Estrada and Martinez, the spot seemed like the best location, even if they were nervous about the high bar set by the other vendors. “We were very afraid to start there because we knew there was a kind of quality that people were expecting here in the corner. But we were willing to give it a try,” Martinez says. At the beginning, for months straight, they were taking in about eight dollars a day. To pass the time, the couple would dance in front of the rig. Their fortunes began to change about nine months in, when the San Antonio Current named Naco a finalist in its 2019 list of the best food trucks in the city. (The alt-weekly newspaper later dubbed Naco the best food truck of 2020.) Customers soon started congratulating the owners, who were thrilled but confused: “I remember saying: ‘What magazine? What newspaper? What are you talking about?’” Martinez recalls.
Naco received third place in the contest, and the attendant boost in sales allowed the couple to hire someone to help. Martinez didn’t have to work two jobs anymore. Success was in sight, and aside from a four-week downturn early in the pandemic, business has been growing steadily. “We never closed, not even for one day,” Martinez says. What got them through the rough patch were the Hispanic laborers who paid in cash—Martinez credits these loyal fans with keeping the trailer afloat during the pandemic. Next came the food-curious. Now, Naco is a destination taco trailer, with a line of patrons from across the socioeconomic spectrum. “Tacos are democratic. It’s an amazing corner,” Estrada puts it plainly. During my visit, the line was long, but the wait—about twenty minutes—was worth it.
Sourcing, I was pleased to learn, is important to Naco’s owners. As much as Mexican food relies on the layering of subtle flavors and is deceptively simple, it’s difficult to hide subpar ingredients, large or small. “Even though it’s very simple and humble food, it should be done the best way, as close to perfection as possible,” Martinez says.
The corn for the tortillas comes from Tamoa, a Mexico-based purveyor of non-GMO, heirloom corn sourced from the excess harvest of family farmers. The corn is nixtamalized, ground, and formed into tortillas by Nancy Hernandez, who rents a space in Los Angeles Tortilleria on San Antonio’s West Side. The size and thickness of the tortillas are customized according to Naco’s specifications. “We even brought her the templates for the tortilla sizes from Mexico,” says Martinez. At first, Estrada and Martinez could sell only twenty tortillas a week. Now Nancy’s provides up to five hundred yellow corn tortillas and four hundred blue corn tortillas per week.
It’s this emphasis on the details that makes the difference. “A great taco only needs a tortilla and salsa,” Estrada says. Despite this apparent simplicity, Martinez adds, “It’s very complicated to make it different when everyone also makes it. How can you make a bacon, egg, and cheese taco taste different? It’s in the small steps and the ingredients around us that make the difference. It’s only true love and quality of the products that can help. That’s the only thing we have.”