The hot, fluffy tortillas are the first thing you notice when you eat at Laredo Taqueria on Cavalcade. That's because the two women who make them can be seen rolling out the flour tortillas by hand and cooking them on a griddle as you shuffle along in line waiting to order your tacos. By the time you get to the front of the line, those very same tortillas are ready to be stuffed with your choice of fillings.
I first tasted calabacitas while I was reviewing another Laredo Taqueria location a few blocks away at Patton and Fulton. Unfortunately, I copied down the name of the dish from a sign on the front door that was misspelled and called it "cabecitas" in the review. I have since learned how to spell it and how to prepare it. It's become one of my favorite Tex-Mex dishes.
"Calabasa" means squash or pumpkin; "calabacitas" literally means "little squash." Summer squash, including zucchini, yellow crookneck and Mexican tatuma, are used interchangeably in the dish called calabacitas. At Laredo Taqueria, they put large pieces of tatuma on top of the tray in the steam table so you know what you're looking at. Otherwise it would look like a puddle of cooked-down pork.
I also got an awesome cabrito ranchero taco for lunch that day. The cabrito meat had been braised in a chile and tomato sauce until it was perfectly tender. I had to remove a couple of ligaments from the meat mixture, but after that the taco was stellar. I added some of Laredo Taqueria's homemade red salsa. My third taco was chicken in mole sauce, and while the flavor was excellent, it just couldn't compete with the other two tacos. Mole is fairly common in Houston taquerias, but you can't get South Texas dishes like calabacitas and cabrito ranchero just anywhere.
Joe Soto once had a restaurant called Laredo Taqueria on San Bernardo Avenue in Laredo. He moved to Houston in 1970 to try his luck in the big city. He converted an old house on Washington Avenue into a taqueria and opened for business in 1971. His formula was simple. South Texas flour tortillas were made to order and served hot off the griddle with traditional Tejano fillings — beef guisadas, ground beef picadillos, moles and cabrito ranchero. Breakfast tacos were made with Rio Grande Valley fillings like nopales and eggs, and chorizo and eggs. Business was good from the beginning.
Soto opened Laredo Taqueria on Cavalcade at the I-45 exit in an old convenience store in 1980. The Patton location at Fulton is a few blocks east of I-45 across from the Fiesta supermarket. It opened in 2000. Each of the three Laredo Taquerias has its own personality, and Soto insists that each serves the same quality food.
When I first started eating at Laredo Taqueria on Washington ten years ago, I loved the tacos and had no idea there were other locations. I still stop by the Washington Avenue location to pick up breakfast tacos when I'm in a hurry. There is nothing wrong with the food, but the lines are a lot longer, and it seems the steam table is often out of my favorite fillings. The tortillas are good, but not quite as fresh as the ones at the other locations. And the years have taken a toll on the building. It looks tired and shabby.
The Laredo Taqueria on Patton, by contrast, is the cleanest, brightest and most festive of the bunch. It's the one you take out-of-town visitors to see. Colorful Mexican papel picado paper banners hang from the ceiling. There's a giant ceramic rooster by the front door and a charming collection of South Texas tchotchkes all over the place. Joe Soto told me on the phone that this is the location where he eats breakfast most mornings. The place reminds me of somebody's grandma's house in South Texas. The flour tortillas are awesome at the Patton location and the fillings are good, but not quite as plentiful as at the Cavalcade store.
Laredo Taqueria on Cavalcade is housed in a former convenience store, and the atmosphere has been deliberately preserved. There are piñatas hanging from the ceiling, stacks of soft-drink crates on the floor and displays of candy and other items hanging from the walls. Signs advertise Joe's Special, a stack of handmade corn tortillas and a couple pounds of barbacoa to go. "I wanted it to look just like a taqueria convenience store in San Antonio," says Joe Soto. The mounted deer heads on the wall above the front window look oddly appropriate too. A shade has been pulled down over the south-facing front window to ward off the sunlight. The tinted light turns the entire dining room and everybody in it rosy red.
My friend Jay Francis met me there for breakfast the other day. I was blown away by a chile verde breakfast taco made with scrambled eggs and roasted green chiles. I also loved the tart, crunchy nopales and scrambled egg taco. The chorizo and egg taco wasn't quite as impressive.
Francis insists that the hot sauces at the Cavalcade location are hotter than the salsas served at the other two Laredo Taquerias. He poured a large puddle of the green sauce into a picadillo taco and set it in front of me to prove his point. I dutifully ate the whole thing and winced in delicious pain.
I love the atmosphere of the Laredo on Patton and I like the convenience of Laredo on Washington. But the calabacita taco, the cabrito ranchero taco and the chile verde taco I ate at the Laredo Taqueria on Cavalcade were outrageously good. Go try them for yourself.
Best of all, Joe Soto's sensational and inexpensive tacos come without any of the silly "authentic Mexican" claims that other trendy joints serve up with their Tex-Mex nachos and frozen margaritas.
"I call it Tejano food," he says.