This is the third in a series of visits to the six-cluster of Mexican restaurants on Navigation, a group of eateries that exemplifies Houston’s indigenous culinary history.
Taquería Chabelita is one of the six Mexican restaurants clustered on Navigation, and because of its Veracruz influence, it points to the cosmopolitan character of the indigenous people who lived in the Houston region as far back as 2,000 years. Cosmopolitan, in the sense of having wide international sophistication, describes the Native Americans in the Houston region who traded with and knew the rich cultures of central and southern Mexico long before the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s.
Taquería Chabelita offers both Texas and Veracruz Mexican food. Take-away tacos, tortas and tostadas are familiar Mexican dishes of Texas. But customers are also tempted by international favorites from Veracruz like fish filet dishes or the picadas, thick corn patties that are crimped at the edges, topped with beans, chopped beef, and laden with Crema Mexicana.
Isabel Enriquez is the chef owner of the miniscule restaurant that snugly seats 20 guests and serves a lot of take-out traffic. She hails from Veracruz, the Mexican coastal state that begins just 300 miles south of Brownsville, Texas and stretches along the coast for an extensive 400 miles to the southern part of Mexico. “Es comida costeña,” it’s coastal food, says Chef Chabelita. The Mexican nickname for Isabel is Chabela and, Chabelita, in the diminutive, is what everybody has always called her.
Taquería Chabelita opens at 5 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. It’s closed on Sundays. On weekdays the 5 a.m. breakfast is crowded, serving workers on their way to CEMEX (maker of construction products) and other businesses nearby. You wouldn’t think they’d be popular at that early rush hour, but huevos rancheros are one of her biggest sellers, served with a ranchero sauce that blends jalapeño, onion and garlic just enough so they reduce the acid taste of the tomato. A thick crispy strip of bacon tops the plate, served with mashed pinto beans and cubed potatoes. You can have either flour or corn tortillas, Chabelita makes both in-house.
Her corn tortillas are so good I sometimes eat them just as is, by themselves. They are all handmade in front of you. Her two daughters, Antonia and Anahí Rodriguez, assist Chabelita. They all had to learn how to make flour tortillas because they are rare or nonexistent in Veracruz, so they turned to their Houston Mexican American in-laws for flour tortilla lessons. They make the thin version.
Both Texas and Veracruz Mexican dishes are popular. They’re listed all together on the menu, handwritten on spiral-bound notebook sheets that are torn off and taped to the wall. Brea kfast plates include machacado (dried beef threads) with egg, chorizo and egg, ham and egg, and also chilaquiles, crisp corn chips that are bathed in green or red chile and served with an egg.
The lunch tacos include barbacoa (yum!), fajita and “lengua,” tongue. The full lunch plates are squarely in the Texas Mexican traditions like chile relleno and steak ranchero, but there are also Veracruz Mexican traditions that, to my taste, are an interesting contrasted option. An example of the Veracruz coastal food is the lightly sautéed fish filet, “a la plancha,” overlaid with onions that have been cooked just enough to develop a little bit of caramelization for a touch of color and sweetness. Served with a salad, avocado, diced potatoes and lightly seasoned rice, it’s a perfect Veracruz lunch. It’s cooked “al momento,” à la minute and the price is $9.99.
I go back and forth between her Veracruz and Texas styles of Mexican food, the red and green salsas are perfect for both. Ever since our indigenous Texas ancestors built a network of roads to travel to central and southern Mexico, later called El Camino Real by the Spanish, the entire Houston region has been cosmopolitan. This tiny taquería celebrates that fact deliciously.
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