This is the fourth 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.
Tacos at Villa Arcos are pure Texas Mexican food, fiercely faithful to the recipes and techniques of Velia Arcos' Rodríguez Durán who founded the restaurant in 1977. One of the six-cluster of Mexican restaurants on Navigation, it shows that when it comes to cooking, historically the leading role is played by women.
Original recipes by Velia Arcos, born in San Antonio, make up no less than 20 breakfast taco options on the digital menu that hangs on the wall. For chorizo, there are three chorizo taco combinations and they are classic Mexican time-tested combinations. When it comes to tacos, just because you throw things together doesn’t mean they go together. For a chorizo taco, combine the chorizo with one of three ingredients offered: eggs or beans or potatoes, each makes a delicious amalgam in the folded taco. Or add all three ingredients to the chorizo, plus cheese, and it’s the featured “Super Taco” that’s listed on the menu with a trademark symbol.
Options for an egg taco include pork sausage, ham and bacon. With the bacon, the cook takes care not to scramble it together with the eggs. The crispy bacon is placed separately in the taco, thus guaranteeing that there’s crispiness inside that flour tortilla.
The flour tortillas are made in-house by Irmalinda Malagón who is also the restaurant and kitchen manager. Tortillas are the thinner variety, different from the fluffy ones that would be served in San Antonio and some of the other restaurants on Navigation. There are variations in the Mexican food of Texas, but they are all based on the original cooking techniques that were invented by indigenous women over 10,000 years ago, in the region that is now Texas and northeastern Mexico. Women were in charge of cooking, and the archaeological evidence in Texas from those ancient times, uncovered by researchers like Dr. Alston Thoms, Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, identify earth ovens, mortars, cavities for stone boiling, pottery and other artifacts. The evidence shows that women are the original engineers of cooking technologies and the creators of culinary traditions.
Carne guisada is certainly a strong tradition in the Mexican cuisine of Texas, and a core dish at the table of Mexican American families in Houston. All, I mean all, Texas Mexican restaurants serve it and the Villa Arcos version is real comida casera (home-cooking.) In a taco, the carne guisada pops with flavor, the blend of bell pepper, onion, tomato and, to my surprise, celery. Very few carne guisada recipes add celery and it gives the taco a fresh taste. The tiny bits of red bell pepper add visual appeal.
Another tradition is chicharrón, pork skin. I’ll use the word, “amazing,” advisedly here to declare that the chicharrón taco really is amazing. I was pleasantly surprised that the chicharrón pieces are crispy, beginning to soften at the edges after being scrambled with the egg. This taco would be a good first taste of chicharrón for the uninitiated.
The restaurant serves lunch tacos and also lunch plates of enchiladas, tostadas, carne guisada, crispy tacos and combination plates. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday. It’s closed Monday and Tuesday.
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The restaurant was taken up in 1986 by one of Velia Arcos’ daughters, Yolanda Black Navarro, who, while managing the restaurant, also became active in Houston’s political and cultural life. Prominent and greatly admired, Yolanda passed away in 2015 and now her son, Christian has taken over the restaurant. “It came to me,” he says about the restaurant and about his mother’s cultural work. “I wanted to continue the legacy of the restaurant. It means a lot to me, a real legacy restaurant.”
The legacy is food tied to culture and community. At a recent visit, two women were seated outdoors, enjoying one of those rare days of sublime Houston fall weather. Angélica Ruiz is from Nuevo Leon, just on the other side of the Rio Grande and Mabell Giralt is from El Salvador. Both were clearly enjoying their tacos, an early lunch. They said that when they first entered the restaurant some years ago they thought it was going to be “an Anglo place, Tex-Mex.” But then they tasted the food and recognized the genuine flavors of Mexican home cooking.
The flavors of the Mexican food of Texas continue as the legacy and the work, over 10,000 years, of indigenous Mexican women throughout the state. Villa Arcos, one of the six Mexican restaurants clustered on Navigation, is going strong by deliciously affirming Houston’s native culinary traditions, crafted by women.