We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
It wasn’t so long ago when “Mexican” food was best represented stateside by a heaping platter of rice and refried beans along with gloopy enchiladas covered in melted cheese, with maybe a couple hard-shell tacos on the side. Thankfully we’ve come a long way, and now the cuisine of just about every region of Mexico is now well-represented in the American culinary landscape. Today, most people realize that the standard menu of burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, and the like are in fact more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican, and that once you head south of the border there’s a whole world of flavorful (and non-cheesy) possibilities to explore. Additionally, while authenticity is prized, some of this country’s most highly regarded chefs, like former pastry chef Alex Stupak and Oklahoma-born Rick Bayless, have also turned their attention and creativity to Mexican, which has become somewhat of a cuisine célèbre.
To assemble our ranking of America’s 50 Best Mexican Restaurants, we analyzed results from surveys we sent out to some of America’s leading culinary authorities, writers, and critics, used to assemble our rankings of America’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants and the 101 Best Restaurants in America. We supplemented those with best-of lists both in print and online, and rounded it out with our personal favorites from around the country. We also made sure to include restaurants that specialize in authentic Mexican fare; while some Tex-Mex classics on the menu are acceptable if done really well, the main focus had to be on true Mexican cuisine. We found that from a high-end restaurant in Chicago specializing in ribeye carne asada to a modest taqueria in Mountain View, Calif. serving some of the finest carnitas you’ll ever encounter, America has no shortage of great Mexican restaurants—and as it turns out, the eighth-best resides in Houston.
Hugo’s opened in 2002 in a restored Latin-inspired building designed by Joseph Finger (also responsible for the Art Deco–style City Hall) and launched into a diverse regional approach to Mexican food. Chef Hugo Ortega, a finalist for the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, cooks food that’s elegant, inventive, and inspiring. Order the much-heralded lamb barbacoa braised in garlic and chiles then slow-roasted in agave, and, for the name alone, the manchamanteles, described on the menu as the “tablecloth stainer,” a sweet mole stewed pork and chicken dish. The food is so good, the restaurant scored the very respectable #8 spot on our compilation, and since it’s the only one from the city to make the list, according to our panel of experts, Hugo’s is the best Mexican restaurant in Houston.
The Hottest Taco on Either Side of the Border Is in San Ysidro
San Ysidro’s Tuétano Taqueria goes through 60 pounds of birria de res on a reliably busy day. No longer San Diego’s best-kept secret, the stewed, spiced beef shoulder is the inarguable star of the breakout eatery its admirers range from Tijuana residents who cross the border just to dine in its tiny dining room to Latin food pro Bill Esparza, who wrote in Food & Wine that its menu offers “sheer deliciousness and inspiration.”
Owner/chef Priscilla Curiel
Its 32-year-old owner, Priscilla Curiel, born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, is the first professional chef in her family, though she grew up working in the well-established restaurants her parents operate on either side of the border — Tijuana’s La Espadaña and Talavera Azul in Chula Vista. She’s an alum of the culinary program at the Art Institute of San Diego whose recipes aren’t hand-me-downs from generations past, but were developed during the eatery’s early days as a taco catering outfit and pop-up.
Made almost daily in the small, freezer-less kitchen, Tuétano’s birria is flavored with an adobo, or seasoning mix, that includes cinnamon, cloves, guajillo chiles, whole onions, and garlic.
The adobo mix for the birria
Curiel’s best-selling taco is the quesabirria, which starts with a fresh-pressed tortilla, made with masa from National City’s Tortilleria La Estrellita and tinged crimson from the infusion of chile-infused fat skimmed from the stewed birria. Next comes a layer of melted mozzarella cheese, which the chef favors for its milky mildness to contrast the juicy, deeply spiced beef.
Optional, but emphatically advised (it is, after all, the eatery’s namesake) is the decadent addition of tuetano, or bone marrow. Chunky cross-sections of beef shank are thoroughly roasted until melting within, then dipped in meaty birria consomme before being seared on the grill until smoky and charred, ready to be scooped in buttery nuggets atop a taco. An oil-based salsa macha made with roasted garlic and chile de arbol brings additional richness, while diced onion and cilantro add freshness.
Quesbirria taco with bone marrow
Curiel says that the bone marrow-topped tacos took a little while to catch on with customers, but Tuétano now has a growing cadre of regulars, many of whom also like to eat the fat from the bones just as they are with tortillas and salt.
Though birria is the undisputed standout, the menu is rounded out by other tasty guisados (stews), like rajas con crema, roasted poblano peppers and onions with cream, and chicharrón en salsa verde, fried pork skins softened in a green tomatillo sauce, as well as tacos filled with cochinita pibil, Yucatan slow-roasted pork, and carne asada quesadillas.
The chef told Eater that she has plans to enhance the San Ysidro space with more seating and a beer license, but her ambitions also include taking her style of Tijuana tacos beyond our borders Curiel says she’d like to open outposts of Tuétano Taqueria in Los Angeles and New York City.
Share All sharing options for: The Central Valley Is the Heart and Soul of California
I didn’t know what to expect as I merged from Interstate 5 onto Highway 99, the 425-mile road that serves as the scruffy spine of California’s Central Valley. As someone who prides himself on knowing the Golden State as the former editor-in-chief of OC Weekly and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, I had visited the region just twice before: 15 years ago, when I took my girlfriend at the time to see a rock en español show in Fresno, and a couple of years ago back in Bakersfield, when my host told me not to venture outside my downtown hotel past sunset.
To most of California, the Central Valley, a long, narrow area, ringed to the west by coastal mountain ranges and to the east by the mighty Sierra Nevadas, where about 6.5 million people live, is shorthand for misery. Stories from the Central Valley that get mainstream play tend to be about crime, or poverty, or some other societal ill. Migrant workers live and work in conditions little changed since John Steinbeck shocked the United States with descriptions of how the Joads lived in The Grapes of Wrath. The state’s punishing drought hit here the hardest. Drinking water up and down the region is contaminated. Stockton, an industrial port town on the San Joaquin River, filed one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in American history in 2014. Even the Central Valley’s most prominent figures — Republican U.S. Reps. Devin Nunes of Fresno and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, two of Donald Trump’s most loyal lieutenants — are loathed by half the country.
The one thing Central Valley gets credit for is being the anchor of the state’s $46 billion agricultural industry, where nearly all of the country’s table grapes, almonds, walnuts, pomegranates, and many other crops are grown. But it’s also an essential, underappreciated locus of Californian identity. Waves of immigrants over the past century — Armenians, Okies, Portuguese, Sikhs, Filipinos, Japanese, Hmong, and especially Mexicans and Central Americans — have established themselves in this country in the Valley’s fertile soil, meandering roads, and affordable housing. But narratives about the Central Valley as the state’s much-maligned-yet-vital backbone and as a hub of Mexican culture are erased again and again.
All of this was on my mind as I got off Highway 99 in Bakersfield. I grabbed a jalapeno-and-cheese-stuffed bolillo from La Perla Bakery, then stopped by a branch of the Tacos La Villa chain for a Hot Cheetos breakfast burrito. At a gas station, I took satisfying, warm bites of each.
Tacos La Villa in Bakersfield
You’d figure that an area with so many Mexicans, from third-generation dining dynasties to families fresh across the border, would get some love from food critics. Nada. They instead obsess about the Mexican food in Los Angeles or San Antonio, which makes sense. Even New York’s Mexican food gets more foodie love. So does the American South. Austin. Portland.
Even I’ve ignored the Central Valley throughout my career — and I literally wrote the book about Mexican food in the United States. But after spending three days on Highway 99, eating from Bakersfield to Sacramento and back — from taco trucks to high-end restaurants, in rest stops and swap meets, from big cities to towns with barely 3,000 people — I am now a convert. And I’ll say it: Only Los Angeles and Houston — maybe — have better Mexican food scenes than the Central Valley.
If non-Californians know Bakersfield at all, it’s for its music — Buck Owens and Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield Sound, or the nü-metal thrashings of Korn. But I was there to see Matt Munoz, a former staffer and current freelance columnist for the Bakersfield Californian. He demanded I start my official Valley tour with breakfast at Arizona Cafe. It’s a beloved Cal-Mex diner with a full bar, open since 1953. I ordered a sumptuous chile verde he got the machaca, which came with a salsa so savory you could’ve mistaken it for spicy bone broth.
Munoz, a longtime friend, was born just north of Bako — as locals call Bakersfield — in McFarland, a town of about 21,000 that “no one knew where the fuck it was until Kevin Costner,” he said, referring to the actor’s 2015 sleeper hit McFarland USA. Munoz’s Bakersfield is a place where the town’s three most prominent ethnic groups — Basque, Okie, and Mexican — have created a shared identity that the rest of the state mocks as, well, Bakersfield.
“Everyone trashes us,” the 49-year-old Munoz said, referring to terrible press the city has gotten in the past couple of years, thanks to some of the worst air pollution in the United States, and law enforcement agencies that have killed more people per capita than any other American county. “People look at you weird in the rest of California. I’d always travel to San Francisco or Los Angeles, and when I’d say where I was from, they’d just say, ‘Oh, Bakersfield.’”
The buche and carnitas taco at Los Toritos, a lonchera in Selma
There are good folks and more good food worth exploring in Bako, but I had to be on my way to Fresno, about a two-hour drive away. Munoz recommended that I stop in Delano along the way to eat at Taqueria Tampico I figured there had to be great Mexican food in the city that birthed the United Farm Workers. Instead, I indulged in a plate of . fettuccine alfredo. With carne asada. Creamy noodles paired with succulent, crispy Mexican beef. Which I doused in Tapatio. And it wasn’t bad at all. It taught me my first lesson about the Valley: Drop all expectations.
I rolled into Fresno around lunchtime to meet Mike Oz, who has documented the city’s taco scene for more than a decade. Joining us were Sam Hansen and Ray Ortiz, director of marketing and entertainment manager for the Fresno Grizzlies, the city’s AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. The three organize the city’s Taco Truck Throwdown, an annual food event held at the Grizzlies’ Chukchansi Park that attracts loncheras (literally, “lunch trucks”) from across the Central Valley. Last year, they brought in more than 20,000 customers over two days to eat 50,000 tacos at some 32 taco trucks.
We met at La Elegante, a long, narrow former diner in the city’s Chinatown complete with old-school booths and a lunch counter. The place is so popular that the Union Bank across the street has a security guard to make sure no one parks in its lot. “You came right in time,” said Oz, a baseball reporter for Yahoo! Sports. “It’s about to get packed.”
Sure enough, a line quickly formed out the door of La Elegante: workers in overalls, nurses in smocks, men in ties. I quickly found out why. Within two minutes, I received my order: an adobada taco, northern Mexico’s take on al pastor. La Elegante’s take tasted straight out of Tijuana: spiced, saucy pork enlivened with a furious habanero salsa. I wanted to order another, but Hansen waved me off. “Don’t eat too much,” he cracked. “We’re going to go on a run.”
Taqueria Los Toritos near the Highway 99 exit in Selma
We piled into Oz’s Toyota Highlander and went to Selma, the self-proclaimed “Raisin Capital of the World.” He drove along back roads, through plots of almond groves and grapevines just showing fruit, as Hansen explained why the three of them think the Valley, not Los Angeles, is America’s taco truck capital. “We’re a bunch of small towns, and what people end up claiming more than anything is high school sports and taco trucks,” Oz said. “There’s a pride here to them you won’t find even in LA. I remember once hearing an argument between two guys, one from Selma, another from Madera, over which city had better taco trucks. And they were white guys!”
First stop in Selma: Taqueria Los Toritos, a general lonchera that Munoz had also recommended but only knew as the “Mountain View taco truck” because it’s right off that Highway 99 exit, next to a truck scale. A full canopy covered its front, shading the picnic benches and a table where customers helped themselves to hot pinto beans, and grilled onions and jalapenos. Ortiz ordered an off-the-menu combo: buche and carnitas, extra crispy. Pig stomach and regular pork, sizzled on the grill until just before the meats caramelized. It was one of the best taco bites I’ve had in years: crunchy, fatty, perfect. “This is the spot where memories happen for people from across the Valley,” Oz said. “It’s always open late, so everyone comes here from all around when they’re done with their night.” It’s the Mexican Mel’s Drive-In of the Central Valley.
Next, we headed to the nearby city of Fowler to meet Jovita Camacho, manager of El Mexicano. Her crew won the 2017 Taco Truck Throwdown judge’s award for their luscious carnitas tacos, a mass of stringy pork placed inside two corn tortillas. Camacho remembers wrapping burritos and tacos in foil at home as a small child so her parents and older sisters could crisscross the Valley before dawn to sell them to farm workers. Now, her family not only owns their own restaurant, but the land around it.
“My family was able to achieve the American dream by selling where the people needed food,” Camacho said.
I found more unheralded success stories like her family’s. El Premio Mayor’s carne asada, tender like rib-eye yet slightly crunchy, is the legacy of Adrian Loza, who helped his mother turn her recipes into a regional Instagram sensation before tragically dying at age 29. The hearty cauliflower tacos with a sultry cashew crema at Taste Kitchen is a testament to the drive of Chef Martin Franco, who worked in Fresno’s fancier restaurants until he opened his own spot a couple of years ago because “it was time for my training to step up.” And the spectacular jackfruit tacos at the La Jacka Mobile, grilled and spiced so the pulpy fruit tasted just like carne asada, showed how immigrants adapt the traditional with the modern.
All along, Oz, Hansen, and Ortiz regaled me with tales of their taco truck crawls, like when they encountered a tatted-up, bare-chested Mexican man riding a horse through the fields while smoking a huge blunt late at night in the town of Orange Cove. “He tells us, ‘What do you guys want?’” Hansen said with a laugh. “We told him we were looking for the best tacos around — and he sent us to some good ones!”
Memelita at Oaxaca Restaurant, a classic Central Valley chain
The Taco Truck Throwdown guys gave me homework for the next time I visited, because I needed to get to Turlock for the night, about two hours away. Before I got there, I tried different parts of the Central Valley’s Mexican-American identity. I downed a giant margarita at Sal’s, a Valley institution open since 1942. I drank pulque and nibbled on gargantuan tlayudas at the Madera outpost of Oaxaca Restaurant, a Central Valley chain that serves the Valley’s large Oaxacan community. I even found Michoacán-style enchiladas, folded over like quesadillas and filled with queso fresco, at Mi Casa es Tu Casa, a converted home just down the street from the foul-smelling Foster Farms chicken headquarters in Livingston.
I was stuffed by the time I got to my Holiday Inn Express, but made room for a crispy taco from the local post of La Taqueria, the beloved San Francisco restaurant renowned for its Mission-style burritos. But as I ate it, I remembered something Hansen said that struck me as particularly bold. We were talking about California’s High Speed Rail project, which will cut straight through the Central Valley when completed and connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. Hansen fears new residents attracted by the Central Valley’s low cost of living will irrevocably change its culture.
“With our tacos, we can be unapologetically Central Valley,” he said. “I just don’t want to get ‘colonized’ by transplants who don’t respect the culture that already exists here. I would hope that transplants come to Fresno, eat tacos, and respect the history and culture behind them.”
I didn’t plan to stay in Turlock, but a friend raved about La Mo, which she said was a great Chicano coffeehouse. It was better than that. La Mo occupies three spaces in what was a former office building in Turlock’s quaint downtown. The actual coffee shop faces the street around the courtyard is a bar and the restaurant. It was slammed by 9 a.m. with ladies who lunch and college kids, all diving into La Mo’s Alta California cuisine — the name given to the creations of young Mexican-American chefs whose classical training evolves native cooking into higher-end Mexican food.
La Mo, a coffee shop and all-day cafe in Turlock
I ordered the crunchy, perfect chilaquiles, but didn’t finish them, because I had to save myself for El Rematito, Modesto’s legendary flea market. Every weekend, hundreds of vendors from across the Valley set up stalls to sell everything from roosters to seasonal produce to horse saddles to clothing to pirated copies of Solo: A Star Wars Story. There were at least 30 food stalls: aguas frescas and churros and menudo and regular tacos and even Chinese. But what surprised me was an emphasis on gorditas, which don’t get much love in Southern California, but they’re all over the Valley. I wound up at Gorditas La Zacatecana gorditas are gospel in the Mexican city of Zacatecas, the birthplace of my parents, and the truck made them just like Mom: small, fat, and redolent of great masa.
Next was mulitas (think fatter, double-sided corn-tortilla quesadillas) on Eighth Street, where taco trucks line up every day next to the railroad tracks, then a guajolota (a French roll stuffed with a whole tamale) at Taqueria la Mexicana in Manteca. But the prize was in Stockton, an industrial town long used as a code word in California for blight. It also happens to be the hometown of Eater contributor and traditional Mexican food evangelist Bill Esparza. I started with a taco de adobada at El Grullense, a Stockton landmark which has inspired imitators from the unincorporated community of Gorman at the southern end of the Central Valley to the city of Chowchilla, best known nationally as the site of the largest women’s prison in the United States and for a bizarre crime in which 26 children were kidnapped and buried alive in a moving truck (they miraculously survived).
Esparza insisted I try two Cal-Mex classics I had never even heard of: Mi Ranchito Cafe (“the only restaurant where my abuelo would eat Mexican food”) and Arroyo’s Cafe. Both feature particularly distinct flour tortillas: irregularly shaped, powdery, thick like biscuits. Esparza says he’s never seen flour tortillas like that in his many travels, and neither have I — and if the two of us say that Stockton is the only place in the United States with tortillas like these, then it’s probably true.
Esparza also suggested that I try what I had already discovered was the quintessential Valley dish: steak ranchero, a strip of steak covered in sauteed onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers, then drenched in a mild ranchero sauce. Menus up and down Highway 99, from Cal-Mex spots to taquerías run by recent immigrants, carry that and steak a la Chicana, which the rest of the Mexican-American world calls steak picado — a mestizo beef stir-fry.
Esparza said that his dad would take him to Arroyo’s old location whenever he did well in school and treat him to a rib-eye ranchero. “It had everything I love about Mexican cuisine on a plate,” he said. “Whether it be Xalapa, Veracruz Acaponeta, Nayarit or Stockton, California, small-town Mexican food has the biggest flavors.”
The beer-battered fish taco at Streetzlan
Esparza hasn’t lived in Stockton for years, but his pride in the Valley was something I encountered again and again. I found it in the tacos de canasta (a Mexico City street classic that sees tacos placed in a steamer until the insides turn to jelly) at Tacos El Guapo in the city of Lodi, run by a 20-something Mexican-American who had stenciled his name and “Modesto” on his lonchera. Even better were the beer-battered fish tacos at Streetzlan in Galt. I was shocked to find an Alta California taquería in the tiny city, but it speaks to the Valley’s expanding possibilities. The batter used River Rock Brewery suds the tortilla, blue corn. Hip-hop and ranchera blasted in the tiny room, decked out like a sneaker shop.
I wanted to save room for Sacramento, the state capital, and the only city in the Central Valley whose Mexican food scene I was somewhat familiar with. Roughly every other year, I speak at the Sacramento Leadership Conference, which has brought high schoolers from across Cali to Sacramento State for a one-week retreat for nearly 40 years. My payment every visit: al pastor tacos from Chando’s Tacos. Owner Lisandro Madrigal is a second-generation restaurateur who left his six-figure Apple job to open a taquería in 2011. He now has four of them (with another on the way in Citrus Heights), and a buzzworthy Chando’s Cantina near the capitol building, where young Mexican-Americans downed craft cocktails one after the other as I sipped on a mezcal.
The exterior of Tacos Santos Laguna, near Sacramento State
I got my al pastor, followed by the off-the-menu chicken barbacoa tacos at Tacos Santos Laguna near Sacramento State. I ended my night with more steak ranchero at El Novillero, another Cal-Mex classic. Letters, newspaper clippings, and mementos left over the decades by fans covered its walls, all appreciative of yet another local legend I had never heard of — the biggest crime of this trip, and one I have shamefully committed again and again.
“This isn’t the Sacramento that was depicted in Lady Bird,” Marcos Bretón said with a massive laugh as I ate a birria quesadilla for breakfast at Lalo’s Restaurant, a cramped place in the city’s Southside barrios that draws lines even at 8 in the morning. Bretón, a Sacramento Bee news columnist, has covered the city for nearly 30 years. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants who worked in canneries in San Jose, so he appreciates the Central Valley’s working class. But he wants young people like Chando’s Madrigal to get their due.
“They’re starting to ascend,” he said, dousing his chilaquiles with one of Lalo’s three tableside salsas. “But unless it’s me writing about them, people really don’t know. For the rest of the media, the Valley is just murders and mayhem. That’s B.S. There are areas of poverty, but there are a lot of thriving, strong communities. And no one wants to talk about that.”
It was those young hustlers Bretón hailed that I kept running into again and again on my mad dash back down Highway 99: A trio of millennial Chicanas who talked to each other in English while slinging great breakfast burritos at La Mexicana de Ripon in its namesake city the generation X lady who gave me buttery flour tortillas at La Casita, a low-slung tortillería next to Highway 99 in the college town of Merced that has been open since the 1960s the young immigrant mujeres who set up a stove outside La Michoacana in the unincorporated down of Delhi, the better to whip up their beautiful Sunday birria special.
‘That’s so Bakersfield!’: The pollo al carbon paired with brisket at El Pollo Tapatio
With dozens of cities, towns, and random communities sprawled across the Valley, my Highway 99 tour could have lasted for months. At its end, I stopped in Bakersfield one more time, to enjoy a gringa (a triple-decker quesadilla) at Los Tacos de Huicho, which introduced Bako to Mexico City-style food in the mid-1990s. It was great, but not quite what I needed, so I wound up at a food trailer on the city’s outskirts called El Pollo Tapatio.
The cart was parked next to an abandoned dance hall, where Okies used to hold weekend square dances for decades. It was now surrounded by Mexican businesses. Here was the Central Valley, in a dirt lot. Where others dismiss the region, Latinos embrace it and are making it their own.
And I tasted this reality at El Pollo Tapatio: Not only did they serve a great pollo al carbón, but they paired it with a fine brisket.
I texted Munoz to ask if he had tried this chicken-brisket combo. “Never heard of it,” he responded. “But that’s SO Bakersfield!”
Gustavo Arellano’s Central Valley Eating List (also, mapped):
La Perla 2401 White Lane, # G, Bakersfield, CA (661) 834-2911
Tacos La Villa 1801 Union Avenue Bakersfield, CA (661) 633-1395
Arizona Café 809 Baker Street, Bakersfield, CA (661) 324-3866
Taqueria Tampico 725 Main Street, Delano, CA (661) 725-9474
La Elegante 1423 Kern Street, Fresno, CA (559) 497-5844
Los Toritos 11065-11099 E. Mountain View Avenue, Selma, CA (559) 381-3073
El Mexicano 2833 E. Manning Avenue, Fowler, CA (559) 834-1477, elmexicanorestaurant.net
El Premio Mayor 3247 E McKinley Avenue, Fresno, CA (559) 498-9925, @elpremiomayor
Taste Kitchen 6105 E. Kings Canyon Road, Ste. #102, Fresno, CA (559) 724-9948 Instagram: @tastekitchen
Oaxaca Restaurant 131 E. Yosemite Avenue, Madera, (559) 377-5077 oaxacamexicanrestaurant.com
Mi Casa es Su Casa 1236 Crowell Street, Livingston, CA (209) 394-7763
La Taqueria 2151 W. Main Street, Turlock, CA (209) 664-9719 lataqueria-turlock.com
La Mo 310 E Main Street, Turlock, CA (209) 632-6655
El Rematito 3113 Crows Landing Road, Modesto, CA (209) 538-3363
Eighth Street Taco Trucks 898 8th Street, Modesto, CA
Taqueria La Mexicana Y Paleteria 502 Yosemite Avenue, Manteca, CA (209) 239-6461
Arroyo’s Café 2381 W. March Lane, Stockton, CA, (209) 472-1661 arroyoscafe.com
Mi Ranchito 425 S. Center Street, Stockton, CA (209) 946-9257
El Grullense 212 E. Charter Way, Stockton, CA
Tacos El Guapo E. Harney Lane & S. Hutchins Street, Lodi, CA
Streetzlan 415 1/2 C Street Galt, CA (209) 251-7241. Instagram: @streetzlanrestaurant
Taqueria Los Compadre, 9117 E. Stockton Boulevard, #150, Elk Grove, CA (916) 714-1889
Tacos Santos Laguna 6727 Folsom Boulevard, Sacramento, CA (916) 452-1500
Chando’s Tacos Locations at chandostacos.com
El Novillero 4216 Franklin Boulevard, Sacramento, CA (916) 456-4287, elnov.com
Lalo’s 5063 24th Street, Sacramento, CA (916) 736-2389
La Mexicana de Ripon 1201 W. Main Street, #17, Ripon, CA (209) 599-6820
La Casita 770 W. 14th Street, Merced, CA (209) 722-2187
La Michoacana 9810 Stephens Street, Delhi, CA (209) 664-9247
El Burrito House 1067 Sierra Street, Kingsburg, CA (559) 897-7335, @el_burrito_house
Birrieria Apatzingan 1066 Rankin Road, Tulare, CA (559) 685-1740
La Pasadita 847 N. Front Street, Earlimart, CA (520) 251-8908
Tacos Cazador 206 W. Kern Avenue, McFarland, CA (661) 633-1395
Los Tacos de Huicho 123 E. 18th Street, Bakersfield, CA (661) 328-9490
El Pollo Tapatio 4 Fairfax, Bakersfield, CA (661) 378-6474, @elpollotapatiofoodtruck_
The Myth of Authenticity Is Killing Tex-Mex
The official version of chili con carne can only be made by people from Texas. It’s literally the law: In 1977, the 65th Texas Legislature enshrined the stew of beef and chile peppers as the official state dish, but also an official version of the dish, declaring that “the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.” Defending chili from non-Texan contamination was at least a half-century too late, but now those offenders slapping ground beef and chili powder on French fries and hot dogs and spaghetti and — despite repeated warnings — adding godforsaken beans would know they were wrong.
But the zeal for defending Texas chili has dwindled considerably in the 21st century there is a new national sensation to claim and protect. In 2013, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, in solidarity with longtime writer for the magazine and proud chili-hater, Paul Burka, launched a campaign to depose chili as the state dish in favor of brisket — specifically, the Texas-style barbecue brisket in the process of taking over the world, its cult rooting down in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.
The debate over the state food is, on one hand, deeply silly. Over the phone, Vaughn explained to me the brisket campaign was his most pugnacious moment as a professional barbecue evangelist. He bears chili no ill will — he just wrote a guide to brisket chili, in fact. His targets were the lobbyists who sought to make chili the state dish in order to promote their cook-off in far West Texas’s tiny Terlingua. “In comparing what Texas is more well known for, a bowl of chili or brisket, it’s brisket,” Vaughn says.
But selecting a state dish also, like literally every other question of food ownership in America, quickly surfaces large, painful assumptions about whose food matters and why, fractured along the lines of race, national origin, and ethnicity. Smoked brisket is fetishized as Texan authenticity, but its veneration leaves out many Texans. The cut of beef, as Vaughn later noted in his 2015 profile of Robert Patillo of Patillo’s Bar-B-Q, the oldest black-owned barbecue restaurant in Texas and the fourth oldest in the state, is primarily associated with the state’s white pitmasters, and Texas Monthly’s decision to assess a barbecue restaurants based on their brisket largly left out the black-owned businesses that helped originate and preserve Texas barbecue. The brisket tunnel vision is much less evident in the magazine’s 2017 barbecue rankings.
Chili, on the other hand, was originally popularized by women, most of them Tejanas or Mexican — San Antonio’s long-lost chili queens — though they go unmentioned in the state resolution. Whatever the chili lobby’s original aims, it ensured that Texas cuisine was officially represented by a food that spoke to the state’s Mexican roots. And chili con carne, even if it’s now out of style, has had the kind of cultural impact Texas barbecue brisket is only beginning to dream of: Chili was the first and most famous manifestation of the robust, misunderstood, supposedly inauthentic and staggeringly influential cuisine that we now call Tex-Mex.
Visitors to Texas often marvel at the endless cornucopia of barbecue establishments and, their guts ruptured, wonder how beef-drunk Texans eat this way every day. The answer is: They don’t. Barbecue is, for most people, a long Friday lunch or weekend drive out to the country, a three-hour wait with a cooler full of beer, a tailgate for meat. Mexican food, especially Tex-Mex, is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I get off the plane in Austin, my first stop is not Franklin Barbecue (though I’ll get my fix eventually). For a taste of what I miss most, I beeline for a migas taco from Veracruz All Natural, followed by a plate of cheese-topped enchiladas at Amaya’s, and then meet friends for a Mexican martini and a huge bowl of queso at Trudy’s. Take it from someone who — while I was the editor of Eater Austin — spent two years chronicling the barbecue boom: It’s time Tex-Mex got its due.
The standard narrative about Tex-Mex is that it’s an inauthentic, unartful, cheese-covered fusion, the kind of eating meant to be paired with unhealthy amounts of alcohol or to cure the effects thereof. There’s a lot of easy-melt cheese, the margaritas are made with a mix, and the salsas come from a bottle. In our snackwave food moment, Tex-Mex receives the same amount of affection and respect as a Doritos Locos taco or a microwaved burrito — a processed, comforting, lovable American monster.
Those assumptions are entirely wrong. Not only are they incorrect — they were promulgated by elite white food writers in * Pace Picante voice * New York City! In The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, peerless Texas food historian Robb Walsh pins the denigration of Tex-Mex on English cookbook writer Diana Kennedy, whose introduction to her 1972 book The Cuisines of Mexico refers to the American enchilada combo plate as “so-called Mexican food” and makes the case that the real cuisine could only be eaten further south — and that there was a “real” Mexican food that exists, period. New York Times food critic and giant of the food world Craig Claiborne was a defender and acolyte of Kennedy’s, and helped popularize her anthropologically dogmatic version of Mexican cuisine.
The pirata taco at Taco Palenque
So what is the food we call Tex-Mex, really? Its origins lie in an extremely obvious time and place that tends to be obscured in modern Texas: when Texas was part of Mexico. Before cowboys, there were vaqueros before Anglo Texans, there were Spanish-Mexican Tejanos. Their culture gave rise to a rustic ranch cuisine heavy on local chiles, pecans, beans, stews, and flour tortillas as well as corn. (A note: chile is the pepper chili is the dish chilly is the opposite of how your mouth, nose, and guts will feel after consuming either.)
In the late 19th century, San Antonio was a booming railroad town and became famous for its open-air food stalls, run by women, decked out with red-and-white checked tablecloths and laundry lamps, serving food like tamales and chili con carne, according to The Tex-Mex Cookbook. Portrayed as sharp-witted and alluring by accounts from the time (by men), the Chili Queens, and their fame, helped propel their iconic dish out of Texas into the Midwest and beyond. Tamales, which likely already had a foothold in the Mississippi Delta, followed on chili’s heels.
Waves of cheesy, spicy, frankly pleasurable Texas-Mexican dishes, with many regional variations, continued to spiral outward in the 20th century and into the 21st: sizzling fajitas, cheese enchiladas, frozen margaritas, queso, breakfast tacos, Frito pie, barbacoa, puffy tacos. Along with the crispy tacos and burritos of Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex became one of America’s most beloved and important regional cuisines, even if most Americans didn’t realize that was what they were eating.
And while cities and regions across Texas have contributed iconic dishes to the pantheon, Tex-Mex is a border cuisine, and shares a great deal in common with the cuisines of Northern Mexico, another rustic ranch tradition heavy on beef, grilling, and flour tortillas. Mexican food expert and writer Gustavo Arellano, who wrote about the massive influence of Tex-Mex in American cooking in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America — and chronicled an eating tour from Los Angeles to El Paso for Eater — told me, “My joke about Tex-Mex is it’s invented in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio makes it popular, and Austin takes all the credit for it.”
The Rio Grande Valley is a three- to four-hour drive south from San Antonio, a rolling, flat, green river delta decked with palm trees, warm and slightly humid, located across its namesake river from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Signs trumpeting its tropical climate and welcoming back “winter Texans” (retirees) line every highway — alongside the occasional roadside marker documenting its bloody history. In the 20th century, railroads and irrigation transformed the region into an agricultural powerhouse famous for its grapefruit. The Valley is one of the poorest areas of Texas, and also one of the fastest-growing, heavily dependant on cross-border trade. It’s a bird-watching paradise and home to a robust Mexican restaurant scene, packed with both second or third locations of restaurants from Mexico and longstanding classics serving the Valley’s regional variation of Tex-Mex.
A sterling example of classic Rio Grande Valley Tex-Mex can be found at Ms. G’s Tacos N’ More in McAllen. Housed in a white cinderblock building with a green roof, Ms. G’s interior is dominated by a red, white, and green counter, with flyers attached advertising lenten meatless specials and whole-wheat tortillas. The kitchen is visible through a large, wide pass, and drive-thru windows are cut into both sides of the room. The menu board explains the restaurant’s history as the first location of a family-run chain, since sold off, and lists familiar Mexican and Tex-Mex standards like breakfast tacos, enchiladas, and barbacoa.
Ms. G herself, whose full name is Yolanda Gonzalez, runs the counter, and she told me that she serves scratch-made food just like her mother and grandmother used to make. Her mother founded the popular local chain El Pato — now a beloved standard across the Valley — in this building. After years out of the industry, Gonzalez took over this location, which had been empty for some time, and opened the restaurant to serve her family’s food. She said that the recipes, which aren’t quite “real Mexican food,” originated from her grandmother, who is from El Carmen, a small town outside of Monterrey in Neuvo León. Maybe it’s not, but it’s ranch food, cooked by the people of this region on both sides of the border.
I ordered “soft fried” carne guisada tacos, which means they are dipped in oil but not fried to a hard shell. They arrived nestled in a small paper tray, covered in lettuce, tomato, and yellow cheese. Ms. G gave me extra hot sauce, a mild and tomatoey salsa, and popped back out to make sure I didn’t need extra napkins, since the soft-fried tortillas can get messy. It was a glorious mess — the subtle earthiness of the guisada, that mild crunch of iceberg, and the bite of the hot sauce and salty cheese over top, barely contained by a slightly fatty corn tortilla. The soft-fried tortilla was a new variation to me, but the flavor was pure Texas.
But Ms. G’s is also in danger of closing. Her business relies on the drive-thru, and the new restaurant next door is claiming the alley they once shared. She’s trying to work out a solution, or to find another spot. The prospect of losing the original location of her mother’s restaurant clearly hurts — she started telling the same story to a drive-thru customer shortly after I ordered. And that’s the other issue with the classic, locally rooted Tex-Mex served by family-owned restaurants throughout the state— they are in a precarious position of being both perpetually popular and out of style, beloved and sniffed at, poised for reinvention or in danger of being lost as its own living, breathing tradition.
While family-run Tex-Mex restaurants might vanish, the key delights and innovations of Tex-Mex are in no danger of disappearance: Fajitas are in every Applebee’s queso is on the menu at every Chipotle (for now) chili and nachos grace every tailgate and margaritas end the workweek across America. Tex-Mex is infinite and eternal.
But within Texas, the palatial, cheese-drenched, combination plate Tex-Mex restaurant is as out of fashion as the diner in New York City or the steakhouse in Los Angeles or the fancy white-tablecloth continental restaurant in your hometown. Sometimes the food is still stellar sometimes quality has slipped. The next generation does not always want to take over the family business, and the kids who grew up eating there with parents don’t want to return as adults. In Austin, the rampant gentrification of the city’s Mexican east side, itself a legacy of decades of segregation, is uprooting numerous Tex-Mex restaurants and imperilling others — because the rent skyrockets, because their customers can no longer afford the neighborhood, or simply because the value of the land beneath the restaurant is too high not to sell.
In other Texas cities, the situation is less starkly dire, but these restaurants are like the air, the standby pleasure, not usually celebrated as an essential aspect of the city’s identity, by outsiders or insiders. And there aren’t a ton of new Tex-Mex restaurants opening. Texas food media, like all food media, is hungry to celebrate the next new thing.
When asked why traditional Tex-Mex might be dying, experts and chefs offer various logical-sounding reasons. Conversations circled back to the same few theories, ones I had entertained as well: Tex-Mex is comfort food, and people don’t want their comfort food to change. At the same time, not everything, not even the combination plate, can endure. People want healthier, lighter restaurant meals, no one wants processed food, and family restaurants can’t last forever.
But then, Texas’s other notable tradition, barbecue, is mushrooming across the state. So people want healthier, lighter food like… smoked meat by the pound? No one wants processed food like… barbecue’s ubiquitous accompaniment, white bread? Family restaurants can’t last forever… like thriving third-generation barbecue joints? Many of those smoke-scarred, small-town destinations have recently been taken over by a generation who left for the professional world, and came back once the money, and the TV cameras, arrived, transforming their family’s tradition into a viable business. And many more of Texas’s finest pitmasters are newcomers, blending the austere tradition of perfectly smoked meat with quality ingredients and inventive flourishes, whether it’s a gargantuan brisket Frito pie or Aaron Franklin’s famous espresso barbecue sauce.
Salsa bar at Taco Palenque in Laredo
There are few meals more transcendent than luscious, velvet-soft barbecued brisket, a tough cut melted by hours of fire and smoke to sublime tenderness, served with white bread, onions, pickles, and sauce on the side. The technique and history behind this exalted hunk of beef (Institutional Meat Purchase Specification 120, to be precise, a boneless cut from a cow’s pectoral muscle) encompasses so much of what it means to eat well in Texas — and that narrative has been bought wholesale not just by outsiders, but by Texans themselves.
There are also few meals more sublime than a heap of barbacoa served with freshly made flour tortillas and hot salsa. And few dishes move a homesick Texan like a bacon and egg taco, or a bowl of queso and a margarita or three shared with friends. Ask Texas to choose between barbecue and Tex-Mex, and all but the most dedicated partisans will quail.
To be honest, I did not realize how important Tex-Mex had become to me while I was in Texas. It wasn’t until after I moved to Los Angeles, the greatest Mexican food city in America, that I found myself cooling on brisket but desperately missing combination plates and breakfast tacos, green sauce and yellow cheese. And my Texas sojourn was pure luck — I follow my girlfriend’s job wherever it leads us. I didn’t grow up eating at Tex-Mex restaurants, let alone my grandmother’s home-cooked Mexican food. This cuisine barely feels like it belongs to me at all — and yet I love it, very much. So why had I, while covering Austin, spent so much more time writing about, and talking about, barbecue? Part of it was the demands of being on a news beat — there were new barbecue restaurants, and dramas, and brisket-battles weekly, and staggering numbers of my readers had a near-endless appetite for reading about, arguing about, and daydreaming about this most hallowed of smoky meats. Meanwhile, few new Tex-Mex restaurants opened, and too many closed.
What does barbecue have that Tex-Mex doesn’t? It has meat, it has fire, it has an aura of mastery — and, currently, it’s associated primarily with Anglos, and the area in and around Texas’s famously progressive, and also profoundly segregated city, Austin. The state has a robust tradition of black pitmasters Franklin Barbecue is located in what was formerly Ben’s Long Branch Bar-B-Q, a black-owned business in a historically black neighborhood, originally created by Austin’s segregationalist 1928 city plan. Black pitmasters at restaurants like Sam’s Bar-B-Que and Hoover’s still smoke nearby. And Mexican pit-smoked barbacoa, a weekend staple in the Rio Grande Valley, existed before Texas was Texas.
But the “easy story” of central Texas barbecue, as Daniel Vaughn calls it, disseminated across the country, is about, and told by, people who are almost entirely white, and male. Each of these cooks and obsessives are individually passionate and often brilliant — and some, like Aaron Franklin, are downright leery of their own fame — but the aggregate effect is Texas barbecue being treated with almost comical importance, driven by a self-perpetuating cycle where tastemakers champion genuinely wonderful food made by people who look like them. (This isn’t an issue just in Texas barbecue, but that obsessive model kicked off our smoke-worshipping zeitgeist, and created a model for, say, the Ugly Delicious barbecue episode, which featured no black pitmasters).
And that narrative imbalance has real consequences: Collective obsession gave barbecue the means to survive as a scratch-made, wood-smoked art. Until recently considered a blue-collar food, diners in Texas and across the country will wait in hours-long lines to pay more and more, as brisket prices soar and the field grows more competitive. The upscaling of any traditionally affordable food, especially one popularized and mastered by black Americans, is a fraught issue — so is beef’s literally world-threatening status as a cheap commodity. What is true is that the vast majority of the joints at the top of the Texas Monthly list serve high-quality beef. “When you can sell brisket for $20 a pound, then you can create a viable business, and you can create a environment where people want to become entrepreneurs,” Vaughn said.
And if there is some grumbling, there are far more paying customers and legions of critics amateur and professional ready to declare this newly expensive barbecue the greatest in the world. And… they’re not wrong. The Janus conundrum that certain foods are both too cheap to sustain a business and too expensive for the communities that nurtured them is an ugly one, but the solution can’t be industrial agriculture, food-stamp wages for cooks, and financial ruin for restaurateurs. When it comes to barbecue, high-quality, ranch-raised brisket, made with care by people decently paid for their literal night-long shifts, has only made the cuisine stronger.
Tex-Mex, on the other hand, faces a persistent social pressure to remain cheap. Customers complain when tacos go above $1 and enchilada combos sell for more than $8 — and that pressure isn’t coming from those who can’t afford to pay more.
Interior of Los Barrios in San Antonio
Robb Walsh blames the emphasis on cheapness on Taco Bell, which when it arrived in the 60s, presented a threat to Tex-Mex mom and pops. “They responded by cheapening Tex-Mex and instituting shortcuts like pre-formed taco shells to cut costs, and in the process ended up with compromised Tex-Mex that people tend to vilify,” he says. El Real, the Houston Tex-Mex restaurant where Walsh is a partner, re-creates scratch Tex-Mex cooking with a menu annotated with historic context they charge $10 for a bowl of loaded queso (Matt’s El Rancho, which originated Bob Armstrong dip, a famous version of loaded queso with taco meat and guacamole, charges $6.95 for a small bowl, $8.95 for a large).
San Antonio food and nightlife editor Jessica Elizarraras, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, says declaring that Tex-Mex is defined by cheap yellow cheese has a dark side of valorizing poverty and ignoring its injustice. “People ate that way because they had to,” she says. Tex-Mex is treated like every other “ethnic” food in America, as a cheap eat, with little thought to what it costs the people who make the food to keep prices low.
Third-generation restaurateur Carmen Valera, a co-owner of Austin’s Tamale House East, says when her family decided to open a new restaurant, she did the math on her late uncle Robert ‘Bobby’ Vasquez’s famously cheap tacos, served at the now-shuttered Tamale House #3, a restaurant which played a key role in popularizing the breakfast taco in the city, especially among University of Texas students and the city’s ‘90s-era slackers. Valera, also a UT alum, where she studied economics, determined that the crispy taco Vasquez sold for $.85 cost $1.17 to make. “A woman who worked with him started crying when she saw this,” Valera says. “She said, He never did this.” Tamale House East charges higher prices for the family’s classic dishes as a result, though it’s still a ridiculously affordable restaurant Valera takes pride in paying longtime cooks and employees a good wage.
In Los Angeles, one of the country’s most boundary-busting Tex-Mex restaurants also charges $10 for a bowl of queso — and $16 for an enchilada combo plate. Nachos are available with a caviar supplement, and the chalupa is made with short rib. Done as fancy for fancy’s sake, a menu like that would have been, at the very least, deeply annoying — but San Antonio native Josef Centeno’s Bar Ama is downright delicious, and deeply steeped in Tex-Mex styles and history. Centeno’s pedigree prompted at least one food writer to insist the chef must be “redeeming” the cuisine. But what if Centeno is just able, by dint both of distance but also of Southern California’s marginally greater willingness to drop $5 on a taco, to give Tex-Mex the love letter it deserves?
What Tex-Mex suffers incessantly, in media, in casual conversation, in its relentless commodification to enrich corporations while family-run restaurants struggle to stay afloat, is a lack of love. Or, to get confrontational, a patronizing disrespect. It is stereotyped as cheap without even the backhanded compliment of fetishized authenticity.
Texas brooks no insult, especially one originating from New York City. What gives? If the narrative of a cheap, lovable-but-irredeemable cuisine boils down to banal racism, resulting in a systemic undervaluing of Tejano and Mexican-American restaurateurs, cooks, and chefs, the flaw is in the attitudes, not economics or changing tastes.
So what is the future of Tex-Mex? A testament to the cuisine’s diversity and complexity is the fact that, even as the combination plate palaces are dying off, so many different possibilities exist, especially if diners and tastemakers shed the assumption it is a cheap or unimportant cuisine. Austin food expert (and founding editor of Eater Austin) Paula Forbes says she first understood that expansiveness working as a waitress in an old-school Tex-Mex restaurant serving traditional combination plates. “There was a list of five enchilada fillings and ten enchilada sauces, and everyone mixed and matched to their liking,” she says. “The insight you get as a waitress is that you see people order every imaginable combination of Tex-Mex.”
Gustavo Arellano and Robb Walsh both see promise in one variation of Tex-Mex in particular: Tex-Mex barbecue, such as the heaping brisket tacos served at Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin — or the chopped brisket enchiladas at Rio Grande Grill. Arellano notes that Tejanos have smoked Texas-style barbecue for as long as Anglos a smoked brisket is just as beautifully accompanied by a flour tortilla and an acidic salsa as it is by barbecue sauce and white bread.
El Rodeo Taco Express in McAllen
Though if the next dish to sweep across America might be brisket tacos, within Texas the larger trend is, as Dallas-based writer and editor José R. Ralat says, Tex-Mex becoming more Mexican. Newer arrivals have always influenced the cuisine, but Ralat sees that cycle accelerating as cooks and chefs cross back and forth across the border more often — as do ingredients. To Ralat, the future is embodied in Dallas’s Revolver Taco Lounge, which serves both a killer al pastor taco and a seven-course tasting menu in their sister restaurant Purépecha, located in the back room. Chef Regino Rojas, a James Beard semi-finalist in 2018, draws on his family’s heritage, and specific recipes and ingredients from, their home state of Michoacán.
The new waves of Mexican influence are also omnipresent in the Valley. When I asked for advice on where to eat in McAllen, taco expert and co-author of TheTacos of Texas Mando Rayo pointed me toward El Rodeo Taco Express, a food truck under a sprawling canopy, attached to a meat market of the same name. Clearly a nighttime hub of folding tables and grilled meats, at 4 p.m. they were serving six tacos for $5 the pastor tacos, fresh off the trompo, were especially fragrant with cinnamon, and arrived with heaps of grilled onions — and also bottles of red and green sauce, like at any Tex-Mex restaurant. The truck’s website describes the flavors as originating from Monterrey, Nuevo León with a “Tex-Mex mix.”
Carnicerias across Texas have food trucks, and taco al pastor, sometimes even off the trompo, is hardly unknown. But El Rodeo Taco Express was clearly a community hub, a straight-up fun place to hang out, a scene in the way few of those taco trucks are. The television switched between a pan-Americans soccer tournament and a Selena tribute old folks and a mother with two kids still in their Catholic school uniforms ordered at the truck. If one of Tex-Mex’s hallmarks was its ability to speak to a vast swath of the state’s population, then food crossing from Northern Mexican to Southern Texas is as much the cuisine’s future as its past.
El Rodeo Meat Market in McAllen
Following the Arellano Tex-Mex model to San Antonio only multiplies both the newer-wave Mexican influences and the old-school traditions. For a glimpse of yet another manifestation of where Tex-Mex, or at least some variation of Mexican food cooked in Texas, might be headed, San Antonio Current’s Jessica Elizarraras sent me to a newly opened food truck and bar, Con/Safos, whose owners have roots in San Antonio’s West Side and call the food they cook “neo-Chicano.”
In the backyard of a restored historic house in Hemisfair park, the food truck serves a small menu of delicious mash-ups: chorizo fried rice, cheeseburger tacos, and the truck’s sensation, a pan dulce burger, the beef patty served with brie and bacon on a concha, Mexico’s traditional sweet, cookie-topped, shell-shaped bread. The burger, sous chef Guillermo Mendez says, provokes strong reactions on social media. “We get Instagram comments like, My grandmother would slap me if she saw me do that to a concha,” he says. About those attitudes, both Mendez and Elizarraras shrug — all great innovations contain a touch of sacrilege.
As for what Austin is currently popularizing — the city’s breakfast tacos, which were definitely not invented in Austin but are definitely spreading across the country via the engine of SXSW, are made by two sisters from Veracruz who started out selling juices and smoothies and later expanded to a taco truck. There is nothing more Tex-Mex than a migas taco, eggs and tortilla chips or leftover tortilla scrambled together, then folded into a fresh tortilla, and the Veracruz All Natural version, with its handmade tortilla and fresh avocado, is the current pinnacle. Co-owner Reyna Vazquez, the truck and now restaurant’s head chef, says she develops her recipes using fresh, and more Mexican ingredients, and wouldn’t call her food Tex-Mex, just her own spin on Mexican. The balance between Mexico and Texas is apparent even in their salsas: the red and roasted salsas are based on recipes from her mother’s Veracruz restaurant, whereas the green salsa, known in Mexico, is much more popular in Central Texas.
Tacos at Veracruz All Natural in Austin
The future of Tex-Mex is, in many ways, as regional as the cuisine has always been, with approaches and ingredients and ideas traveling all over the state. All of it, however, is cradled in a tortilla. In 2017, Rayo pushed for another replacement for chili as Texas’s state food: the taco. The proposal made its way to state representative Gina Hinojosa, who authored a resolution celebrating the diversity of taco styles and fillings, the state’s love of both corn and flour tortillas, as well as the robust war over who invented the breakfast taco, as evidence the taco united all good things in Texas — even brisket.
Just as the chili resolution defined the Texas bowl of red as definitive, the taco resolution employs the requisite Texan swagger so rarely applied to the state’s infinite variety of Mexican food, stating: “One thing Texans can agree on is that, despite the availability of tacos in the other 49 states, the tastiest tacos can be found in the great State of Texas.” A state legislature dominated by a Republican party at war with itself, fixated on barring trans people from using public bathrooms and cracking down on cities seeking to protect immigrants, is not likely to enshrine the taco as the state’s official food. But doing so would both capture the 21st century zeitgest of the state, and fulfill one of Texas’s most cherished obsessions: pissing off California.
19 of 33 Mushroom and Corn Fungus Quesadillas Entree: Filete del Campesino made from tenderloin stuffed with squash, mushrooms, huitlacoche, and chihuahua cheese, topped with tomatillo salsa at Hugo's.
Michael Paulsen/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
20 of 33 Churros rellenos stuffed with dulce de leche and served with chocolate home made ice cream and mexican hot chocolate at Hugo's. Steve Campbell/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
21 of 33 Flan de Queso at Hugo's.
Show More Show Less
22 of 33 Margarita, straight up at Hugo's.
Alison Cook Show More Show Less
23 of 33 Tortillas are made inhouse at Hugo's.
Alison Cook Show More Show Less
24 of 33 Hugo's Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
25 of 33 Chiles en Nogada at Hugo's.
Paula Murphy Show More Show Less
26 of 33 Alfajores , a dessert cookie sandwich with dulce de leche inside at Hugo's.
Kevin Fujii/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
27 of 33 Tacos Dorados de Papas at Hugo's.
Alison Cook Show More Show Less
28 of 33 Gorditas at Hugo's.
Buster Dean/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
29 of 33 Plantain empanadas stuffed with cheese is a featured dish at Hugo's. Steve Campbell/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
30 of 33 Milkshake of Mexican chocolate ice cream, cafe de olla, mescall and rum at Hugo's.
Alison Cook Show More Show Less
31 of 33 Crepes at Hugo's. Buster Dean/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
32 of 33 Chile-spiced bar peanuts at Hugo's.
Alison Cook Show More Show Less
33 of 33 Chef Hugo Ortega, left, and herb farmer Pat Rapesak pose with a basket of squash blossoms at Hugo's. Buster Dean/Houston Chronicle Show More Show Less
After 12 years, chef Hugo Ortega's beautifully run regional Mexican restaurant qualifies as a Houston cultural treasure. It's an unofficial embassy for the flavors and ingredients of our neighbor to the south, interpreted by a Mexico City native who has become one of our city's touchstone success stories. Sit at the peerless bar to snack on not-so-humble tacos dorados with ethereal crisped-potato shells, electric green salsa and a filling of napa cabbage cut as fine as excelsior. Sip one of beverage director Sean Beck's agave cocktails, or a stirring roasted-pineapple paloma. Wallow in the earthy depths of long-braised beef cheek in resonant pasilla sauce, to be rolled up in freshly made blue corn tortillas. Marvel at what a touch of charcoal can do to grilled octopus (pulpo al carbón). The food, the service and Ruben Ortega's thoughtful desserts only seem to get better here. And the storied Sunday brunch proves that buffets, given proper attention, can both edify and delight.
Entree price: $-$$
Where: 1600 Westheimer
Houston Chronicle Food Critic Alison Cook compiled her list of the 100 best restaurants in the Houston area. The list was unveiled Wednesday, Sept. 24. Find out what made the cut with our comprehensive list.
Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.
Texas is defined in many ways by many different people. But there are at least three things anyone can agree on when it comes to the Lone Star State: barbecue, Tex-Mex and steaks. This is the holy trinity of Texas cuisine &mdash foods that compose our most firmly entrenched food heritage. These are the foods we invented or perfected. They are our exports to the world, our richly flavored history, and although we may agree on them in broad strokes, they are also our favorite things to fight over.
In tiny Lockhart &mdash a town long known as the Barbecue Capital of Texas &mdash a decade-long family feud was sparked in 1999 at Kreuz Market, just shy of the barbecue joint's 100th anniversary, after patriarch Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt's death. The squabble led to the creation of a brand-new Kreuz Market just down the street, where its pits were christened with hot coals from Schmidt's timeworn pits after being carried there in a ceremonial display of reverence.
The old Kreuz was renamed Smitty's, and although the feud wasn't particularly fierce, it wasn't uncommon to hear Lockhart residents align themselves with either Smitty's or "The Church of Kreuz," as though barbecue was their one true religion. The dispute ended this past year when the family came together once again . to open yet another barbecue joint, this one in Bee Cave. Food is what can separate us &mdash whether along cultural lines or not &mdash but it's also what brings us together.
The Voters Bill Addison, Atlanta Magazine (formerly at The Dallas Morning News) Jodi Bart, Tasty Touring Leslie Brenner, The Dallas Morning News Addie Broyles, Austin American-Statesman Teresa Byrne-Dodge, My Table Magazine John DeMers, Delicious Mischief Teresa Gubbins, CultureMap Dallas Syd Kearney, Houston Chronicle and 29-95.com Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram John Mariani, Esquire Matthew Odam, Austin American-Statesman Hanna Raskin, Seattle Weekly (formerly at the Dallas Observer) J.C. Reid, Texas Monthly and 29-95.com Scott Reitz, Dallas Observer Ron Ruggless, Nations Restaurant News Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly Edmund Tijerina, San Antonio Express-News Daniel Vaughn, Full Custom Gospel BBQ Robb Walsh, Houstonian Magazine Virginia B. Wood, Austin Chronicle
How They Voted Voters were asked to choose the 30 Texas restaurants that they believed every Texan should eat at once before they die and that any visitor to the state should have on his or her hit list. The rules were loose, except for the following requirements: The restaurant must still be open and the general public should at least have a shot at being able to eat there (i.e., no members-only restaurants or private dining clubs). Voters were encouraged to consider restaurants across every price range, every cuisine and every part of the state. The results were entered into an Excel spreadsheet and tallied, with the restaurants listed above receiving by far the majority of the votes across the board. Geographical regions for the purposes of the list were aligned with the seven regions traditionally defined by the Texas Department of Transportation.
For as much as we may love to squabble over food, we love to eat it even more. And every Texan worth his boots has his own personal list of restaurants that represent Texas at its best. These are the places we recommend to visitors and the places we take long road trips to visit ourselves. These are the places where every Texan should eat at least once before they die (preferably with those boots still on) and the restaurants that define the essential Texas dining experience.
But does that holy trinity of barbecue, Tex-Mex and steak still define Texas? Or is it our state food, chili? Maybe seafood from the Gulf Coast, or the ultramodern blending of local Texan products and international cuisines as seen at restaurants like Tyson Cole's Uchi or Chris Shepherd's Underbelly?
"Texas restaurants have come a long way since myopic New York editors thought it was strictly barbecue and chili," says John Mariani, longtime food writer for Esquire. "Texas, and Houston in particular, is rich in every kind of cuisine and many express it with a Texas swagger."
Mariani is one of 20 food writers whom we polled to determine once and for all what foods &mdash and, just as important, what restaurants &mdash define Texas. What are the 30 seminal Texas restaurants that everyone should visit at least once? we asked them. Not the best, per se. But the essential restaurants that have shaped our culinary landscape and continue to shape it to this day. The restaurants that, as Daniel Vaughn, a barbecue writer and author of the upcoming Texas barbecue book The Prophets of Smoked Meat, puts it, "help to tell the story of Texas cuisine."
"These are the restaurants where I'd send Texas newcomers who wanted to understand the state," said Hanna Raskin, a former Dallas Observer food critic who still reflects fondly on the state although she's now helming the Seattle Weekly's food section. "Or at least the state I like," she added jokingly.
We could have asked chefs or restaurant owners, but we asked food writers for a reason: Their lives and careers revolve around traveling and eating, comparing and contrasting and &mdash most important &mdash documenting Texas food history one column at a time.
3800 Seawall Blvd., Galveston
Although this 102-year-old restaurant is surprisingly amenable to beach attire (facing the Gulf of Mexico across only a thin stretch of pavement and sand will do that to a place, no matter how dignified), good luck simply walking in from a day on the island in the evenings. Gaido's is perennially popular for its Watkins' Bisque &mdash a secret recipe that's kept people returning for decades &mdash and shrimp plucked straight from the waters off Galveston Island. A long, elegant set of dining rooms draped in plush period attire makes it easy to envision the days in which visitors arrived at Gaido's on the old interurban line streetcars that used to crisscross the island.
It's difficult to find oysters much fresher than the ones at Gilhooley's, which pulls its bivalves off boats only a few blocks away in the sleepy coastal burg of Dickinson. Gilhooley's has also famously banned children &mdash all the better to enjoy the gruff, bawdy atmosphere over a char-grilled batch of Oysters Gilhooley and a beer with your buddies. Coldest days are often best here, as the oysters are at their plumpest and the fire pits outside on Gilhooley's ramshackle patio are at their warmest.
1600 Westheimer Road, Houston
Long before Houston's Lower Westheimer was ground zero for hot new restaurants, there was Hugo's &mdash the critical favorite from chef Hugo Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught. After their success with eternal brunch favorite Backstreet Cafe, Vaught and Ortega decided to take a shot at making the sort of interior Mexican food that Ortega and his brother Ruben, the pastry chef, had grown up eating in Mexico. The result was the best Mexican restaurant Houston had ever seen, a title that Hugo's still holds 11 years later. The humble Hugo Ortega's story of finally making it after crossing the Mexican border three separate times and working his way up from a dishwasher is the American dream personified.
2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston
"Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo is popularly credited with inventing fajitas and inspiring an entire nation to embrace Tex-Mex food in the form of flat beef strips delivered on an iron comal so hot it's hilariously and wonderfully unsafe. And although other Tex-Mex restaurants picked up on and diluted Ninfa's fajitas over the decades (and although all of the other Ninfa's were sold off to franchisees), the original Ninfa's on Navigation still makes its fajitas the old-fashioned way &mdash the right way, if you ask many die-hard Tex-Mex fans &mdash with outside flank steak. Although the patio has been greatly expanded and modernized, inside you'll still find that familiar jangly maze of rooms and abuelitas making tortillas as you walk in the front door.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
"Any list of essential Texas restaurants must include at least one upscale steakhouse," says Edmund Tijerina, food critic at the San Antonio Express-News. And although he was referring to Bohanan's in San Antonio, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse rocketed to the top of our list with by far the most votes from our panel of food writers. This Houston-based steakhouse with possibly the best wine list in the state is the gold standard when it comes to high-end steakhouses, and although it's from a family that's made a business of exporting Houston concepts throughout the state (Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Pappas Bar-B-Q and more), this clubby, ultra-plush steakhouse has only one other location &mdash in Dallas.
2775 Washington Blvd., Beaumont
Owing to its proximity to Louisiana, this Beaumont barbecue joint offers a geographically appropriate blend of East Texas-style barbecue and Cajun cuisine. Patillo's is also "one of the few barbecue joints left in Southeast Texas that hand-makes the classic East Texas 'juicy link,'" says freelance food writer J.C. Reid. Houston Chronicle food writer Syd Kearney calls it simply "East Texas barbecue and white bread" and defends Patillo's famous links, saying simply: "No bitching about the tough sausage casing. You should have to work for sausage this good."
Sartin's Seafood Restaurant
3520 Nederland Ave., Nederland
Sure, Kim Sartin Tucker's restaurant sells food other than barbecued crabs. But that other stuff isn't why people make hours-long drives to this cutely shabby seafood shack in Nederland where the motto is: "We got the crabs." Sartin's is "home to one of the only native dishes of Southeast Texas," Reid says. "Barbecue crabs." And Kearney remarks that Sartin's is at its best when "you're digging into a huge plate of crabs, catfish, stuffed crabs and fried Gulf shrimp."
3755 Richmond Ave., Houston
Tony Vallone has hosted everyone from exotic royalty and sitting heads of state to Tony Bennett and Oscar de la Renta since opening his namesake restaurant in 1965, and although Vallone's focus hasn't always been Italian, he was instrumental in elevating that cuisine to fine-dining status with a restaurant that's held its coveted "see-and-be-seen" status for decades. Today, Tony's is still widely recognized as one of the top &mdash and correspondingly most expensive &mdash restaurants in the state. "Not only is Tony's one of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. today," said Mariani in 2011, "it's one of the best restaurants period."
1100 Westheimer Road, Houston
Although it's still an infant by this list's standards, food writers across the state and the nation heralded chef Chris Shepherd's ambitious restaurant in Houston, which combines the city's tapestry of ethnic cuisines with an impressive array of locally produced, caught, raised or grown ingredients. Shepherd's unique and innovative menu bills itself as "The Story of Houston Food" and revels in remixing them in dishes such as Korean braised goat and dumplings, in a warm, casual setting that makes the open kitchen feel like a natural part of the wood-and-steel dining room.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House
As its name would suggest, chicken is Babe's signature dish. Babe herself &mdash Mary Beth Vinyard &mdash passed away in 2008, but husband Paul still runs the place they started in a 100-year-old warehouse in Roanoke two decades ago. People swear by Babe's original recipes for chicken-fried steak and fried chicken &mdash and these are the only options at the original Roanoke location &mdash although the restaurant chain is now equally famous for its Mamma Jo's roast (based on Paul's mother's recipe), the green chowchow that comes with its catfish and &mdash believe it or not for a fried-chicken place &mdash its vegetables.
2458 N. Main St., Fort Worth
It's said that Fort Worth is where the West begins, and that sense is always keenly felt as you approach the Cattlemen's Steakhouse, located smack in the middle of Fort Worth's still-bustling stockyards. The restaurant that Jesse E. Roach opened on a whim in 1947 has become internationally renowned for its aged beef and massive steaks. These days, it's a clamorous riot of a restaurant that's so proud of its charcoal-broiled steaks it refuses to recognize the validity of "medium-well" or "well done" as serious options. Although Roach passed away in 1988 and Cattlemen's was bought out in 1994, it remains a Fort Worth favorite and a monument to Texas' Wild West sensibilities.
There were cries of foul when El Fenix was sold in 2008 to an investment group after 90 years as a family-owned business, but the legacy of the Dallas-based restaurant chain remains intact. El Fenix perfected the Tex-Mex combo plate and helped popularize the food throughout the state and eventually the nation as chains popped up in other cities and emulated the El Fenix model. Generations of families have dined at El Fenix since it was first opened in 1918 by Mike Martinez and return regularly for heart-melting portions of cheese enchiladas and tortilla chips that are perfectly crunchy down to the last crumb.
Kentucky-born Dean Fearing is credited as the father of Southwestern cuisine thanks to his 20-year tenure at the glitzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, a Dallas institution. In 2007, however, Fearing moved away from his signature cuisine and the Mansion to open the equally glamorous Fearing's inside the imposing Ritz-Carlton hotel. The lavish eight-roomed restaurant quickly secured itself a spot in the Dallas culinary firmament with Fearing's upscale Texas fare and earned plenty of national accolades along the way. Want to splash out like a modern-day oil baron? Fearing's is the place to do it.
Louie Mueller has a history in Taylor that extends beyond his barbecue joint, first arriving in the little town to manage its newly opened Safeway grocery store. But it's his barbecue he's famous for, cooked the same way since 1949. Although Louie himself passed away in 1992, his son Bobby has carried on the family tradition in such fine form that Louie Mueller BBQ was awarded an America's Classic award by the James Beard Foundation in 2006. The black-pepper-rubbed fatty brisket and pork ribs fall apart before they reach your mouth and melt on your tongue once there.
The Mansion on Turtle Creek
2821 Turtle Creek BLVD., Dallas
Even if its full name is "Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek," true Texans will always refer to this timeless restaurant as simply "The Mansion." This is where Dean Fearing established New Southwestern cuisine during the high-spirited '80s in an estate-like setting that &mdash to this day &mdash oozes class. What was originally built in 1925 by cotton magnate Sheppard King as a sophisticated Italian Renaissance-style residence remains, according to Bill Addison, formerly the food critic at The Dallas Morning News and now at Atlanta Magazine, "a classic that keeps reinventing itself brilliantly." And although new chef Bruno Davaillon promised to remove The Mansion's famous tortilla soup after taking over in 2010, it remains on the menu to this day.
"This is my favorite restaurant in Dallas," recalls Addison, "and certainly one of the finest Japanese restaurants in Texas, if not the country. Owner Teiichi Sakurai is a chef who keeps his head down and concentrates more on his cooking than his national reputation. He studied the craft of making soba in Tokyo and blesses Texas with his seasonal riffs on hot and cold noodle dishes. His omakase &mdash ever changing, frequently surprising with unusual ingredients &mdash is an immersion course in Japanese cuisine."
2201 North Commerce St., Fort Worth
Although it's hard to imagine today when you're seated inside the enormous gardens and grounds of Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth, there was a time when the restaurant seated only 16 people instead of 1,000. That was when Joe T. Garcia himself established one of the state's most famous Tex-Mex restaurants with his wife on Independence Day in 1935. Nearly 80 years later, it's still family-owned and -run and the lush patio the Garcias installed in the 1970s is just as popular as the restaurant's chile rellenos and fajitas. In 1998, an America's Classics award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation all but solidified its standing as one of Texas' truest institutions &mdash even if it still doesn't accept credit cards. "Bring cash, reverence," notes Kearney. "It's considered a holy place by many."
211 Highway 281, Marble Falls
This precious diner only a few blocks away from a limestone cliff that tumbles into the Colorado River below (or, as it's called in these parts, Lake Marble Falls) is the epitome of a small-town restaurant. This means you can't leave without ordering a piece of pie, which has been Blue Bonnet's claim to fame &mdash along with breakfasts that will keep you full for days &mdash since 1929. There's even a daily happy hour that features pie and a drink during the week. Breakfast is served all day, which means you can have a piece of German chocolate or peanut butter pie for dessert. Just remember to bring cash.
2330 N. Loop BLVd. West, Austin
Since Fonda San Miguel opened in 1975, no other restaurant in the United States has been more important in shaping the often-nebulous definition of Mexican food. "Diana Kennedy consulted on this," notes Tijerina, "and it has played a crucial role in shaping the growth of interior Mexican food in the state and in the United States." The riotously colorful Austin hacienda from Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago was "seminal in that it completely changed the conversation about what constitutes 'Mexican food' in Texas," agrees Virginia Wood of the Austin Chronicle. Despite moving to Spain in 2008, chef Ravago returns to his Austin kitchen every month (although it's in the capable hands of Oscar Alvarez, who &mdash like many Fonda staff &mdash has been there for decades).
This is the stuff that changed Anthony Bourdain's mind about Texas barbecue, which the chef and author had formerly maligned. After being brought to Franklin by barbecue evangelist Daniel Vaughn, Bourdain had to admit that the brisket Aaron Franklin smokes in low heat over post-oak wood for 18 hours was "the finest brisket" he'd ever had. "I can't imagine anyone could surpass this," Bourdain told the Huffington Post last year. Bon Appétit agreed, naming Franklin the best barbecue in the country in 2010, calling the young Aaron Franklin himself "a prizefighter in the prime of his career." And it's a young career &mdash Franklin has been open only since 2009, but seems destined to become a Texas legacy.
Mary Faulk Koock was a famous cookbook author whose Austin restaurant was a bit like an early version of The French Laundry. Koock lived at Green Pastures before eventually turning the sprawling estate &mdash her ancestral home &mdash into what is now known as the "grande dame of Austin restaurants." Koock was the state's premier hostess for three decades in the mid-20th century, and James Beard himself was sent from New York City to help her publish the Lone Star State's "definitive" cookbook in 1965, The Texas Cookbook. "Koock entertained presidents and ordinary folk," says Wood, who also notes that Green Pastures was important for another reason: It was one of the first integrated fine dining restaurants in the United States.
619 N. Colorado St., Lockhart
Known as the "Church of Kreuz" both for its massive, cathedral-like structure and for the devotion with which its supplicants line up outside on Saturdays as if for church service, Kreuz Market may not be the oldest barbecue joint in Lockhart, but it's our food writers' top pick in the Barbecue Capital of Texas &mdash although Virginia Wood is quick to note that both Smitty's and Kreuz should make the list, "in recognition of both sides of the family feud that erupted in the '90s." You get no sauce or even utensils here, all the better to appreciate the obsessively smoked and richly scented meats that derive all of their flavor from the oak chips that seal in the ribs' and pork chops' juices and softly rendered fat with a wonderfully thick, black smoke ring.
Former prizefighter Matt Martinez opened the first Matt's El Rancho in 1952 and moved it to its current South Lamar location three decades later &mdash complete with a not-so-humble, blazing red sign that proclaims Matt's the "King of Mexican Food" in blaring neon. People pack the dining rooms every night to order old-school Tex-Mex favorites like El Rancho's own Bob Armstrong dip &mdash named for former Texas Land Commissioner and El Rancho regular Bob Armstrong &mdash that layers queso, taco meat, sour cream and guacamole in one delightfully over-the-top dish.
208 South Commerce St., Lockhart
The once and former Kreuz Market underwent a name change in 1999 when Nina Schmidt Sells &mdash daughter of Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt &mdash allowed her brother Rick to take the original Kreuz name (and some of its coals, from a fire which is said to never die) and open a "new" Kreuz Market down the street. Smitty's still occupies the same century-old store in which Charles Kreuz first began smoking meat in 1900. What began as Kreuz's way of preserving meat prior to refrigeration is now a bona fide legacy. And although Smitty's has made it unscathed into the 21st century, you still share communal tables under smoke-stained pressed-tin ceilings and you still have to pay with cash (or a check).
In the 1980s, chefs like Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles were busy transforming the way the rest of the nation viewed Texas cuisine. Today it's Tyson Cole who's at the helm of a new movement that started with seminal Austin restaurant Uchi in 2003. In the intervening decade, Cole won a coveted James Beard award (after being nominated for three consecutive years prior) for his "Japanese farmhouse" cuisine that combines Texan ingredients with the Japanese ideals and techniques he acquired while training for 10 years in Japan. And in the meantime, Cole's cooking &mdash and expansion of Uchi into smaller concepts and new markets &mdash has once again changed the way the nation casts an eye on modern Texas cuisine. Addie Broyles of the Austin-American Statesman notes that although the 10-year-old Uchi is "baby seminal," when viewed within the context of this list, it "likely will be [seminal] in another 10 or 15 years."
203 S. Saint Mary's St., San Antonio
Tijerina jokingly refers to chef/owner Bruce Auden as "the Susan Lucci of Beard nominations." With seven under his belt, Auden is clearly doing something right here at Biga on the Banks, which is by far the best spot to dine along San Antonio's touristy River Walk. That's because the stunning multistory restaurant serves legitimately dazzling food instead of overpriced tourist-trappy dishes. Auden's "blend of South Texas and Asian influences was groundbreaking at Charlie's 517 in Houston," recalls Tijerina, and "even after all these years, he still produces an excellent vision of South Texas on a plate."
218 Produce Row, San Antonio
Even if the market surrounding Mi Tierra is "a little sad," Kearney says, "once inside the doors, this 24-hour margarita-fueled spot is a merry place." Tijerina agrees, asking of the festive restaurant that's served patrons for over six decades: "Where else can you get huevos rancheros 24 hours a day?" Between the strolling bands of mariachis, Christmas lights blooming across the walls like creeping ivy, an aesthetic that can best be described as a piñata-and-papel-picado explosion and a full-service panadería in front, Tijernia says: "This is the best example of the more-is-more ethos that is San Antonio."
822 Southwest 19th St., San Antonio
"If you want to start an argument in San Antonio," Tijerina says, "just ask who does the best puffy tacos." Our food writers agreed that Ray's Drive Inn does the best turn on San Antonio's most popular native food &mdash narrowly edging out Henry's Puffy Tacos &mdash something sure to fan the flames of the ongoing feud between the two restaurants' followings. With its scruffy West Side setting in a deliciously retro drive-in and its neon-lit claim as the original home of the puffy taco &mdash on the menu since 1966 &mdash Ray's is "a piece of puro San Antonio," Tijerina says.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch
7701 Interstate 40 East, Amarillo
The Big Texan is one of those terrifically larger-than-life restaurants that &mdash like Mi Tierra &mdash wave their "everything is bigger in Texas" flag with emphatic zeal. The yellow and blue exterior &mdash fronted by a giant bull advertising its notorious 72-ounce steak &mdash looks almost circus-like under the wide-open skies of Amarillo off the famous Route 66, and the atmosphere inside isn't all that different. If you can eat that steak &mdash nicknamed "The Texas King" &mdash and its sides in less than an hour, the $72 meal is free. This decades-old challenge is why Kearney calls it "the spot where competition eating was born." If you're into voyeurism, you can even watch competitors take on the challenge daily on webcams via The Big Texan's website.
There's something reassuring about a restaurant whose address is simply a bunch of numbers before and after a Farm Road designation. Perini Ranch is classic country at its best, as the rural address would indicate. And as its location on the cattle-dotted West Texas plains would suggest, Perini Ranch is best known for its beef. Its mesquite-smoked peppered beef tenderloin combines two of the state's best ingredients &mdash Texas beef and mesquite wood &mdash and the impressively authentic ranch setting in tiny Buffalo Gap gives the impression that dusty cowboys fresh off the trail will wander in for some fried catfish or chicken at any moment.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free. Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.
Dinner Diplomacy: Like the Country Itself, Mexico’s Cuisine is Diverse and MisunderstoodJavier Diaz de Leon, consul general of Mexico in Atlanta, introduces chefs from Merida at Atlanta's No Mas Cantina.
In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine received UNESCO World Heritage designation as a cultural treasure, but the joints that serve most Americans must not have gotten the memo.
Many serve a half-baked version featuring beef and chicken as the main proteins, accompanied by cheese, tortillas, rice and beans in a dizzying array of combinations labeled numerically to make ordering simpler. Burrito chains bring another uniquely American dimension, and while they may be wildly successful from a commercial standpoint, they don’t make them like your abuela used to.
If not sophistication, there is a certain efficiency to “American Mexican” cuisine. But the Mexican government’s Atlanta outpost is betting that Americans with more discriminating palates will also make more informed travelers, benefiting the bilateral relationship and the Mexican economy.
David Cetina, chef at La Tradicion in Merida, Yucatan, visited Atlanta to showcase traditional Mexican cuisine. Mr. Cetina is one of 25 gastronomic ambassadors designated by Mexico’s foreign ministry to spread the word about the country’s flavors around the globe.
“Food is a very strong ingredient now for modern tourism. One of the stronger strategies to promote tourism is to promote Mexico as a gastronomic destination,” said Javier Diaz de Leon, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta.
For Mexico that’s key, given that tourism accounts for 7.4 percent of gross domestic product and sustains 4 million jobs in the country, according to one report .
Delta Air Lines Inc. made a bet on U.S.-Mexico travel last year by launching a joint venture with Aeromexico that expanded the number of nonstop destinations from Atlanta to Mexico and gave Delta travelers access via codeshare to 52 Mexican cities.
Mexican embassies and consulates around the world are using chefs as part of their outreach, to the point that the government has vetted a select few as “gastronomic ambassadors” charged with bringing Mexican flavors to the world, Mr. Diaz said.
“We believe very strongly in using food as a cultural bridge, and I don’t see any reason we’re going to stop doing it,” he added.
That initiative has been on display in Atlanta in recent weeks. Even two days before a Sept. 15 Mexican independence bash at Georgia Power, the consulate hosted a tequila tasting.
The week before that, Atlanta was on the receiving end of some dinner diplomacy, with two renowned chefs from the city of Merida making appearances — and more importantly, their signature dishes — around the city.
David Cetina, chef at La Tradicion in Merida in the state of Yucatan (accessible on a nonstop Delta flight) said it’s not surprising that few re-creations of traditional Mexican food exist in the U.S. It’s hard to find the right spices and ingredients, much less cooks with the blend of formal education and downhome experience required to master the art of even a single regional cuisine.
“We don’t see the flavors we’re accustomed to,” in the U.S., Mr. Cetina said. Missing in action often here is one of the unsung heroes of traditional Mexican food: smoke.
Mr. Cetina started cooking with his grandmother at age 5, learning dishes like cochinita pibil, pork braised with achiote (annatto) and sour orange juice, then (traditionally at least) smoked in a pit, with flavors varying depending on the type of leaves and wood burned.
Both Mr. Cetina and Ricardo de la Vega, who runs the Frida restaurant at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya hotel in Playa Del Carmen, prepared these and other foods for hungry guests at No Mas Cantina in downtown’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood at a Sept. 5 dinner hosted in part by the Mexican Tourism Board’s Atlanta office.
No Mas has become ground zero for Mexican culinary outreach in Atlanta, being among the rare places paying homage to the breadth of Mexican cooking. The large, colorful space, fashioned from a former warehouse, is bursting with art and home goods the proprietors source directly from artisans all over Mexico. In June, chefs from Yucatan state made the trek up to Atlanta to help tourism authorities pitch local travel professionals on their Mayan ruins, beaches and, of course, food.
Starting Sept. 15, the restaurant is spending each of the next four weeks highlighting dishes and cultural tradition from a different Mexican state, from the black mole and alebrijes (painted sculptures) of Oaxaca to the tortas ahogadas (“drowned” fried pork sandwiches in sauce) and Mariachi musicians of Jalisco.
Ricardo de la Vega heads up Frida, a restaurant at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort named after famed painter Frida Kahlo. He’s known for putting new twists on Mexico’s culinary classics.
For his part, Mr. de le Vega used the showcase to demonstrate how one can innovate while staying true to tradition, using duck for a new twist on tamales.
Back at the Frida restaurant, among his many creations is a special chileatole, a thick, cornflour-based soup originally created in the state of Puebla— only his is fortified with a bit of lobster. With 80 percent of Frida’s patrons coming from abroad (mostly from the U.S.), Mr. de le Vega prides himself in making food that is accessible to foreigners while grounding them in Mexico. Both he and Mr. Cetina are among the five chefs to be featured at the Oct. 10-14 culinary festival at the Grand Velas.
Their visit is part of a steady procession of prominent voices for Mexican cuisine in recent years. Celebrity chef Zahie Tellez took a similar circuit during a May 2017 visit, teaching local audiences how to make green mole and other specialties. She was followed in November with TV chef and cookbook author Pati Jinich, who joined Chef Todd Ginsberg at The General Muir for a fusion of Mexican and Jewish cuisine.
Ms. Tellez’s Atlanta connection also began at the Grand Velas, which is where the editors of Atlanta-based TravelGirl magazine encountered her. They eventually made her the first Mexican to grace the cover.
In an interview with Global Atlanta, Ms. Tellez said she wants to cry when she sees what passes for Mexican food in the U.S.
A native of Mazatlan on the Pacific coast, she grew up making aguachile, a seafood dish of water, pepper and coriander where the fish is “cooked” in lemon juice, similar to a ceviche. Her father, a carpenter, made her a stool so she could reach the stove at an early age. With her mother hailing from Lebanon, she had a broad exposure to other flavors as well.
“The tables in my house were extraordinary,” she said.
The evolution of even the most fundamental of Mexican recipes — mole — hearkens back to this uniquely Mexican mix of cultures, she said. (Her grandmother made the local variant with a metate, a sort of flat mortar and pestle made with volcanic rock.)
“(Mole) is a pre-Hispanic dish, and then when the Spanish conquered Mexico, they brought with them cinnamon, lard, wine, onion, pork, beef, so can you imagine how the recipes were enriched?”
Even if Mexican food is based on the three main staples of corn, bean and squash, she said, the flavors change with the geography.
“We have 62 different types of corn we have 145 different types of chiles. You can imagine all the combinations, all the flavors around that.”
Celebrity chef Zahie Tellez visited Atlanta last May to put on a display of Mexican cooking. She dives deep into the history of dishes like green mole, which she’s preparing to make here. Photo by Trevor Williams
An economist by training, Ms. Tellez started cooking at 31 and stumbled into a TV career, where she’s had shows on the El Gourmet and Discovery networks. She “goes deep” on the history behind the dishes she loves to make, like posole, a stew made from chiles, hominy and pork.
She hopes to educate her countrymen about their own culinary history while countering “misunderstanding” she sees in the U.S.
“I think that people think that the taco is our best dish, and it’s a lie,” she said, calling the tortilla just a container for the marvelous sauces and meats that represent a chef’s real talent.
But even if they aren’t perfect, the proliferation of Mexican restaurants around the U.S. means Americans are open to tasting more from their neighbors, Ms. Tellez said, a fact reflected both in the taquerias of Buford Highway and the growing number of local pots like Nuevo Laredo, No Mas and Mezcalitos, which bridge Americans back to the more traditional fare.
Mr. Diaz, the consul general, agreed. Even if they don’t know its extent, most Americans at least say they like their neighbors’ food, and that provides a solid foundation to build on.
The consulate hopes to give them a digestible taste of a country that of 31 states that would take a lifetime to really grasp, said Mr. Diaz, summing up with a quote from the late chef and food/travel writer Anthony Bourdain:
“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”
How Homemade Tortillas Catapulted a Restaurant Business in Nashville
Diners packing the table at longtime Nashville Mexican restaurant La Hacienda order their preferred variation of Mexican classics. There are chicken enchiladas buried under bubbling cheese and sweet chile sauce, a grilled chicken breast swimming in jalapeno cheese sauce, and a 14-inch burrito stuffed with Fajita-style chicken, beans, sour cream, and avocado. The molcajete features steak sauteed with cactus and banana peppers.
The owners say enchiladas, tacos, and fajitas are typical orders for most customers here at the Nolensville restaurant and market. For those more familiar with traditional Mexican cuisine, tacos de tripe y tacos de lengua are popular choices.
“Simple and easy,” La Hacienda Taqueria owner Carlos Yepez says of his menu.
Inside the restaurant, families gather with friends and neighbors. The decor, with its iconic motifs, brick archways, and bright coat of orange paint, is the backdrop for a lively, familiar atmosphere.
Tucked away on one of Nashville’s notably diverse stretches of street, La Hacienda Taqueria is not a destination for trendy tacos and modern interpretations of Mexican cuisine. It is a homestyle spot serving dishes like fajitas sizzling with a side of rice and beans. “This is a family restaurant with family recipes,” says Lillian Yepez.
Carlos and Lillian Yepez of La Hacienda Sam Angel / Eater Nashville
Carlos and Lillian Yepez, whose restaurant and market remain a constant in the evolving city, maintain flavors that aren’t fussy, but are reliable. “Nothing is precooked, everything is cooked fresh, and the tortillas and chips are made daily,” Lillian Yepez says. The homemade tortillas and chips are the bedrock of the business, the stand-out items that have spread the La Hacienda name across Tennessee and surrounding states.
With their family of five and a tortilla maker in tow, Carlos and Lillian Yepez arrived in Nashville nearly 30 years ago to open a tortilla manufacturing facility that would provide the community with homemade corn and flour tortillas, the centerpiece of Mexican cuisine. The Yepezes, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, relocated to Nashville after years in Santa Ana, California, at the urging of Lillian’s brother, who already called Nashville home. At the time, fresh, homemade tortillas were almost impossible to find in the city, and Yepezes saw this as a business opportunity.
“I had eaten a tortilla, but knowing how to make it? No,” Carlos Yepez laughs.
The Yepezes opened a market in 1992 to provide the family with income as they awaited the opening of the tortilla facility. Since then, it has expanded into a full-service butcher shop, bakery, and market, offering additional financial services on the premises, such as money orders, calling cards, and utility payments. A year later, the 130-seat taqueria became the place we know today, and in the same year, the manufacturing plant opened and grew to provide tortillas and chips to 500 customers in the region.
From the beginning, the Yepezes wanted to bring the taste something familiar to the Hispanic community with their businesses. They made frequent trips to Chicago to supply the store, which sells items like Mexican sodas and candy, freshly baked bread, and tortillas. The couple prepared to undertake the optimistic goal of being the area’s primary resource for homemade tortillas — a culinary staple that previously was impossible to find. In a short amount of time, the market saw success, and the Yepezes added four seats and a taco shop. La Hacienda Mercado sits adjacent to the taqueria and was the family-owned La Hacienda operation, which today consists of La Hacienda Mercado, La Hacienda Taqueria, and La Hacienda Tortilleria.
“We had no idea we would end up here,” Lillian Yepez says.
Now, through La Hacienda Tortilleria, the corn and flour tortillas and chips are distributed throughout Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and Georgia. Nashville residents are likely to stumble upon the tortilla chips on the shelves of local markets, as the base layer of the best bar nachos in town and, always, in the baskets at La Hacienda.
Restaurant regular Raul Rodriguez says he can pick out a La Hacienda chip upon first bite. “I say, ‘You got this from La Hacienda.’” Thin, crisp, and perfectly salted, the chips are easily identifiable.
Lillian and Carlos Yepez have been happy to see their clientele grow more diverse over the years. “I thought we were going to do this just for the Latinos because this is Mexican food, but we have all kinds of people here, and we are so happy to see people who are not only Latinos,” Lillian Yepez says.
The modest, family-run restaurant proudly stands behind their tortillas and filling food, and has continued to grow within the community. A pivotal moment in the restaurant’s history came when President Barack Obama came to Nashville in 2014 to speak at Casa Azafrá on immigration reform. The president visited the Nolensville restaurant and famously ordered tacos, flautas, and chips and salsa (to go). His visit is commemorated in large photos that hang on the walls and by a new dedicated dish, Obama’s Plate, featuring tacos and flautas. Teary-eyed at the memory, Lillian reiterates how meaningful it was to have the president of the United States in her restaurant. “It isn’t political,” she says. “It is an honor to have someone come into your home.”
La Hacienda is an expression of love for family and culture, and its customers sense that fact. “The trademark is the good people it is a family-oriented business, and they rely on each other. That is their success,” says Rodriguez, who started frequenting the place when it was a grocery store and small taco shop. “It is by far the best Mexican food in the city, and their reputation precedes them.”
This Boston Mexican Food Standby Has Been Cranking Out Burritos and Mole for 20 Years
After 20 years, hers is a familiar story with fans of Mexican food in Boston: After losing her husband in 1997, Julie King moved from her home in Texas to the Boston area with her daughter, Bessie. King, who was born in Mexico City and spent much of her youth in her father’s home of Puebla, had obtained a law degree in Mexico that was virtually unusable in the United States without acquiring further education. Faced with renewing her profession in Boston or sending her daughter to a good school, King chose the latter, working all manner of jobs, including delivering newspapers, to pay the tuition. She never intended to run a restaurant, but when the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at the chance and opened Villa Mexico Cafe in Woburn, a city just north of Boston.
“In those days I was missing my food a lot,” she said. King bemoaned the renditions of Mexican food that she felt were prominent at the time, full of sugary tomato sauces and enchiladas that bore no resemblance to what she knew from home. She wanted to show the community what traditional Mexican cooking meant for her.
When she came across a restaurant space in Woburn, she made some inquiries at the dry cleaner next door, where she found the owner of the space. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, she walked away with an agreement to lease the restaurant for $500 a month, with the first three months free, to give her time to clean and prep the space. Her sister and brother-in-law came to help, and she opened the restaurant in late 1999 with just five tables. Soon, Villa Mexico became a gathering spot for people who walked in strangers and left friends, King said. Her friends, as she calls her customers, came in from Arlington, Lexington, Burlington, Stoneham, and elsewhere.
Villa Mexico’s flan dessert Dana Hatic/Eater
“It was a big party or reunion every day, especially on weekends,” King said.
She used to seat couples that didn’t know each other together at tables for four.
“Everybody was like a family, because I always sit people together you know, the tables were full,” she said.
Laurel Collins was one of the first customers at Villa Mexico in Woburn and discovered the restaurant while walking around the small downtown area, near where her children attended preschool. Now they are grown, and the family still makes the trip into the city to see the Kings at Villa Mexico on Boston’s Water Street.
“Julie puts a lot of love into her cooking. She also puts a lot of love into getting to know her customers and making friendships, when you come back over and over again,” said Collins. “Everything is made fresh every single day. I have never seen a family work so hard in their lives.”
Julie King inside Villa Mexico on Water Street Dana Hatic/Eater
In the early days of Villa Mexico, King focused on dishing out meals she loved from her childhood, like albondigas (meatballs) in morito chile sauce and carne a la tampiqueña with mole poblano enchiladas. According to Collins, King’s was the only restaurant nearby serving Mexican food, let alone with such reliable quality and warm hospitality.
“She’s one of my kids’ favorite people and she’s always there with the hugs, she’s always there with a ‘hello friend,’ is always there to provide a lunch or a meal,” said Collins.
Laurel Collins with her daughters Emily and Sarah after a burrito-making class with Julie King. Laurel Collins
Two years into operations in Woburn, Villa Mexico had a fire, leaving King and her customers without a home for her cooking. Though the fire was devastating, King said looking back she felt grateful for the beautiful final day she had in that location.
“It was a party in that place,” she said, with many customers from Boston, Arlington, and elsewhere, including some of her first local customers. “I think that all of them came to say goodbye.”
King later reopened in a different location in Woburn before relocating to a rather unlikely spot in Boston: inside a gas station on Beacon Hill. There, to accommodate the space, King converted the restaurant’s menu to a more fast-food style rather than dine-in, offering grilled burritos, tacos, tamales, tostadas, and quesadillas. When that location had to close for building renovations in January 2013, and after King learned she couldn’t return to the same spot, the community rallied to help find her a new location by the end of 2014 a regular customer became her landlord in a new building on Water Street in Downtown Boston.
In the meantime, she provided catering and sold her famed black salsa — a recipe King acquired from her grandma that’s made with tomatoes, roasted peppers, and garlic. King prepares the salsa from scratch to this day at Villa Mexico and even sells it in jars on the restaurant’s website. It gets its color from small chiles, which are roasted until black and then incorporated, skin-on, into the salsa.
Villa Mexico’s black salsa Dana Hatic/Eater
Rick Mayfield became a Villa Mexico loyalist while living close to the gas station restaurant.
“My roommate turned me onto it and I gave it a try and I was blown away by the quality of the food,” he said. “And I think more importantly, Mama King — Julie — and her daughter Bessie are just so nice and they treat everyone like family. They sort of make you feel at home.”
Mayfield said one of his favorite items is the spicy chicken burrito, grilled with a crispy shell. He was devastated when the gas station operation closed, but he held onto a punch card the restaurant had given him — 10 punches and he’d receive a free burrito he had nine.
“So I was checking their Facebook page and when they finally announced that they were reopening, it was a great feeling,” said Mayfield.
Villa Mexico finally reopened in Downtown Boston’s Financial District in January of 2016, and when Mayfield visited, he brought his punch card, which now hangs as a decoration in the restaurant. In Villa Mexico’s new home on Water Street, King has continued to amass a loyal following of people who flock to the tiny storefront, including regulars from past locations, people working in the neighborhood, and newcomers of all demographics.
“We’re not a chain-style atmosphere at all, and we love building relationships with our friends. We spend so much time at the business that the restaurant is like our home,” King said.
Decorations at Villa Mexico Cafe Dana Hatic/Eater
The current restaurant has a handful of seats along the window overlooking Water Street, and there are dark beams that stretch upward and across the ceiling, supporting decorative wrought-iron chandeliers hanging overhead. The upper walls are painted a deep yellow, with white subway tiles below. Decorative plates, delicately painted animal figurines, and framed pictures are on display around the restaurant.
In the open kitchen, King, her daughter Bessie, and their small team prepare the simple yet in-demand menu for Villa Mexico’s guests, roasting chiles en masse on the gas range, shaping tamales one by one, and making each burrito to order.
“Through the years we’ve really focused on the word-of-mouth ‘advertising,’ on people knowing us, our story, our family, our team, and obviously our food, so that they feel welcome and happy when they come eat,” King said. “We are beyond blessed to have these bonds with so many wonderful people more than the success of the food and the business, the stories and the memories are what we value most.”
Villa Mexico’s tamales Dana Hatic/Eater
For the tamales, King insists on mixing the dough by hand, following her grandmother’s instructions. “You have to put warmth in the dough with your own hands this helps with the texture,” she said. “I prepare the sauces first and then the meat or chicken, and lastly I mix them together to give them the best final seasoning.”
From King’s neighborhood in Mexico City, close to Coyoacán, she brings intimate knowledge of seafood, cooking and preparing beans, and methods for preparing mole poblano, which she lists among her favorite dishes.
“My grandma used to do it from scratch, and the mole poblano has a lot of ingredients,” she said.
Mole poblano is a traditional Mexican dish most often made with poblano chiles in Puebla, where King’s father’s family lived. It’s comprised of several kinds of dried and fresh chiles, boiled tomatoes, cinnamon, and other spices, and King incorporates a burnt tortilla and a piece of white bread for texture and added flavor. The mixture gets blended into a paste and is then combined with a mixture of tomato juice, onions, garlic, and chicken broth, making the paste dissolve to a smooth consistency.
“It’s a nice combination of sweet and spicy,” said Collins — your mouth won’t be burning, but she recommends eating it with one of Villa Mexico’s aguas frescas.
For the menu at Villa Mexico, King has incorporated her mole poblano into a burrito with chicken breast, served grilled, as it would be in Mexico City, King said. It’s also available as a plate, served with chicken breast and a bed of rice, with black beans and salsa.
Villa Mexico’s chicken burrito Dana Hatic/Eater
A melding of King’s culinary background with the convenience of a grilled burrito, the mole burrito is now a favorite item on the menu for Villa Mexico, according to King.
“The mole burrito was born one day that my daughter was very hungry,” King said. Her daughter Bessie didn’t want the whole mole plate — which consists of rice topped with chicken breast in mole, served with black beans and house salsa — so King prepared mole in a burrito with sour cream. King said it was so good she included it on the menu. “We nicknamed it ‘La Niña’ for my daughter, and that’s when it became well known.”
King learned her philosophy of cooking with patience while in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother.
“My grandma used to say, ‘You want a taco, you want a torta, you want some eggs?’ She was cooking all the time, but she never complained about cooking for everybody and at different times. She was always happy to see her kids in the kitchen with her. And that’s the way I grew up.”
The food at Villa Mexico mirrors the way King grew up cooking, she said, “in the way that you cook it in your house. My place is not a commercial cooking place, it’s homemade cooking.”
King said she strives to bring the feel of home cooking to her dishes at Villa Mexico as much as possible. Her specials, served on Fridays, showcase slightly more complex recipes. Some favorites from the original sit-down restaurant in Woburn make their return, such as albondigas and chile rellenos, or fish tacos.
“The secret in our kitchen is: You never can be in a hurry,” King said. “You have to take your time to prepare your food, you have to be happy to prepare your food, and you have to cook the food with extra love. That is your main ingredient.”
Teddy’s Red Tacos
731 Slauson Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90011
46 Windward Ave, Venice, CA 90291. (323) 495-9654
In Southeast LA along the train tracks of Slauson Avenue, Teddy Vazquez is hustling toward becoming a top player in Los Angeles’ street food scene. What started about three years ago as a newfound passion has turned into a booming taco truck creating Tijuana-style beef birria tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and mulitas. At Teddy’s Red Tacos on a Sunday afternoon be sure to expect a long line that could go around the corner into the parking lot. In case you are not able to trek over east, Teddy’s Red Tacos just opened up a spot along the Venice boardwalk for all you westsiders.
Preserving and reinstilling culture through food is nothing new to cooks in Los Angeles. To witness the independence and success of these thriving operations is astonishing — but not surprising. Sure, promotion helps accelerate business, but bringing forth a sense of community toward the people you are serving benefits business much more. Sunday mornings are supposed to be easy. And easy is parking your car outside of someone’s house, walking in, and grabbing a plate.
Teddy Vasquez of Teddy’s Red Tacos
Trent Bozeman is a freelance photographer based in Los Angeles.