Texas Folklife Kicks off its State-Wide Food Traditions Survey Exploring South Texas Taquerias
by Cristina Ballí, Program Director
I’m excited to begin our tour of Texan culinary delights at the very tip of Texas – the Southmost neighborhood of Brownsville (yes, my hometown!) To help me in the arduous task of exploring and documenting the culinary delights of the Texas-Mexico border we enlisted the help of radio artist Ginger Miles (producer of our Border Radio series broadcast on public radio.) Our first assignment: the Taquerias of Southmost.
Bistec (beef steak), fajitas, barbacoa, tripas (tripe), molleja (sweetbreads), and al pastor (pork) are the standard taco menu in all of these eateries, sometimes located within half a block of each other. Taquerias, or taco stands, are the latest cultural treasure developing in Southmost; they sell a particular style of taco imported from the southern neighboring Mexican city of Matamoros. There are easily over 20 taquerias located within a three-mile radius of Southmost Road, the main artery of the neighborhood, a fact that has earned it the moniker “Taco Boulevard.”
We began with a tour of the Southmost neighborhood given by Ricardo Longoria Jr., City Commissioner for the district. Southmost covers a large segment of Brownsville that houses almost a third of the city’s 175,000 residents and is the most economically disadvantaged part of the city. This tour demonstrated, however, that culturally it is very rich. The neighborhood, which is on the banks of the Rio Grande and is now flanked by the infamous border wall, is known for its tight-knit Mexican-American and Mexican families who live their cultural heritage daily in their traditions, celebrations, music, gardening, religion, lifestyle and food.
According to Longoria, food stands have always existed in the Southmost neighborhood, selling flautas, tortillas de harina (flour tortillas) with various fillings, and the all-American hamburger. Most of these were stand-alone kitchens where patrons would pick up food to go; sometimes they offered tables and chairs outside, under a mesquite tree or in a lush home garden, where patrons would take turns sitting and enjoying their food.
In the late 1980’s the population explosion of the Texas border brought thousands of new residents to Brownsville, many of whom were Mexican immigrants from the northern cities of the state of Tamaulipas – Matamoros, Valle Hermoso, San Fernando, and Ciudad Victoria to name a few. The outermost edges of the Southmost neighborhood were developed with new homes, schools and businesses. Food, of course, was central to this business growth. Mexican immigrants brought with them the concept of the taco stands found on Mexican streets, and hence the Taquerias as they are known today were born.
The tacos sold in these taquerias have a very particular style and flavor. They are always prepared on corn tortillas and are garnished with cilantro and fresh chopped onion; only certain types of tacos – bistec, fajitas and tripas (not barbacoa or al pastor) will include avocado and white crumbled or shredded Mexican cheese. Bottles of green and red salsas are ready at each table for the client’s selection. These tacos can also be accompanied by grilled onions and frijoles a la charra, or charro beans, but never rice. It just doesn’t go.
You’ll also find some antojitos Mexicanos (appetizers or snacks) at taquerias, the most common being tostadas de deshebrada (chalupas of shredded beef, usually fixed with refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and cheese) and flautas de pollo o de res, (rolled, deep-fried tacos with chicken or beef, also garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and cheese plus a special cream sauce, sometimes made with avocado.) Of course, you complete all of these dishes with your salsa of choice.
Taqueria spotlight: Tacos De Marcelo
We were ready to eat, so we made our first stop at Tacos De Marcelo and visited with the Guzman family to talk about their business. They are one of the favorites in the area (I asked my relatives in Brownsville for their recommendations, and this was one of the top three), likely because they stick to the authentic northern Mexican taco flavor.
Taquerias tend to be a family business and Tacos De Marcelo lives up to that legacy. Proprietor Bulmaro Guzman’s parents, Marcelo and Maria Beatriz Guzman, have owned and operated Marcelo’s Tacos in Matamoros for 45 years, so many immigrants from Matamoros who now live in Brownsville have a long-term relationship with the business. Mr. Guzman now runs the taqueria with the same name along with his sons, who one day hope to open a taqueria of their own. “They wanted to try something else;” explains Mr. Guzman of his sons Bulmaro Jr. and Vidal Marcelo, “they went to work at McDonald’s and at the mall but saw that it’s better to run your own business.” Like many others, Guzman opened his establishment as a walk-up kitchen dispensing tacos to go; over the eleven years he has been in business he added tables and chairs under a tent outside and eventually an enclosed eating area. sat in this air-conditioned room, relieving us from the south Texas heat, and enjoyed some tacos. I had bisteck and tripa, and Ginger had al pastor. We both tried some tostadas as well. Ginger asked Mrs. Guzman why they didn’t include rice in their dishes. Her answer: “it just doesn’t go.” In fact, Mrs. Guzman pays close attention to what does and doesn’t go to ensure their clients are happy, returning customers. “Everyone has their clients according to the seasoning of the food, the flavor of the taco, and how you treat them. We make them feel comfortable; here the majority of our clients feel right at home.” That comfort and loyalty is easy to see. On the day of our visit south Texas was in the middle of the second tropical depression of the season, still recovering from the rains brought by Hurricane Alex to northern Mexico and south Texas. A forecast of heavy rains and a flood watch did not stop the Guzmans from opening their establishment for business, nor did it stop the usual patrons from enjoying their tacos. Tacos De Marcelo was ready for them, along with the customary television where patrons enjoy the news or their favorite novela (soap opera) in the evenings. Just like home.