Historic Huaraches in Stafford

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The "Huarache Macho" at Huarache Azteca Express in Stafford is my new favorite spin on the authentic Mexican breakfast. It's a bean-stuffed masa platform that resembles an oblong pupusa topped with two fried eggs, crema, white cheese and fiery salsa. The combination of bland eggs and sour cream with incendiary hot sauce is one of my favorite culinary yin-yang routines. The huaraches here are the best I have ever eaten.

And thanks to this little stainless steel-covered taco stand down by Murphy Road and 90A, I have finally figured out exactly what a huarache is supposed to be and where the strange word came from.

Stafford's "Huarache Azteca Express" is named after Mexico City's "El Huarache Azteca," a restaurant that was opened in 1938 by a woman named Carmen Gomez, who started out selling the oval-shaped masa boats called tlacoyos in a small eatery in Mexico City (masa is the corn dough used to make tortillas). The dish earned the nickname "huaraches" because of its resemblance to the thick soles of sandals. Later, when she relocated the restaurant, she used the catchy name El Huarache Azteca. El Huarache Azteca has become a Mexico City institution and still serves what is considered that city's definitive huarache.


Huarache Azteca Express

109 Avenue F, Stafford, 281-261-8282.

Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Breakfast tacos: $1.25

Huarache with 2 eggs: $3.50

Lamb barbacoa (weekends): $7

Fried bananas with beans: $2

Smoothies: $2.50

Oddly, the word has a different set of connotations in the U.S. Jack Kerouac made "huaraches" cool when he complained about how the Mexican sandals leaked when it rained, in his 1957 masterpiece On the Road. In 1963, the Beach Boys described the fashionable surfer look in the lyric: "You'd see 'em wearing their baggies, huarache sandals too, bushy bushy blond hairdos, Surfin' USA." In the 1970s, the sandals became de rigueur for wannabe surfers and hippies.

Huaraches first ap­peared on Mexican restaurant menus in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. I ate my first one in Houston at the late, great La Bamba Meat Market on Washington Avenue and spent an entire review gushing about it in the Press.

But the huarache at La Bamba was simply a ball of masa pressed in a box-like contraption until it looked like the sole of a shoe. The flattened masa was then placed on a griddle that had been lightly coated with oil and cooked. It came out moist in the middle and slightly crunchy on the outside. Then it was spread with beans and your choice of meats and topped with a mountain of lettuce, tomato, crema and a sprinkling of Mexican cheese.

Since that introduction, I have sampled huaraches at Gorditas Aguascalientes on Bissonnet and at several taco trucks, and they've always been prepared the same way, offered along with sopes and gorditas as an alternative to tacos.

At first glance, Huarache Azteca Express looks like a standard-issue taquería, albeit one that is cleaner than usual. The steam tables, kitchen equipment and counters are all made of gleaming stainless steel, and so are the counters that offer the only places to sit. There is a pot of free coffee and a salsa bar along one side of the dining area and big jars full of aguas frescas along the other.

The steam table is stocked with typical stewed meats and scrambled egg combinations. Breakfast tacos are $1.25, and regular tacos are $1.50. They also sell such interesting side dishes as fried plantains garnished with refried pinto beans and crema along with fresh fruit, smoothies and juices. Pupusas, gorditas and tortas are all available as well.

But it is in the category of huaraches that this little taco stand excels. Instead of a simple plank of masa, their huarache is made like a Salvadoran pupusa — by making a ball of yellow corn masa filled with mashed black beans, patting it out and cooking it on a griddle. When you order a huarache, the premade tlacoyo, which is oblong and pointed on each end like a flattened miniature football, is dipped in hot oil and reheated on the griddle. Then a topping is added.

Popular huarache toppings at Mexico City's El Huarache Azteca are fried eggs and chicken in mole poblano. Coincidentally, those were the two toppings I liked best at El Huarache Azteca in Stafford.

The first time I got the egg-topped "Huarache Macho," there was a guy from Matamoros behind the counter. He did a beautiful job of presentation with red salsa on one egg and green salsa on the other. In between was a dollop ofcrema with a small wedge of avocado astride it.

The second time I got the egg-topped huarache, there was a short woman behind the counter who seemed to have no clue what she was doing. She threw two eggs on a hot huarache and asked me what color salsa I wanted. I had to ask for red on one and green on the other. When I sent it back and asked for the crema and avocado garnish, she artlessly spooned lots of crema over the top and threw the avocado slices on. It still tasted good, but it wasn't much to look at.

On another visit, when I ordered the huarache topped with chicken in mole sauce, the same woman turned to the Matamoros counter man and asked him how to make it. There is evidently no standard blueprint. He asked me if I wanted shredded white-meat chicken with a spoonful of sauce or a bone-in thigh that had been simmered in mole poblano. I went for the messier, but tastier, whole thigh and shredded it myself.

The huaraches all have names here, which I imagine were borrowed from the Mexico City restaurant. The "Paisano" has simple avocado slices on it, and "el Hijo del Jefe" (the boss's son) is covered with steak. The prices range from $3.50 to $6.50, depending on the topping.

El Huarache Azteca in Mexico City is also famous for its consommé. Huarache Azteca Express in Stafford has that, too. The restaurant also sells aguas frescas on weekends, as well as broth by the cup.

The falling-apart-tender stewed lamb is sold by the pound, and it's not to be missed. You wrap the steaming, shredded meat in hot corn tortillas, garnish with a little onion and cilantro, and dip your tacos in lamb broth. The meat is as soft as butter, and the flavor is spectacular.

I know, I know, Stafford is a long way to drive for authentic huaraches and luscious lamb barbacoa. But look at it this way — it's a helluva lot closer than Mexico City.

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