Fresh, high-quality tortillas and salsas at this San Antonio Taqueria Apart – Texas Monthly
Francisco Estrada and his wife, Lizzeth Martinez, have had successful careers in Mexico City. Estrada was a lawyer and Martinez was an interior designer and chef. But kidnapping threats – likely related to Estrada’s work as a federal attorney – prompted them to move to San Antonio almost four years ago. For Martinez, the professional transition was smooth. She was born in Laredo, went to college in San Antonio, and quickly found work at a design firm in San Antonio. It was difficult for Estrada. His years of legal experience didn’t mean much in Texas, and the couple’s savings didn’t go far in the United States. “When you convert all those pesos into dollars, you realize it’s like twenty dollars,” Martinez says. While waiting for her residency status to be obtained, Estrada began renovating their house and trying to find work. “He was fixing the house, playing housewife, and all that,” laughs Martinez. The story of Restaurant Naco Mexico, Estrada and Martinez’s taco trailer is both a struggle and a lightness.
Estrada told his wife he would do whatever it takes to provide financial support, even if it involved selling tacos around the corner. This is what he set out to do. The couple bought a trailer at an auction and refurbished it with their “bare hands, fingernails and boogers.” Uñas y mocos!”Martinez said laughing again. In 2018, they opened the Mexican restaurant Naco. The name of the caravan refers to its location along the old road to Nacogdoches, which follows one of the routes of the ancient El Camino Real de los Tejas, established in the 18th century by the Spaniards for trade. “Naco” is also a slang for lowlife, low class or humble. “Mexicans immediately recognize the word and know the business is owned by Mexicans, while it’s short and catchy for non-Spanish speakers,” says Estrada. The food at Naco Mexican Restaurant is anything but modest. Even in the crowded taco mecca of San Antonio, this place stands out. Naco’s tacos are some of the best I’ve tasted so far this year.
I ordered four tacos. The Eightlacoche taco was served on a blue corn tortilla speckled with yellow whose textures oscillated between creamy and chewy as it carried a fine splash of costra, or fried cheese. The funky and sweet eightlacoche was almost completely obscured by a generous shower of salty queso fresco. Salsa is macha, but Martinez and Estrada call it chicharron de chiles, an oil-based salsa line filled with serrano, silver garlic, and dried chili peppers that give the mix a mahogany hue. (Jars are available for sale in the trailer.) This series of flavors and textures came together in one exciting bite.
Full-size costras, which swap the tortilla for a shell of grilled cheese, are also available. Invented in the Mexico City nightclub scene in the early years, costras were originally intended to absorb alcohol-fueled street shenanigans after they hit the nightclubs. But at Naco and many contemporary taco operations, their popularity arose after customers requested tacos without the tortillas. “Keto is so fat!” said Martinez. That’s why Naco lists their costras in a special keto taco section of the menu. They are very much customizable, and the best is the chicharron in salsa verde. The pork is crunchy, coated in a green salsa and seasoned with narrow arcs of sliced red onions. Although the outside of my costra looked charred, nothing tasted like ash or burnt. Perhaps the shading was made up for by the sliminess of the interior. Parts of the Chihuahua queso used for the costra adhered to the twists of the chicharron, creating cheesy cables between the filling and the shell. Eating the costra (or keto taco) was exhilarating. Huitlacoche and squash blossoms, which are now in season, are popular toppings at Naco, whether you choose a costra or a traditional taco.
The other three tacos I’ve eaten will be familiar to Texans. Fluffy, shredded brisket and scrambled eggs rested in a large blue corn tortilla that makes for a filling and satisfying taco for breakfast on the go. The trio of spinach, egg, and avocado in a flaky flour and butter tortilla was light, with crispy young shoots sprinkled with fluffy scrambled eggs. The avocado wedges have been fancy and haphazardly layered on top. The chorizo chilaquile taco was also served in a flour tortilla, with salsa roja soaked chips topped with cascades of crumbled, red-tinted pork sausage. The strength of the taco was its earthy flavors and textures.
The only disappointment was the torta chilaquiles with chorizo. The roll was not the typical bolillo or telera used in the Mexican sandwich. On the contrary, the bread looked like a ciabatta and was too soft for my taste. But the chorizo-filled chilaquiles tasted as good as they got in the taco, the runny egg made a nice bit of a mess, and the crisps were a surprising side that gave the palate a good reset. “People want chilaquiles on everything,” says Estrada. A so-called keto customer went so far as to ask for a keto taco with chilaquiles. “It kills all of keto,” Martinez notes.
The Naco Mexican Eatery trailer shares a street corner with the Smoke Shack barbecue and Theory Coffee trailers, two San Antonio favorites. But for Estrada and Martinez the place seemed like the best location, even though they were nervous about the high bar set by the other sellers. “We were very scared to start there because we knew there was a kind of quality that people expected here in the area. But we were ready to try, ”says Martinez. At first, for months in a row, they were making about eight dollars a day. To pass the time, the couple danced in front of the rigging. Their fortunes started to change about nine months in, when the San Antonio Current named Naco finalist in its 2019 list of the best food trucks in town. (The alternative weekly later dubbed Naco the best food truck of 2020.) Customers quickly began to congratulate the delighted but confused owners: “I remember saying, ‘What magazine? What newspaper? What are you talking about ?’ », Remembers Martinez.
Naco was awarded third place in the competition and the resulting increase in sales made it possible for the couple to hire someone to help him. Martinez no longer had to work twice. Success was in sight, and aside from a four-week slowdown at the start of the pandemic, activity has continued to grow. “We never closed, not even one day,” says Martinez. What got them through the rough patch was the Hispanic laborers paying in cash – Martinez thanks these loyal fans for keeping the trailer afloat during the pandemic. Next come the curious about food. Now, Naco is a destination taco trailer, with a range of customers from all socio-economic backgrounds. “Tacos are democratic. It’s an incredible turn, ”explains Estrada clearly. The queue was long when I visited, but the wait – about twenty minutes – was worth it.
Sourcing, I was delighted to learn, is important to Naco owners. As much as Mexican cuisine relies on the layering of subtle flavors and is deceptively simple, it’s hard to hide substandard ingredients, big or small. “Even though this is very simple and humble food, it needs to be prepared in the best way, as close to perfection as possible,” says Martinez.
The corn for the tortillas comes from Tamoa, a Mexican supplier of ancestral non-GMO corn from the surplus harvest of family farmers. The corn is nixtamalised, ground and made into tortillas by Nancy Hernandez, who rents a space at Los Angeles Tortilleria on the West Side of San Antonio. The size and thickness of the tortillas are customized to Naco specifications. “We even brought him the patterns for the Mexican tortilla sizes,” says Martinez. At first Estrada and Martinez could only sell twenty tortillas a week. Today, Nancy’s supplies up to five hundred yellow corn tortillas and four hundred blue corn tortillas per week.
It is this emphasis on details that makes the difference. “A good taco only needs a tortilla and a salsa,” says Estrada. Despite this apparent simplicity, Martinez adds: “It’s very complicated to make it different when everyone else is doing it too. How can you make a bacon, egg and cheese taco taste different? It’s in the small steps and the ingredients that surround us that make the difference. It is only the true love and quality of the products that can help. It’s the only thing we have.