Restaurant Reviews

Taking It to the Street

Every afternoon, as the sun begins to set and shadows start stretching out toward the east, the tin-roofed parking lot and patio of the Latino Tire Center on Fulton begins a transformation. Pickup trucks laden with Igloo coolers and stock pots pull onto the slab, and boxy iron grills welded to homemade square-tubing carts are wheeled out like tanks moving into a defensive position. Gaps in the perimeter are filled with sturdy tables familiar to any veteran of public school cafeterias. Lids on cookers are thrown open; a human chain passes bags of charcoal down a serving line. Flames bellow up, then are banked down into searing, compact suns of pure white heat.

As the flames condense into themselves, the first of the coolers, stuffed full like its siblings with marinated beef skirt steak, is opened. Thousands of corn tortillas are deployed in a position of readiness as blocks of queso blanco are cleavered into quarter-inch strips. Handfuls of dripping beef are thrown onto the grills, releasing a vicious sizzle and billows of steam that perfume the air for blocks. Stainless stock pots yield home-brewed picante sauce and a mysterious green condiment into squeeze bottles and small Styrofoam tubs. At the end of the serving line, foil is ripped from a deep plastic tub to reveal a sculpture of diced onions and chopped cilantro. The gate on an iron fence is unlocked.

Let the lines form, the assault begin. El Taconazo -- a colloquial double-entendre referring to both a dance step and a slang phrase for "big taco" -- is open for business.

That business is pure, unrefined Mexican street cooking. Given the maze of regulations that govern food service in the Occupied Republic, it comes as a surprise to realize the first time through the line that this is not a church or lodge cookout. This is a restaurant, the northernmost (and only U.S.) location of a family-owned, 35-stand chain of El Taconazos scattered through the Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz and Hildalgo. In the Mexican El Taconazos and at their sole Texas relative, many of the amenities normally associated with restaurants (such as restrooms) are dispensed with as unnecessary.

That might have one suspecting that this nightly celebration of Latino culture -- which is open seven days a week from late afternoon until around midnight -- is only a step ahead of the minions of the health department. But it turns out that everything is perfectly legal, that there is a procedure complete with permits and frequent inspections that allows four sons of El Taconazo's founder to bring Houston the sum of their father's long decades over a hot grill.

El Taconazo is not a place that allows the customer latitude to dither over the menu. They got beef, they got cheese, they got corn tortillas, they got serve-yourself condiments. That's it. But -- just between us Texans -- what else is there that matters, especially if the price is right and they let you bring your own beer? More formally, the menu is $1.25 quesadillas con queso (cheese and tortillas), $1.50 quesadillas con carne (meat, cheese and tortillas) and $1 tacos (meat and tortillas). But while dithering over a selection of entrees is impossible, dithering in line isn't. Not only is it allowed, it's mandatory. The residents of the largely Hispanic surrounding neighborhood have seized on El Taconazo like it was mail from home. They make the queue a fun one to stand in while watching as beef dances from grill to grill in a rigidly structured choreography. After being flipped a dozen times in as many minutes, the well-browned skirt steaks are delivered to a back table where an artist whose paintbrush is a cleaver awaits. A flurry of whacks ensues, reducing the steaks to a uniform consistency. The bits of beef are then raked into stainless steel pans before being passed back to simmer at either the quesadilla grill at the line's beginning or the taco grill at its end.

If it's quesadillas you want, you have to state your intentions to the gentleman at the grill at the beginning of the chow line. Unless your companions have conned you into ordering for them while they hold down a section of table, displaying an ability here to count past four in Spanish is an exercise in gluttony.

Is your choice tacos instead? Go past the guy slicing the cheese and his companion, who riffles 50-packs of tortillas like a Las Vegas dealer airing his cards, to the second grill. Gringos who wait until this point to explain that they like their meat with cheese interrupt the rhythm of the dance; if you wanted quesadillas con carne, you should have said so already. Still, it's a minor faux pas, one easily corrected and forgiven.

The final table, where the tub of oregano and cilantro waits, is where drinks are ordered (cans of Coke and Sprite, 50 cents, no glasses) and accounts are settled -- in cash only, of course. By this time, the order you gave is ready. The stiff, doubled corn tortillas have been folded around thick slabs of white cheese and softened by being buried on a grill beneath a few slabs of beef. Rescued just as the cheese softens, they're pried apart, stuffed with chopped beef and wrapped in foil before being tossed on the nearest hot surface, ready to be given to a customer. Then it's condiment time.

There are those, I'm told, whose delicate constitutions simply cannot abide raw onions and cilantro; to them, my profoundest sympathies are offered. At El Taconazo, not dipping a long-handled spoon into whatever vaguely defined border between green and white still exists and spooning this essential, if minimalist, garnish onto the meat seems as unthinkable as having a hot dog without mustard. On the tables, alongside the rolls of paper towels that serve as napkins, are white tubs of tangy pico de gallo, bottles of a perfectly respectable, if not necessarily noteworthy, picante sauce (this is not a neighborhood where either bad or innovative picantes are tolerated) and matching squeeze bottles of a green sauce intriguing in its verdure.

This avocado-based condiment is as much a reason for going to El Taconazo as is the beef; forgoing this smooth, exquisite combination of avocado, peppers and vinegar simply will not be condoned. Roughly the same consistency as American mustard, the sauce is green the same way French's is yellow -- brightly. "Squeeze guacamole" is a strange concept only until it's tasted; after that, it becomes an addiction. Should you talk your way into a tub or two to take home, be advised that this is the ultimate topping for cold meat loaf sandwiches, and that its refrigerated shelf life is at least a couple of days -- which is probably longer than it will last. This is not a sauce that you forget is in the fridge, any more than the pilgrimage to El Taconazo is a trip that any righteously carnivorous Texan will only make once.

This is beef done right, grilled thoroughly and carefully without burning or drying. The cooks at El Taconazo know the art of flavoring with no more than a dry marinade and the heat and smoke of a mesquite-free charcoal blaze, and they know the art of selecting a cheese that perfectly, gooily complements this smoky basic protein. To add just the right condiments, to accentuate the granular crunchiness of the tortillas without resorting to adulterants such as beans, rice and salad -- this is to put a polish on perfection. The Anglo and black cultures have their rib joints, burger stands and steak houses where children learn from loving parents the essentialness of beef; to see the delight of children at El Taconazo as they taste their culture's contributions to this tradition is to delight in living at a crossroads of great meat-eating cultures.

El Taconazo, 4001 Fulton, no phone.

El Taconazo:
quesadillas con queso, $1.25;
quesadillas con carne, $1.50;
tacos, $1.

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Jim Sherman