It's breakfast time at Laredo Taqueria on Patton, and while I stand in line waiting to order, I'm watching the flour tortilla I'm about to eat being hand-formed before my eyes.
While one woman pats and rolls the tortillas out with a thick dowel-like rolling pin, another flips the bready ovals on the griddle. When I order a taco with eggs and nopalitos, a third woman grabs one of the still-hot tortillas, slathers it with refried beans, stuffs it with bright green cactus and scrambled eggs from the steam table and puts the taco in a red plastic basket lined with paper.
It is one of the best breakfast tacos I've ever eaten. And it costs 99 cents.
There are six varieties of scrambled eggs available at Laredo Taqueria, including eggs with potatoes, eggs with nopalitos, eggs with chorizo, eggs with ham, and eggs with tomato and chile. There are also bacon, sausage, barbacoa, refried beans, fried potatoes and rotating specials. You help yourself to the red and green salsas that are displayed in giant clay pots on the counter.
I've eaten at the Laredo Taqueria on Washington Avenue before, and while this location is owned by the same family, it has a completely different atmosphere. The Washington Avenue location seems a bit like a busy truck stop, but the Patton store feels like Grandma's house in South Texas.
The walls are lined with painted ceramic roosters, and the red-checkered tablecloths and shiny tile walls are squeaky-clean. There's a hand-carved bench just inside the door and a shrine to the Virgin in the back.
An English-speaking employee (of which there are few) tells me over the phone that the Soto family owns the four Laredo Taquerias in Houston, and the family does indeed come from Laredo.
"So the food is Tex-Mex?" I ask.
"Yeah," the woman says.
"Do they call it Tex-Mex?" I wonder.
"Yes," she repeats, as if I were slow.
Whether or not this cooking traces its origins to Laredo, most Houstonians would think of it as "authentic Mexican." That's because they use "Tex-Mex" as an insult to describe only the most blatantly Americanized fare. But hopefully, that's beginning to change.
Tex-Mex is not Mexican food. In my new book, The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipe and Photos, I argue that Tex-Mex is, in fact, America's oldest regional cuisine. And I trace its origins back to the Spanish missions. My contentions have not gone unchallenged.
"Nopalitos aren't Tex-Mex, they're Mexican," a fellow journalist recently argued. But the first natives of Texas were eating prickly-pear pads centuries before the Spanish arrived, I countered.
A woman named Janie Garza, who grew up on the grounds of Mission Espada in San Antonio, gave me an oral history for my book. "My mom didn't cook Mexican food, only Tex-Mex," she told me. "Always pinto beans and lots of nopalitos. I still eat nopalitos all the time." Garza shared her favorite nopalito and scrambled egg recipe with me. In fact, it tastes remarkably like the breakfast taco filling I'm eating at Laredo Taqueria.
"So your definition of Tex-Mex is only those foods that don't exist in Mexico?" I asked the journalist. "That's right," he agreed. I hear this line of reasoning a lot. Cactus and beans were eaten by the natives of the Americas for thousands of years. So when did Mexico take sole ownership of that heritage? I've been told that chile peppers are Mexican, not Tex-Mex, frijoles are Mexican, not Tex-Mex -- as if no two cultures ever shared the same ingredients before.
Imagine if this same logic were applied to any other cuisine in the world. Roux is French, so it can't be Cajun; tomatoes came from Mexico, so tomato sauce can't be Italian. Pretty idiotic, huh? But there's a larger issue: This stereotype of Tex-Mex as the junk that's left when you take the real Mexican food away belittles Mexican-Americans and their contributions to our culture.
The Wednesday lunch special at Laredo Taqueria is cabecita con puerco, a squash-and-pork stew with corn. Stuffed into a flour tortilla hot off the griddle, which has been lightly spread with refried beans, it's an ethereal eating experience. One mouthful of velvety vegetables and slippery pork follows another, and within seconds I've inhaled the entire taco.
I try another stuffed with fajita meat, which is pleasant, but average. And then I eat a third taco stuffed with tender beef tips and green peppers. Or at least I thought they were green peppers. In fact, they turn out to be serranos. My eyes water, my nose runs, and I keep on eating the hellishly hot but heavenly-tasting taco.
After one cabecita and puerco taco, my lunchmate shoves her fajitas aside and immediately gets in line to buy another squash taco. The breakfast tacos here are wonderful, but the lunch-special squash tacos are otherworldly. And they're also 99 cents.
My last visit to Taqueria Laredo was at dinnertime. Unfortunately, the evening meal here is just the leftovers from breakfast and lunch. And the tortillas are all reheated. By 8 p.m., the nopalitos and eggs are looking pretty crusty. I get a tamale plate, which is nothing special.
I stand outside after dinner, studying the daily specials, which are listed on a sign on the door. The entire outside of the building is covered with signs extolling the tamale plates, the cheese enchiladas, the fajitas and other specials and combinations. But I can't make any sense of the jumble. I guess you can't judge a taqueria by its exterior.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed another taqueria. 100% Taquito claims to be "the only place in Houston where you can truly experience authentic Mexican food." When I didn't entirely agree with that claim, the owner wrote me to say that I am missing the point about his Mexican food and that at least it isn't Tex-Mex, which is a garbled imitation of the real thing.
To him I would reply: There is such a thing as authentic Tex-Mex, and at its best it far surpasses some of the lame versions of authentic Mexican food that abound in Houston. But the proof, as they say, is in the eating.
Go to Laredo Taqueria on Patton, put one of their breakfast tacos or squash-and pork-tacos in your mouth, and taste the flavor of a lovingly prepared taco. This is what it's all about.
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