El Bolero’s tacos al pastor.
John Tesar is a no slouch. He is owner and executive chef at Knife. He has a cookbook in the works with Jordan Mackay, co-author with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. He is developing an Italian restaurant concept. And he is partner-operator at Apheleia Restaurant Group’s Oak. There he has tweaked and streamlined the kitchen and menu and business is improving. Now comes news that he is doing the same at El Bolero, Apheleia’s upscale Mexican spot, after ownership and El Bolero’s opening executive chef parted ways last month.
My only dining experience at El Bolero was the restaurant’s first night of service, when the menu was limited and the service extremely attentive. I had ample time to speak with co-owner John Paul Valverde (whose Coeval Studio also designed the gorgeous space) that night. We talked about the need for a variety of salsa options. I lobbied for a plethora of choices like those available in Mexico City: whole beans, French fries, salsas of every color and Scoville heat unit. I spoke with a manager about agave spirits, and he customized a mezcal flight for me. All of this from the best seat in the house—at the bar in front of the trompo, where I got to watch the taquero work his knife against the spinning top of marinated pork. The tacos al pastor on fresh corn tortillas were good but the execution needed flare. Part of eating these Mexico City favorites is the show taqueros put on for customers, flicking knives this way and that, attempting to catch pineapple slices behind their backs.
I don’t know if the spectacle has been upped since El Bolero opened, but I do know that the trompo isn’t going anywhere. As Valverde told me via Facebook, “[The] trompo is always going to be there.” While that is a relief, like many with deep love and respect for tacos and Mexican regional cuisines, I was leery of how an Anglo chef—no matter how talented and respectful—would treat the food. Anglo-driven “Modern Mexican” has show more disregard than understanding when it comes to the tradition and history of Mexican food.
During a phone conversation, Tesar went a long way to assure me of his seriousness.
Fuel up after filling up your car’s gas tank.
Tacos can be served from practically anywhere, one of the most popular spaces being the gas station. And why not? Customers can fill up their jalopy’s tank then stuff their own. These taco operations are busy throughout the day, but breakfast often calls for patience. Lines are common. That’s where Habaneros — The Taco Revolution in Arlington, Texas, comes in. I stopped at the gas station taqueria en route to Fort Worth. Just off the Ballpark Way exit on I-30, Habaneros takes up about half of the business with tables and booths and a salsa bar against a counter. Continue reading
Get me talking about tacos and see me light up like a child who receives the exact gift he wished for Christmas morning. From their history and folklore to their variability, there is much joy in tacos. In no particular order, these are the tacos that brought me that joy in 2014.
A plate of tacos at Los Torres.
Taco de Barbacoa Roja Estilo Sinaloa at Los Torres Taqueria
Unlike the barbacoa commonly available in Texas, this specialty of Sinaloa (where the Torres family has roots) is a mix of beef and pork, dark red from chiles colorados and fragrant spices. It’s always included in my order at Los Torres, where homey braises and handmade tortillas band together to give Dallas it’s best taqueria. When you visit the little spot in Oak Cliff—and you will—resist the urge to order tortillas de maiz hechas a mano. Go for the thin, nearly translucent handmade flour tortillas characteristic of Sinaloa.
Taco de Barbacoa de Cabeza at Gerardo’s Drive-In
The table-hushing barbacoa at Gerardo’s on Houston’s east side is among the best I’ve had in Texas yet. It’s silky and full, though delicate, and pulled directly from the cows’ head. My visit to Gerardo’s included a kitchen tour from Owner José Luis Lopez—Gerardo is his son—who obviously has pride in his work. He propped the cow heads for photos taken by the crew I was running around Houston with that morning, amigos in food J.C. Reid and Michael Fulmer, cofounders of the Houston Barbecue Festival, and photographer Robert Strickland.
Taco al Pastor at Taco Flats
Austin isn’t a taco al pastor town. It’s strength resides in breakfast tacos and Tex-Mex. So this killer version of the undisputed king of tacos on a housemade tortilla from Taco Flats, a new Burnet Road bar with taco-focused pub grub came as a surprise. Sit at the far end of the bar for a view of the trompo. Continue reading
Filed under Austin, Best of, Dallas, DFW, Fort Worth, Houston, one of the freaking best, Reviews, San Antonio, Tex-Mex, Uptown
Just in case you didn’t know what this truck sold.
Fort Worth has a wealth of loncheras. They’re stationed at the far end of grocery store parking lots, they’re parked alongside convenience stores—wherever they call roll up and set a table with a few chairs. That’s where I found Taqueria Eva’s, a taco truck on the city’s Northside.
An older gentleman sat reading a newspaper in the truck’s cab as a friend and I walked up to the lonchera. As we stepped up to the ordering window, a boy young enough to be the man’s son it open, took our order and immediately set to making our tacos, working the flattop and heating the tortillas like he—a kid—was a seasoned taquero. Continue reading
The restaurant and tortilleria share real estate.
La Mexicana Tortilla Factory supplies taquerias and Mexican restaurants across North Texas, including El Come Taco. And for large-scale production, the tortillas the Duncanville, Texas, operation has been selling for nearly 20 years are dependable and respectable Rarely has the use of La Mexicana tortillas resulted in a poor taco for me. Occasionally, even though the tortillas aren’t fresh-off-the-press job, their application can push a mediocre taco into the realm of admirable nosh.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case when I lunched at the seven-year-old restaurant attached to the tortilleria, Sabor a la Mexicana. The kitsch factor was turned up to 11, though. In the desolate Sunday afternoon parking lot, rusted sculptures of banditos and musicians adorned in spark plugs welcomed us.
While we ordered, the server told my wife that the restaurant is known for its enchiladas. That’s all she needed to hear to request the spinach enchilada platter: fresh spinach (Sabor’s website makes it clear it doesn’t use frozen or reheated ingredients) cozy in corn tortillas topped with silky sour cream sauce, not the magic shell stuff. They were excellent examples of a Tex-Mex specialty. My wife went so far as to call them the best spinach enchiladas she’s ever had. Continue reading
Make time for Taco Stop.
There are taquerias I visit for years before writing about them. It’s not that the taquerias are played out or that I want to keep them to myself. Sometimes, when juggling a day job, a family and get-in-the-way adult stuff, I just want to eat at a place I know is good and don’t get around to completing a review. Taco Stop, a two-year-old walk-up joint in the Dallas Design District, has been one of those taquerias. But it’s more than good. Taco Stop is fantastic.
It’s been that way almost since the beginning. Weeks after its 2012 opening, a friend and I dropped into Taco Stop for breakfast and had our ordered bungled. It didn’t matter. An order of Taco Stop’s breakfast tacos are a great way to start the morning, especially if you’re going “all in.” This deluxe breakfast taco is equipped with bell peppers, onions and bacon or chorizo, giving you bites of sweet and salty. A follow-up visit did not disappointment. Continue reading
Tacos al pastor stand in Mexico City. Photo: Markus Pineyro.
If Mexico City, and by extension Mexico, were to have an iconic taco, it would be the taco al pastor. This bantam assembly of marinated pork shaved from a trompo (a vertical rotisserie) on a corn tortilla with pineapple, cilantro, onions and salsa is the object of lust for many taco enthusiasts. Spikes of heat, patches of char, citrus pep here and there: What’s not to like? It’s also considered the most authentic of tacos but it is not the first taco and was not adapted from some ancient Aztec recipe. Rather, the taco al pastor appeared in the capital in the mid-20th century, a product of native and immigrant culinary mash-up. It’s also not the only style of taco with meat from a vertical spit. It’s not even the first such dish in Mexico—several of which, including tacos al pastor, are outlined below.
Four hundred years after the Spanish came ashore on the Mexican mainland, initiating the birth of what would become Mexican food with pork, lard, beef and other comestibles, another group of non-indigenous peoples transformed Mexican food. This mass of people, immigrants from the Middle East, specifically Lebanon and Iran, into the city and state of Puebla, brought with them shawarma, lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie, and their own flatbread, pita. The Mexican adaptation of shawarma popped up in the 1930s at Tacos Árabes Bagdad and Antigua Taqueria La Oriental, but took the form of pork (itself a Spanish import) served on a small pita-like tortilla called pan árabe. Continue reading
New upmarket taco operations, whether a truck or a brick-and-mortar concern, give me pause. Are the owners only in the business because they like tacos and see them as an easy entry into the food industry? You know, because a taco is anything you want it to be? Such is the case of the now defunct 333’s Gourmet Taco Shop. Charging up to $12 for a sloppy product on Kroger tortillas was never sustainable long-term. Or are they driven by something more? Flatlanders Taco Co., a lonchera wrapped in a mod Dia de los Muertos shell, is an example of the latter.
Inspired by their time living in Colorado and years of traveling and studying in Mexico, Texans Ashley and Tyler Hall returned home to offer tacos influenced by Tyler’s lifelong intimacy with Mexican food in the United States. “For me, I grew up eating tacos and tamales. Mexican food has always been a two or three night a week meal in my family,” he says. “My first homemade authentic meal, menudo, was while working as a dishwasher when I was 13. That was my introduction to a flavor profile that has always got me looking for the best homestyle Mexican cooking wherever I am. When I met my wife 7 years ago, the obsession doubled with her love for it as well. Now it’s almost every meal. Everywhere we travel, we try to find an off-the-beaten-path Mexican grocer, restaurant, stand or truck to get our fix, always taking note of our favorite and unique sauces, salsas and taco combinations.” The result, Tyler says, is an effort to create specialty tacos while staying within the bounds of tradition. And it’s promising. Continue reading
Last Thursday I gave a presentation about taco history and its place in DFW’s food culture at Four Corners Brewing Co., benefiting Slow Food Dallas. It didn’t go as planned. A storm took about the venue’s power and led me to improvise. Below is what the lecture I would’ve given if Mother Nature had cooperated.
Thank you, Liz and Slow Food Dallas for having me here—at my favorite brewery, no less. Thank you, Rafael and Eduardo and the family of Taco Party, for your wonderful tacos. Those fried potatoes tacos are among Dallas’ best. And lest you think they’re “gringo tacos,” you should know that fried potatoes tacos are traditional tacos dorados (fried tacos), rolled or flat depending on the region. They’re found all over Mexico.
Fried tacos tend to have a bad reputation, stirring up chilling visions of Taco Bell and prefabricated stale, fragile shells. Glenn Bell, Taco Bell’s founder, wasn’t doing anything new or particularly special, when he opened his first fast-food crispy taco restaurant in 1962. Fried tacos are a tried-and-true variation of the reason why we’re here tonight. In Jalisco state, home of tequila, mariachi and the stewed goat preparation birria, and Michoacán, the birthplace of carnitas, tacos dorados are a common breakfast taco. Continue reading
I’ll be giving a fun little chat about tacos at the next Slow Food Dallas event. The cross-posted shindig info is below.
Slow Food Dallas is proud to present a Taco Talk with José R. Ralat at Four Corners Brewing Co. on May 8th from 6pm-9pm. José will share the story of the taco, from its humble Mexican beginnings to its place in Dallas food culture today.
As José puts it, “the story of the taco is one of religion and sacrifice, of conquest and reconquest, of multiculturalism and nourishment, both dietary and spiritually. It doesn’t recognize borders, but it is specific to time and place. The taco in Oaxaca is not the taco in Los Angeles or Gutherie, Oklahoma, and at its base is corn: a food that transformed the way humanity eats and lives.”
In addition to José’s presentation, we’ll be enjoying food from Taco Party, featuring some of Dallas’ best tacos al pastor.
Tickets are $15 and on sale now. Tickets include admission to the presentation and two tacos, one al pastor and one fried potato. Beer will be available for sale before, during, and after the presentation.
This event has limited availability, so please purchase your ticket in advance at http://tacotalk.eventbrite.com./
6:15pm- 7:00pm: Tacos + Beer
7:00pm- 8:00pm: Presentation and Discussion
8:00pm- 9:00pm: Beer + Conversation
Get your ticket today and join us for an evening of history, lore, and most importantly, tacos!!