There is comfort in consistency. While low prices certainly help, the reason that fast-food restaurants dot the landscape from sea to shining sea in our country is that most people value consistency. Yes, they'll get around to visiting somewhere fancy when a special occasion rolls around, and they'll maybe check out some hole in the wall if it's convenient, but a lot of people out there, at the end of a long day, don't want to think too hard about what they're eating.
Some will argue that a love of consistency is breeding a love of mediocrity. Rather than descend down the rabbit hole of food snobbery versus unpretentious dining, I would instead like to introduce you to a place that proves that fast food doesn't have to be mediocre.
Unless you're from a city near the border or you've traveled that way, you've likely never heard of Taco Palenque. Its strongholds are Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville, with a handful of locations in the San Antonio area. I have no idea how Houston ended up with one, but every time I visit it, I'm glad we did.
Taco Palenque is one of those places where you don't need to know Spanish to order, but it doesn't hurt. It's a place where, in addition to your standard soda and beer options, Jamaica and Horchata are available, because who doesn't want to indulge in some hibiscus water or sweet rice drink from time to time? Taco Palenque does Houston a solid and labels the items at the salsa bar, which never fails to make someone who has been to a border Taco Palenque laugh. The TVs are almost always showing soccer or MMA, and sometimes a man with a guitar will show up to sing songs in Spanish for tips.
Call me problematic, but I like eating at places where most of the other customers look like me. It's not tribalism – I can't even speak Spanish, after all – it's just real recognizing real. It also makes the reactions of non-Mexicans who drop in even better. I've watched entire tables of people collectively lose their minds at how good the food at Taco Palenque is, promising those at the table they have to come back.
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SHOW ME HOW
There is no way on Earth that the tortilla chips at Taco Palenque are healthy, and I do no care one bit. They're fried up in that good oil, the type that somehow makes a chip both crunchy and heavy without leaving your mouth feeling like you've sucked down an oil slick. Toss on some lime and some salt, and if you're not careful, you'll eat your weight in them. Even if you're going through the drive-through, you should tell them to hook you up with chips; you will not regret it.
While Taco Palenque does have a selection of plates and fancier options, it shines with the simple stuff. A pirata is just a flour tortilla with fajita meat, beans and cheddar cheese, but the kitchen manages to knock each of the individual elements out of the park, which results in everything you might love about humble Mexican food in one perfect bite. A quesadilla might just be a tortilla, cheese and a (more than) healthy application of butter, but Taco Palenque cooks up a quesadilla so good that it'll give an army of elevated grilled cheeses a run for their money, even if it doesn't look fancy on Instagram.
The area around Gulfgate Mall will likely never be destination dining for most. Telwink Grill and some of the Chinese food spots in the area are doing just fine on Yelp, but the fast food in the area can be highly suspect. But, somewhat randomly, Taco Palenque exists in all its Mexican fast-food glory, and it's worth the drive down 45.
And hey, it's not like the Taco Bell next door is offering up micheladas.