At Home at Julio
For a slideshow of trompo y más behind the scenes at Tacos del Julio, check out this week's slideshow.
The tacos de trompo at Tacos del Julio come scattered on a plate heavy with meat, the sanguine slices of trompo resting on small, thick corn tortillas that are screamingly hot. A scattering of chopped cilantro and raw white onions across the top — perhaps a squeeze of lime — is all that's needed before picking up that first hot taco and digging in. Although this plate may only cost $6.49, it's a priceless meal for those who crave authentic, Monterrey-style Mexican food in Houston.
Tacos del Julio cooks and slices their own meat on site, on a trompo — or vertical spit — kept in the back. Many Houstonians are more familiar with this style of cooking when it's called al pastor, but it's virtually the same thing. After I asked the waitress about the source of the meat one day, she excitedly explained in Spanish as she pantomimed the process of piling the meat onto the pear-shaped trompo — which looks for all the world like a giant version of its namesake, a wooden toy, covered with bands of meat — cooking it, and peeling it off with a sharp knife in large slices before grilling it. That process gives the pork a textured feel and taste that's altogether entirely pleasing in the mouth: a bit of crunch, a bit of softness, a bit of fat, a bit of meat in each bite.
The meat itself here is pork, of course, liberally seasoned with crushed red chiles and a bit of garlic. Those chiles give it its signature garnet hue. This trompo is just one of the reasons Monterrey expats flock here at all hours of the day and night.
I've been eating at Tacos del Julio for going on three years now. I was introduced to the restaurant — and to Monterrey-style food — by my old coworkers at CEMEX, the Mexican-owned cement company, headquartered in Monterrey. These imports to Houston from Monterrey head to Tacos del Julio when they're craving food from home, or just a fond glance at Monterrey's dual stadiums, as depicted on a large, colorful mural by the front door.
My old office mate used to wolf down plates of tacos del trompo, ordering one plate for lunch and another to go. I often teased him about entering the weekly eating contest that Tacos del Julio hosts on Wednesday nights, when the tacos are all-you-can-eat for $9.95 and eating more than 34 (the current record) in an hour means all of your tacos are gratis.
The trompo meat is served in other applications here, many of which are just as popular as the little tacos served on their corn tortillas. The gringa, for example, is the same dish but served with gooey white cheese on a griddled flour tortilla that's hot and slightly crusty on the outside. You can also get the meat on a torta, my personal favorite, for one of the best Mexican sandwiches in town.
The trompo really shines in those tortas. Fresh, oh-so-slightly crusty bread that has a soft give to it without being too tough — you don't want the torta's fillings squirting helplessly out one side, as can often happen — encases tangy crema, fatty avocado slices, bright red tomatoes, crisp lettuce and beans that still taste of the pork fat they were cooked in. Even if you don't get trompo meat, the torta at Tacos del Julio almost can't be beat.
But although the trompo meat at Tacos del Julio is great — and although the restaurant should be admired for its use of a trompo on site — it's not the best you'll find in the Houston area. That honor belongs to Karancho's, an assessment that my friend Jay Rascoe backed up on one visit. Rascoe, the man behind the food blog Guns and Tacos, is something of a trompo connoisseur. He regarded the little tacos with weary admiration, but advised that Karancho's simply can't be touched when it comes to pork cooked on a spit.
"I mean, these are good and all," he said, before trailing off. At Karancho's, you can watch as the meat is sliced right off the trompo in front of you, the pork extra juicy and sweet from pineapple juice that drips onto it as it cooks.
Then again, Karancho's is all the way in Channelview. You can probably find a Tacos del Julio a lot closer to your home, as there are five of the Houston-only restaurants scattered around the city.
Where the restaurant also wows me is in its steadfast refusal to become just another Tex-Mex restaurant. The food has remained staunchly Nuevoleonese since the little chain was founded and has grown into something of a superstar within the Mexican community.
When you take a seat in the bright confines of the Long Point location, you'll instantly be greeted with a bowl of slow-cooked charro beans in lieu of chips and salsa — something you'd never find in Monterrey anyway. In separate molcajetes alongside the beans are cut limes and chopped cilantro y cebollo. I am always tempted to use it all in doctoring up my bowl of beans, already liberally seasoned with pork fat, and have to remind myself to save some for my tacos still to come.
On every table are squeeze bottles of green and red salsa, which go on those tacos as well (although I've been known to put tablespoons full of the green in my charro beans). The green is a creamy jalapeño-based salsa that will sneak up on you; the red is less spicy but deeper in flavor, with a rich current of tamarind running through it. Both make excellent additions to the enchiladas del Julio, another favorite dish.
Simply soaked in a light chile-laced tomato sauce, corn tortillas are wrapped around white meat chicken that's been roasted and stripped from the bone, with a scattering of white queso fresco on top. Roasted potatoes come on the side. It's a beautiful meal, arresting in its simplicity. Not simple, however, are the flavors of that roasted chicken mingling with the bright sauce.
I wish the flautas had this same determination of character, this same clean look and feel with surprisingly complex flavors. But the fried little tubes are often far too hard, looking and tasting as if they'd been over-fried in slightly dirty oil. No matter, though, as they're one of the very few underwhelming things on the menu.
Perfect for cleaning the palate after a few bites of the flautas on one visit was the caldo Tlalpeño, a very classic Mexican chicken soup. I order a small bowl of it with nearly every visit.
Unlike a standard caldo de pollo or caldo xochitl, the Tlalpeño calls for the addition of a very important ingredient: chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. At Tacos del Julio, the chiles come in a little plastic cup full of adobo, allowing you to flavor the broth as you see fit, stocky white squares of queso panela bobbing on the top. The vegetables are similarly thick: ripe hunks of carrot, avocado and potato are barely covered by the broth in the bowl. Dosed with copious squirts of lime, it's especially good stuff right now, with colds and flus bouncing around the city.
It's also the perfect antidote for anyone who's grown weary of grease-saturated plates of tamales and enchiladas elsewhere. There's no gooey, cheesy Tex-Mex here at Tacos del Julio, just simple northern Mexican food in a clean and cheerful setting.
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