This is a taco with a handmade tortilla.
“This is Taco Country!” Those four words—painted on the burnt orange façade of San Antonio’s legendary breakfast taco haunt, Taco Haven—are carried in every Texan’s heart and stomach. They are as fundamental to the Lone Star State’s identity as Friday Night Lights, “Pancho & Lefty,” and Dr Pepper. This is true across our tortilla-based wonderland from Big Bend to the Piney Woods and South Texas to the Metroplex.
I’m not only referring to the fried envelopes whose broken shards litter much of our cultural landscape. No, I mean all the tacos: jaralillos de res, carne asada tacos smothered under a salty tarp of queso fundido at Tacos El Toro Bronco in El Paso; the ground beef-nestling airships that are Ray’s Drive Inn’s puffy tacos; the slivers of paprika-lacquered pork served across Oak Cliff; Brownsville’s many Sunday barbacoa huts; the big-city gals that love dressing up; the just-this-side-of-familiar menu at new regional restaurants; and, yes, breakfast tacos.
As part of the promotion for its 120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die issue, Texas Monthly is hosted an online reader poll to determine which Texas city has the best tacos. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the editorial package, but the poll we’re addressing is all fan voting.) Ultimately, Austin won the top spot with 42 percent of the votes. The Rio Grande Valley scored a 25 percent, and Dallas, took third place with 15 percent.*
That the capital city is in first place doesn’t come as a surprise. Austin has an incredible PR machine fueled by its perceived coolness compared to other Texas cities. Austin has barbecue. Austin has SXSW. It has breakfast tacos. And, with the assistance of New York food writers who have visited Austin during a big festival or lived in the city for a spell, it’s fooled many into believing breakfast tacos are Austin-style. Let’s take as an example an article run last week by Eater Austin claiming Austin as the home of breakfast tacos. The piece by Matthew Sedacca came off as a rush job and evidence of an editorial disconnect. That same day, Eater LA published Meghan McCarron’s excellent profile of Los Angeles breakfast state mecca HomeState. In her piece, McCarron writes “Austin, Texas, is not the home of the breakfast taco, but it is the place where they became an iconic dish. … It took self-conscious, self-mythologizing Austin to turn them into a thing.” While Sedacca at least acknowledged that Texas breakfast tacos have origins across the state, he mentioned only one other city, Corpus Christi. That the city cited wasn’t San Antonio—where breakfast tacos and tacos in general are so ingrained in residents’ DNA that they’re taken for granted until Austin asserts its PR supremacy—ignited a firestorm and a tongue-in-cheek petition to have Sedacca exiled from the Lone Star State. I chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Allow me to explain why. Continue reading
Before Dylan Elchami sold his Scotch & Sausage restaurant concept, he converted part of the space housing it into a taqueria specializing in tacos de guisados. For Elchami, it was a dream come true. For me, it was a chance to eat more tacos de guisados, a massive and unwieldy class of taco filled with homey slow-cooked stews and sauced preparations. Chorizo and papas is a guisado. Bistec en salsa de chile pasilla is another. So are chile relleno and picadillo. And this new operation, S&S Tequileria, put picadillo on the menu. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s idea of picadillo was sauceless, dry crumbles of over-salted beef. It was, in a word, terrible. The rest of the tacos ordered that day weren’t as memorable.
Then I noticed something peculiar, the Scotch & Sausage social media channels had almost no taco images. Had they realized how disappointing the tacos were? Not long after that I received a press release for Le Taco Cantina, a new taco concept taking over the space. It described the food as having a “triage of flavors” melding Mexican and Asian cooking techniques and ingredients with a little French flare. While I’m sure who ever wrote that release was trying to make the food come across as compelling as possible, the use of medical disaster terminology probably isn’t the way to achieve that goal. “Sortie” might have been better.
Shortly thereafter, the blogs began to announce the taqueria’s opening. There was a lot of oohing and ahhing because handmade tortillas and moo shu duck confit. Interesting, right? Not really. Handmade tortillas by themselves aren’t that big a deal. They’re difficult to make well consistently, and a smart taquero knows that if he can’t have them produced in-house perfectly it’s better to find a tortilleria that can meet his standards. Continue reading
From-scratch mole con pollo is a weekend special at Mi Lindo Oaxaca.
The Home Depot now stands on the land where the Bronco Bowl once welcomed musical acts such as Bob Dylan and Lenny Kravitz. Across the street, along Fort Worth Avenue, sits a shopping center where Tacos King once doled out breakfast tacos. The taqueria is gone. The only remnant of its existence is the yellow awning bearing the business’ name. The space now houses Mi Lindo Oaxaca, likely the only Oaxacan restaurant in Dallas, and the one restaurant all seekers of authentic Mexican food should put at the top of their must-visit list.
Former migrant farm work Honorio Garcia opened Mi Lindo Oaxaca three months ago with the help of an Accion Texas micro loan because, he told me on my third of four visits to his restaurant, “There needed to be a taste of Oaxaca in Dallas.” Ladies and gentlemen, the American Dream is alive and well, and Honorio Garcia is serving it with mole oaxaqueño made from scratch, beginning with the hand-shelling of cacao for the chocolate. On one visit, I got to watch as the ingredients were being toasted on the dry flattop griddle. Continue reading
Machete Tequila + Tacos second location is across from the newly restored Denver Union Station.
Denver may be better known for its burritos, but the Mile High City has its fair share of tacos, both famous and traditional. You might have heard of Pinche Taqueria. Or breakfast taco joint Moontower Tacos opened by a former Austinite. Dallas-based Rusty Taco also has an outpost in nearby Aurora, Colorado. Or Taqueria Mi Pueblo, serving everything from lengua and tripe to, yes, burritos.
Due to a busy schedule during a work trip to Denver, I was unable to visit any of those taco joints. I did, however, get to squeeze in time at the second location of Machete Tequila + Tacos.
An upmarket spot serving creative yet traditional tacos from chef José Avila, Machete’s flagship opened in the Cherry Creek neighborhood in 2011 and quickly garnered praise. The Lower Downtown branch across from Union Station fired up its kitchen this year. It was also on the receiving end of critical and popular response.
It’s easy to see why. Continue reading
Taco Flats’ modern and sleek exterior.
Taco Flats was the taqueria I most anticipated in 2014. Named, with permission, after a legendary Austin bar and rock club, the business from owner Simon Madera, a Rio Grande Valley native and restaurant industry veteran, opened in November. It has become something of a craft beer bar-modern taqueria along a stretch of Burnet Road that is becoming a taco hub. The taqueria is in the same strip center as the brick-and-mortar home of fancy lonchera Peached Tortilla and a short walk from Fork and Taco, which has an Uchi alumnus in its kitchen. Fork and Taco is an admirable restaurant that understands the importance of the handmade tortilla, but this is a review of Taco Flats, not Fork and Taco. That post is forthcoming.
As I mentioned, the wait for Taco Flats’ opening was worth it. From the moment you open the door, you know you’re in for something different. Continue reading
Everything is better with a taco, especially the young but formidable Oak Cliff Film Festival, which calls the Texas Theatre home. Within tortilla-flinging distance (and all over the neighborhood) of the historic movie house are scads of notable taquerias and restaurants. Once again, we offer our recommendations.
Los Torres Taqueria, 1322 W. Clarendon Dr., 214-946-3770
This mom-and-pop shop is something special. It’s the only Dallas restaurant specializing in Sinaloan-style meat preparations, and where you go when you want excellent tacos. The Torres family has never failed when it comes to serving northern Mexican dishes like cinnamon-spiked birria de chivo, luscious cabeza (a mix of beef cheek and tongue) and barbacoa roja estilo Sinaloa, which has pork and beef in every exquisite bite. True to the state of origin, order your tacos in handmade flour tortillas. But if you insist, at least request the handmade corn tortillas.
La Tacoqueta, 2324 W. Clarendon Dr., Ste. 100, 214-943-9991
On a strip of Clarendon dominated by auto shops and faded concrete, cheekily named La Tacoqueta is a sepia, wood and tile haven offering hit-the-spot tacos of carne asada, chicken and al pastor.Alas, there is no spit. The breakfast tacos come with handmade tortillas but others don’t. The service is always on point and the salsa is always fiery.
Fito’s Tacos de Trompo #2, 3113 W. Davis St.
This joint is hard to miss. Just look for the painting of Monterrey’s geographic landmark, the Serro de la Silla mountain, and the restaurant’s name is big red letters. Order the signature menu item, tacos de trompo—the northern Mexican cousin of tacos al pastor seasoned with paprika, not a chile, achiote and citrus adobo, and roasted on the vertical spit called, you guessed it, a trompo. But bring cash. Fito’s doesn’t accept plastic.
U.S. Highway 281 cuts the country in half, running north-south from the border with Canada and International Peace Garden in Manitoba to the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas. Along the way, it winds through the Texas Hill Country, bypassing Austin. It’s a peaceful road framed by ranchland, cedar and live oak trees and about every quarter mile or less by deer processing businesses. The highway is also dotted with small towns in which barbecue joints and Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants abound. El Agave, an adobe-style structure with a festive interior that includes lacquered booth seats bearing tropical and Mexican iconography carved into them and painted with a bright-the-better aesthetic, in Johnson City, Texas, is one of those establishments.
The menu includes Mexican and Tex-Mex standards and 12 tacos, of which I selected three: carnitas, barbacoa and carne guisada with cheese, the latter based on the recommendation of our waitress. Continue reading
Filed under Reviews, Texas
On two consecutive days I found myself in Richardson. And two consecutive days, I left two taquerias with a skip in my step and a smile on my face. The second, La Candelaria—named after the religious holiday marking the end of the Christmas season in Mexico and commemorating the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple—is tucked into a corner of a shopping center anchored by a large supermarket. But I only noticed that on the way out. So fixed I was on getting my mitts around the restaurant’s handmade tortillas on the independent recommendation of two friends.
The L-shaped taqueria was dark, even in the middle of the day, when I walked up to the counter and ordered one of almost everything (they were out of pancita [stomach, guts]).
There was only awful taco that day at La Candelaria—the hongos. The rubbery collection of sliced mushrooms was fresh from an aluminum culinary coffin. I caught the owner clearing tables and asked about the cabeza. The cachete, or cheek, was a tad too fatty for his tastes, but that he liked it all the same. (Of course he did.) If it needed less fat—which it didn’t; the cabeza was the leanest I’ve had in Dallas-Fort Worth—the cheek meat needed more seasoning. A net of iridescent fat would’ve provided. Continue reading
Dallas’ best potato and egg taco is found along Singleton Avenue, near the Trinity Groves. And I’m concerned it’s not long for this world. Until, a friend and I decided to try our luck with lunch at Taquería La Chilanga, the red, yellow, orange and white freestanding taquería at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, I’d not seen it open for business for months. I had thought it had already fallen victim to the restaurant concepts taking up the development led by uber-restaurateur Phil Romano and partners, at the eatery’s doorstep.
What we found wasn’t a gem but a solid operation making its own corn and flour tortillas by hand, a taquería that deserves constant business.
Lunch was every taco available—a total of seven—on tortillas de maiz hechas a mano split between two customers. We were the only customers. Continue reading
This past Saturday, Feb. 23, three other men and I—with at least one casualty to National Margarita Day—set off for Fort Worth and its tacos. Our first stop was the Swiss Pastry Shop, a local institution opened in 1973 and owned and operated by Hans Peter Muller, son of the founder. Servers were scurrying about slammed after the first of two days of Cowtown races. Racers and their friends and families were grubbing down on hearty breakfast and lunch fare, while those waiting for a table were ogling the pastry cases, where Hans’ specialties including Swinkies and the Black Forest Cake waited for the likes us.
We were there for a day of tacos, among them the dessert tacos that I joked on Twitter Hans should create. A month later, the several of cajeta cheesecake cream, applewood-smoked bacon and candied jalapeños in a chocolate-dipped almond praline shell gems were ready. Rich and messy, kicking and sweet, the dessert tacos were as far from the Klondike Choco Taco as you could get—and fantasti! I had two at the shop, some mind-quieting flourless Black Forest Cake, as well as a Fort Worth Cheese Steak sandwich—sliced and grilled smoked ribeye with Hatch chiles and queso blanco—with three dessert tacos to go. Some chorizo and egg breakfast taco in a hand-rolled flour tortilla was thrown in for good measure. It was 11 a.m. Roadrunner Eats, Robert and Hans were off.
From the Swiss Pastry Shop, we set off for Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, another Fort Worth landmark and the reason I went crosstown. Roadrunner Eats wanted my take on the food there. Food he doesn’t much care for, to put it politely. The sliver of enchilada I had was terrible. Its red chile sauce tasted like it had turned. The crispy taco with a shell fried earlier that day was decent but a few more minutes and the soggy bottom would’ve succumbed to weight of the mild beef and sweet tomato salsa wedged inside the yellow envelope. Continue reading