- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
When Austin and San Antonio fired up their taco war of words last year, I imagine folks in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas looked up and smiled or smirked, if they noticed at all, and went back to their lives.
Tacos have been part of the fabric of the small border towns south of the capital and its I-35 sibling for decades, the traditions coming across the border with immigrants. And if Austin and San Antonio have anything to brag about, it’s likely nothing new to the residents of South Texas.
“Any kind of taco, breakfast or otherwise, had to come through the border like every other hardworking person you know,” Laredo native and longtime popular radio DJ Sammy “The House” Ramirez said. “Tacos didn’t fly to Austin or Dallas or San Antonio.”
In the words of Kendrick Lamar: “Sit down. Be humble.”
Taco culture throughout South Texas has its own language and a host of variations, many direct influences from their antecedents. While the taco has evolved and mutated over the years in parts of Texas, with some gimmicky fusion and gourmet tacos finding their way onto menus in bigger towns, if you want to get a real taste of Mexico and the origins of tacos, head to the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas towns like Laredo.
“Because you’re so close to the border, you’re getting as close to the real-deal Mexican street tacos as possible. It’s almost like you’re eating in Mexico,” said Mando Rayo, an El Paso native and co-author with Jarod Neece of the book “The Tacos of Texas.” “They say that the farther north you get the more watered down the tacos get.”
I drove down south recently to get a taste, starting in Brownsville and making my way 200 miles northwest on U.S. 281 and U.S. 83 to Laredo.
Everyone in Brownsville may have their favorite taqueria in town, but ask almost anyone for a list of the best and El Ultimo Taco Taqueria will undoubtedly be on it. How popular is this restaurant operated by Rolando Curiel and his family? Try 40,000 tacos a week.
The regular award-winner with walls painted in the red and green hues of its spectacular homemade salsas specializes in street tacos like excellent fried tripas, mildly sweet al pastor and tender bistec, all served Matamoros-style, meaning under a snowfall of queso fresco and layers of feathered avocado. Another Matamoros and Brownsville specialty: frijoles especiales, a bowl of soupy charro beans and the insides of a bistec taco. Give the bowl a squirt of the red chili salsa for jalapeño-and-habanero blast.
The restaurant from the family with Matamoros roots opened in 2000 and prides itself on its freshness and quality of product.
“We don’t save anything from the day before,” Curiel said. “We make everything fresh daily. We do what is needed, and whatever is left is gone.”
Curiel was born and raised in the Southmost area of town a few miles from his taqueria, home to a lively parade known as La Pitada on the Sundays when the Dallas Cowboys are victorious.
A slew of taquerias dot the neighborhood and line Southmost Road, which extends almost to the Mexican border. Developed with an early influx of immigration, Southmost extends to the north end of the Sabal Palms Sanctuary nature preserve, which sits on land once occupied by the Rabb Plantation.
“Lately taquerias have been on the rise. It’s not that they’ve become in vogue, but many people who were doing it at home realized this isn’t a bad business,” Brownsville mayor and Harlingen native Tony Martinez said. “It might have been reminiscent to Matamoros before some of the security issues took place over there.”
The mayor, who is a partner in barbecue restaurant 1848 BBQ, named in honor of the year Brownsville was founded, says that anybody you talk to in Brownsville will have his or her own taco preferences.
“Everybody has got their own little niche,” Martinez told me. “I kind of like the smaller taquitos.”
I started near the top of Southmost with the tiniest taco imaginable. Mota’s Tacos serves al vapor (steamed) tacos about the size of an empanada. The shredded beef-filled tacos served at this little blue and white roadside stand across the street from Gladys Porter High School shine with a greasy glow and disappear in two bites.
I drove past a closed Vera’s, a popular weekend barbacoa purveyor (“It’s not a Sunday if there’s not barbacoa,” Rolando Curiel’s wife, Sylvia, told me), and made my way south to Tacos de Marcelo. Petra and Bulmaro Guzman opened the taqueria, named after Guzman’s father, who operated his own taqueria for more than 45 years in Matamoros, in 1999. The sweet ladies at the counter double-checked my Spanish, but I definitely knew what I was getting into when I ordered mollejas (sweetbreads). The ragged but creamy cuts served on homemade corn tortillas were contrasted by the slippery snap of grilled onions pulled from the plancha just as they had started to caramelize.
While I was in the Valley, I noticed many of the regional restaurants and taquerias have the same branding and operational expertise apparent in successful national chains. One such restaurant is the white-stuccoed Super Cream, with its punctual service, soaring signage and drive-thru window. The restaurant opened in Texas four years ago, but its history in Tampico dates back to 1945.
The sprawling breakfast menu at Super Cream includes a roster of pancakes, chilaquiles and tortas. One thing you won’t find: breakfast tacos. A close approximation to a breakfast sandwich, however, were the puffy gorditas, crunchy on the outside and mellow in the middle, stuffed with juicy shredded chicken and eggs and served with a lardy pool of beans dusted with queso fresco and a dish of escabeche to cut the savoriness.
An import from Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican town about 5 miles south, Nana’s Taqueria opened in January 2010 and definitely wins the prettiest and most charming award for the trip. A colorful mural of birds faces the courtyard of this mission-style building topped with terra cotta shingles.
Nana’s serves the Nuevo Progreso staples called lonches, small lightly fried bolillo rolls filled with ground beef, lettuce and tomato, but I recommend their Big Taco, the large flour tortilla, the size of half a Frisbee, is spotted with toast marks from the grill and oozes with gooey mozzarella and Muenster cheese that flows from the bistec-filled taco. A line of sliced limes circles the taco, giving you a chance to zip the fatty fold with invigorating acid.
The tranquility of the residential-set Nana’s is contrasted by the bustling crowds and TV and strolling musician sounds of Taqueria Jalisco #2, which sits on the main drag through Weslaco. A pile of sweet grilled onions and refreshing cilantro, indicative of the tacos served in Weslaco, buried gentle bistec and corn tortillas, but the local specialty of papa asada left the strong impression. I’m not sure how they injected so much butter into that roasted potato, but the split spud, topped with crispy-edged bistec, a melting cap of shredded cheddar cheese and an oversize scoop of sour cream somehow occupied that heavenly space between liquid and solid. So much fat, so great. It was in my mind the definition of a “last meal on earth” situation.
After a glass of Adelbert’s Naked Nun beer from Roosevelt’s at 7, I beat the dinner crowd at El Rodeo Taco Express. The patio dining area, with its white plastic tables and half-moon domed roof, resembles the setup you might find at a park or county fair and is connected to its sibling meat market, which actually serves breakfast tacos. The musico, with his jaunty keyboard music, had just gotten underway as I sat down with a plate of beef espadas, fried corn tortillas cupped at the edges and topped with tender beef fajita meat layered in a blanket of sun-spotted melted white cheese. Man cannot live on tacos alone, after all.
Following the advice of Neece and Rayo, I headed south as the sun made its final dip over the horizon in search of what they called the Calle de Tacos. I apparently passed it and ended up staring at the Texas-Mexico border before turning back north and stopping into Tacos El Pio. At the taqueria that opened in 2011, another slick operation that looks like it could be one of a chain, I was served a fractal of al pastor tacos, five overlapping corn tortillas loaded with tangy pork, sweet grilled onions and the requisite shower of cilantro and raw onions. As I headed north to find the road to take me to Laredo, I discovered the hallowed Calle de Tacos, an illuminated strip of taco vendors that appeared like a honeyed mirage. Unfortunately, I was way too early. Things apparently don’t get started until closer to midnight, so I had to be happy with a Sonoran-style bacon-wrapped hot dog. Very happy.
I don’t remember much about my childhood trips to Laredo. I remember the main square across from the charming La Posada Hotel, housed in a 101-year-old building that sits on the Rio Grande, and I remember crossing the border to buy trinkets. Now, I will always think of tacos when I think of Laredo (and the best and greasiest Whataburger I’ve ever eaten).
Laredo represented a lot of bests on this journey. The deeply nutty chile de cambray at Lira’s Restaurant was the best salsa I ate on the trip, and it gave a spicy spine to supple barbacoa served in puffed flour tortillas, with a side of crunchy green cabbage to help cool things down.
Breakfast tacos in Laredo are called mariachis — the origin stories of the name vary and are all apocryphal — and the gigantic, as big-as-your-forearm mariachi at Paulita’s Restaurant, slapped with a generous amount of refried beans (described as “cacheteado” in Laredo), crispy twirl of bacon and gentle bed of scrambled eggs, was the best start to any of my days on the road.
Taquitos Ravi’s tender al pastor taco, reminiscent of tender spit-roasted Middle Eastern meats and buzzing with orange soda and ancho and guajillo peppers, was the best taco I ate during my four-day jaunt.
Taco Palenque was the best sign on my trip of good things to come in Austin. Owner Juan Francisco Ochoa (Don Pancho) opened the first Taco Palenque in Laredo in 1987, several years after selling the American rights to El Pollo Loco, which he also founded. The fast-casual restaurant specializes in grilled beef and chicken plates and tacos, and is well-known for its massive pirata, a taco slathered with refried beans and draped with juicy grilled fajita meat and melted cheddar cheese. The family-owned chain now stretches from the Rio Grande Valley north to Houston, San Antonio and New Braunfels.
The restaurants make their own excellent corn and flour tortillas, the latter soft, chewy and spotted with marks from the grill, and feature fresh salsa bars, with several salsa offerings, grilled jalapeños, pickled and raw onions, cilantro, pico de gallo and more. A visit to Taco Palenque will make you totally rethink the idea of fast-casual Mexican food.
Ochoa and his team plan to open a Taco Palenque truck in Austin, with a smaller menu than that found in their 20-plus locations throughout Texas, and eventually hope to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
And, finally, I saw the best use of imagination in my stop at the El Puesto Upscale Taqueria. The food truck from Nuevo Laredo native Luis Lara operates out of the 71-year-old Pan American Courts motor inn courtyard. The 2009 Texas Culinary Academy graduate, who did an externship with longtime Austin chef David Garrido, makes thick, almost crumbly corn tortillas with just “yellow corn masa, salt, water and love; no oil, no lard.”
He fills those soft rounds with creative offerings like confit-and-seared sweetbreads scattered with strawberry and habanero pico and 12-hour smoked brisket with spicy chimichurri.
“I decided to do something a little bit different,” said the chef, who also introduces Ethiopian and Korean influences to his tacos.
The approach may seem new to some of his customers, but at the end of the day, it’s still just tacos.
“Laredo doesn’t have a taco trend,” Ramirez said. “It’s what we’ve always eaten. Before social media, before food trucks were cool, we had tacos.”