It seems like every year brings more and more New Mexican restaurants and food trucks to Texas. This was true even during COVID-19, where tacos have proven to be a particularly epidemic-resistant dish. This makes picking my favorite indie for 2021 more difficult than ever. Across the state, I’ve had incredible dining and dining experiences, whether sitting at a rickety picnic table eating a Tejano barbecue and chatting with the colorful owner, in a fine-dining space with suit-clad servers, or in a pop-up with a line running around the nearest corner . The Mexican food scene in Texas has never been better. Downplaying my choices for this story was difficult, a testament to the work of Texas Taquero, chefs, and chefs. But I cut it down, and the following list represents the Mexican superfoods and Tex-Mex I had the good fortune to try in 2021.
Beria de Chivu
Berea de Chivo Trodes, Houston
Calisience, Fort Worth
While a good number of taco trucks and tacos now serve Tapatío brand ramen mixed with beef, Jacqueline Anaya isn’t just taking shortcuts, especially when it comes to ramen. From its Fort Worth, Calisience truck, taquera serves stacked dishes of beef shoulder intertwined in smooth rolls of pasta. Cilantro, chopped white onion, and two slices of radish float atop the crimson dish. It is worth fighting.
Carne Asada Taco With Chabolin
Aroma, San Antonio
Carne asada in tacos is usually treated as an easy and cheap sale. But when done well, using a good cut of meat and talented takiro, carne asada can be very impressive. This is Carne Asada Taco in Aroma (the successor to Takero owner Jaime Hernandez who has now closed La Fonda de Jaime 2.0) at El Camino food truck park in San Antonio. Hernandez and his expert chef, Pedro Repolo, make carne asada. Juice, with a good chew and cool guacamole, tacos, served on San Antonio Colonial tortillas, sprinkled with capolins. Roasted grasshoppers are overly salty on their own, but in concert with the rest of the tacos, they create an experience that will keep you looking back for seconds and thirds.
Carnitas Alguero, San Antonio
Even if you haven’t yet tasted the Mexican food that sends you into silence after the first bite, you can imagine the exhilarating nature of such an experience. Carnitas at this Austin Carnitas El Guero export location, which is on the westernmost side of the San Antonio Shell gas station, is very excellent. Silky to the touch and light in flavour, this almost minced pork confit spends hours in a large pot, or cauldron, that holds up to four hundred pounds of meat. The queues are long, but the wait is worth it.
Cauliflower Taco Al Pasteur
Taconita, El Paso
The taconita al pastor cauliflower is a wonderful tower of veggie heads roasted on the trombo, or vertical rotisserie. As she wrote earlier this year, “It’s spiced with a green marinade named after the Dragon Ball character, the muscular green-skinned, pointy-eared piccolo. The salsa is as moody and loud (with a nice base flavor) as the name itself. The dish has an eccentric appearance : cauliflower florets sliced and topped with a tangle of pickled red onions, strands of baby greens, and a few pepitas.” While dining, take a moment to enjoy the wonderful rotating trombo in Taconeta’s open kitchen, and be sure to enjoy the blue tortillas, which are made in-house. I recommend adding a side dish of Salsa Vegeta for extra flavor.
Carnitas y Barbacoa El Güero, Mansfield
You’ll be right to order carnitas at Carnitas y Barbacoa El Güero. But don’t sleep on fried chili relleno. The chile, in this case the poblano, is flattened in a tangy green sauce that doesn’t miraculously turn the fried coating into a mush. The cheese pulls nicely on the inside as the chile is cut. Eating the dish, a specialty from co-owner Elena Nava, feels like taking company. You left me musing – I swear that’s no exaggeration – a little closer to divinity.
El Burrito Peron
Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Que, Grapevine
This Tejano barbecue trailer is a local pioneer in reintroducing Mexican meat smoking establishments. Owner Arnulfo “Trey” Sánchez III was among the first to embrace the periya smoked taco trend, and still takes the arduous process of smoking a barbacoa very seriously. In Sanchez’s case, this involves wrapping the beef in broad, soft maguey leaves. This simple addition is a big deal for a smoked barbacoe. Maguey is the classic barbacoa wrap. Apart from serving a traditional and practical purpose, Maguey imparts a fresh, slight flavour. This fall, Team Vaqueros are taking a spin on something new: the burrito percheron, which they call el burrito perone. “Burrito percherón” translates to a draft horse burrito (for its impressive size), but the title of the fiery beast on the menu is a nod to a local dog adoption event that Sanchez promised to make a burrito for. The fat drum is filled with a delicious blend of smoked brisket, smoked charro beans, spicy potatoes, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, and cream. The custard, or a layer of grilled cheese, adds support between josamer, a delicate Sonoran-style tortilla and its filling. An optional comfortable kick of queso adds the finishing touch.
Elotetos Corn Bar, San Antonio
Perhaps the most popular Mexican snack, it’s ready to try. That’s the treat they receive at Elotetos Corn Bar in Jesus Arreaga, a small, modern space that serves several versions of the classic dish of corn, cream, chili powder, Tajín, queso fresco or queso cotija, and perhaps a little butter and hot sauce. Lacquer tulips. The store’s standard cheeseburger is finished with vibrant nacho cheese, sprinkled with a gyroscopic pattern. My favorite is the smoked chipotle version, which is practically swimming in the namesake chile sauce. The popular Hot Cheetos flavor is dotted with chunks of the spicy snack and topped with a swirl of spicy Valentina sauce, while the San Antonio flavor honors local tastes with stacked servings of mayonnaise and Parmesan. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose: the menu includes an option to create an excursion, as in a brewery. You can’t go wrong.
Molino Olōyō pop-up, Dallas
Olivia Lopez, the chef behind Molino Olōyō, is the talk of Dallas. From her commissioner in the city’s Arts District, she strips her own masa, preparing tamales and other masa-based desserts for retail and wholesale purchase. It’s also a frequent sight at pop-ups for restaurants and festivals, such as Chefs for Farmers. From her culinary stand in November, Lopez served a pork tenderloin taco (lechon) topped with Checharon and light sauce on a red corn tortilla. I wanted to stop myself at that place and eat all the tacos.
BBQ Avila, Hebronville
Mollejas, or beef berries (also called sweet bread) may be unfamiliar to many Texas Monthly Readers, but the adventurous are well rewarded at BBQ Avila. These fatty slices of caramelized, almost charred meat feature a white interior and pink edges. It is also distinguished by its creamy texture and gentle touches with a subtle and funky finish. This wonderful dish makes Avila a destination in South Texas.
prickly pear galita
Pop-up window for Companion Naderia, Austin
If the cookie jar above my fridge was full of prickly pear galettes (cookies), I would pick up the container and sit on the kitchen floor, devouring the food and not sharing it. That’s the addictive nature of these buttery, buttery cookies covered in prickly pear and wrapped in pink dragon fruit sugar. Mariela Camacho, owner and baker of Comadre Panadería, excels at conjuring up creative Mexican pastries and snacks for sale at her usual pop-up shop in Nixta Taqueria. The menu is constantly changing, with a few preparations that include flavored conchas and scones. I don’t know when the sugar cookies will be back on the menu, but when they do, I’ll be the first to pre-order them and line up.
Pistol Taco Lounge, Dallas
Some tacos come into your life exactly the moment you need them. For me, it was quelites (bitter greens) and huitlacoche taco dorado, made by Regino Rojas, owner of the Revolver Taco Lounge. Fold the vegetables and corn tortillas into a corn tortilla, then seal on top for quick frying. The result was a crackling, earthy, and herbal snack that I may never enjoy. Although it’s not on the list, try asking Rojas to make one for you, and you might be out of luck.
salsa de suero
Quesadillas Estilo Villa Ahumada No. 2, Socorro
The whey-based green sauce at this small restaurant outside of El Paso is a sweet and savory delight. The facility is named after Villa Ahumada, a town in Chihuahua known as the capital of quesadillas filled with creamy, mild quesadillas. The green salsa is so good that it’s worth going for everything served at Quesadillas Estilo Villa Ahumada No. 2, not just the namesake quesadillas.
Beers Plate Combo
Urban South HTX, Houston
While German-style Mexican beers like Modelo and Victoria are the preferred choice for washing down tacos, I prefer the Indian faded. They pair well with Mexican food, especially tacos, thanks to an abundance of bright, subtle flavors that pair nicely with lemon, cilantro, and a blend of spices. Urban South HTX’s Double and Triple IPAs deliver the heft, depth, and creativity I want to sip while eating tacos.