La Morenita, 750 Porter St.

There are neighborhood taquerias, and then there are those like La Morenita on the East Side. Located on the corner of Porter and South Mittman streets, La Morenita is surrounded by homes.

In this pocket of east San Antonio, it seems, you have two choices: La Morenita and Mittman Fine Foods, which gained notoriety when former Mayor Ivy Taylor revealed it as her go-to spot during the media-fabricated taco wars of a few years back.

Inside La Morenita on a recent Saturday morning, the place was packed — to be expected. I found the tacos to be consistently above average, but none that set the benchmark for any specific taco.

The tortillas were worth noting here: They are cooked in some kind of fat, probably oil. So they have that glossy feel to them. The Palate, my partner in taco crime, didn’t prefer them, but I thought they were quite good.

I was feeling adventurous, so I ordered the lengua a la Mexicana. The few times I’ve had lengua tacos, the tongue was thinly sliced, which kind of tricks you for a second into thinking you’re eating a part of the cow that’s not as thick as tongue. La Morenita’s version was indeed chopped tongue, thick pieces of cow tongue that, admittedly, freaked me out. The taste was gamey, and this version wasn’t for me. But this one’s on me not being Mexican enough.

In the machacado, the freshness of the onions really came out as it, and the other veggies, mixed in nicely with the egg. The spiciness of the green pepper kicked in periodically to remind me of its presence.

The country and egg was very good — the egg done just right and not at all greasy from the sausage bits.

The chilaquiles rojos had a heat that kind of creeped up on me. Texturally, this taco was spot on: I loved the semi-crispiness of the red chips complemented by the softness of the egg and other ingredients. The white cheese provided a nice change of pace and flavor profile not normally see with chilaquiles in S.A.

The carne guisada was disappointing as it lacked a depth of flavor. The bean and cheese was about average. And the potatoes in the papa a la Mexicana were well seasoned and cooked perfectly.

The sauces didn’t add much to the tacos. They weren’t bad, just about your average green sauce (serrano-based, it seemed) and child de Arbol red sauce.

If you’re in the neighborhood, La Morenita is definitely worth a stop. There’s a second location at 3313 Gevers Road, on the southeast side.

La Morenita, 750 Porter St., (210) 534-3790

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Ben Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Lucy Cafe, 2517 West Avenue

Papa ranchera

You barely notice Lucy Cafe when driving up West Avenue after exiting I-10. The Mexican restaurant is in the middle of one of those shabby retail strips that are ubiquitous along the North Central corridors of this street, Vance Jackson and Blanco roads, and San Pedro Avenue.

Nondescript is a word to use, but, gosh, I’m tired of that word. From the outside it looked dead.

When I walked in, I felt like Dorothy stepping into Munchkin Land — except this was Coca-Cola Land. Prints of vintage 1940s ads and other paraphernalia hung on the walls. Helicopters made from aluminum cans dangled below the ceiling fans. Even the salt and pepper shakers were Coca-Cola bottles.

The only things not Coca-Cola red, seemingly, were the squirt bottles of green and orange salsitas, and the tacos.

Immediately, you’ll notice that the flour tortillas are different. They are super soft and nonuniform, as if the cook doesn’t really care if they’re circles. There’s something in these fluffy tortillas that give them a homemade quality. I can’t explain.

They went great with the papa chorizo, which needed salt. I also added the green salsa and — shit that’s hot. The tortilla absorbed some of the grease and the tortilla broke, but otherwise, very good flavor. The potatoes were not too mushy. They were coated nicely with good quality chorizo.

The machacado and egg was salty, but with good flavor. The meat, egg and veggie combo looked as bland as can be — not as vibrant as some of the others I’ve had, but tasty. And with some built-in heat from the serrano or whatever pepper they mixed in.

I loved the thick gravy on the carne guisada, which had good initial flavor, but not much depth. The bean and cheese was about average, but seemed enhanced on these unusual flour tortillas. Though, I asked for corn.

I thought the tacos here were OK. Perhaps I didn’t order the right ones. There’s definitely something about the atmosphere here. Besides the Coca-Cola trip, the staff here talks to you in a pleasant way. One waitress wanted to know if I study photography, given the huge DSRL I was handling. My waitress put a fan next to me as I ate — the place was a little stuffy. One lady, who was loud and who I presumed was Lucy, was super nice and was particularly proud of the aluminum helicopters.

Lucy Cafe, 2517 West Avenue, (210) 737-7166

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Ben Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Lil’ Johnnys Taco House, 3601 I-35 North

It’s hard to resist the lure of Lil’ Johnnys Taco House when driving on I-35. Its sign features an anthropomorphic, sombrero-wearing taco mascot who’s making a run for it — from people trying to eat him, I suppose. It’s also located next to a Studio 6 motel, and something about the seediness of that situation suggests these tacos must be outstanding — you know, that road stop diner-type situation, but with tacos.

The tacos at Lil’ Johnnys are about average for San Antonio. Some good, some so-so; one was outstanding.

The Taco Bañado is a combo of papa Mexicana, bacon, cheese and avocado. But what makes this taco outstanding is its crispy flour tortilla. This adds a charred flavor, but more importantly it adds texture. It’s crunchy, but then you have the softness of perfectly cooked potatoes underneath. The pico, which make the papas a la Mexicana, adds those excellent hints of onion and chile and lime. The other ingredients — the bacon, avocado and cheese — are bonuses. They all come together beautifully. You really get all the flavors. Perhaps the potatoes needed more seasoning, but that’s what the salt shaker’s for.

Also, I really enjoyed the patty and egg — which is a Jimmy Dean-style breakfast sausage mixed with scrambled egg. I wonder why more San Antonio taquerias don’t offer this taco. It’s almost impossible to screw up. The egg here looked a bit overdone, but ended up just right. In my notes, I wrote “juicy.” Perhaps there was some grease, but it wasn’t enough to be a turn off. But definitely not dry. Delicious.

The bean and cheese had a very, vey good corn tortillla. By far, the soft and flavorful corn tortilla was the star. The beans seemed average; the cheese, OK. Good, not great.

The carne guisada disappointed. The meat was on the tougher side. The stew added decent flavor, but not a lot of depth. It’s worth mentioning here that the regular flour tortillas (so not the crispy version of the Taco Bañado) are very good.

Back in The Tacoist test kitchen (aka my apartment) I had the chilaquiles and puerco in a red sauce. These required the microwave, so consider that. Though they weren’t in their ideal state, I really enjoyed these tacos.

To be expected, the chilaquiles had soggy chips, but the egg and bits of tomato and onion and serrano were very good, and there was a good amount of cheese.

The puerco had a very good flavor. Many — most? — slow cooked dishes actually get better with age. This one seemed cooked in some kind of chile combo.

I would have rated Lil’ Johnnys higher, but it didn’t deliver on my two favorite tacos: the bean and cheese and the carne guisdada. The others, however, were quite good. So it’s definitely worth checking out next time you’re driving down I-35 and feel that the sprinting taco’s daring you to chase him.

Lil’ Johnnys Taco House, 3601 I-35 North, (210) 227-7533

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Ben Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Gibby’s La Cocina, 2602 Nogalitos St.

At Gibby’s La Cocina on Nogalitos Street, it was A Tale of Two Tortillas. Flour to be exact. Now, I’ve never read the Charles Dickens classic, so this is about as far as I can take this literary pun. But, I tell you, the same tortilla coming out of the same kitchen changed vastly depending on whether I consumed them in the restaurant or in my office.

When I ate them at Gibby’s, the tortillas seemed poorly made — silky and doughy.

But when I took them to go and brought them back to my newsroom, they were soft and tasty. It must have been the steaming process, while the tortillas were inside the foil, that cooked them more thoroughly.

Usually, the opposite happens — where the tortillas are best ordered in house rather than to go.

So, allow me to take you on this journey, taco by taco. I’ll start with Gibby’s specialty tacos.

Their Taco Feo looked promising — asada, egg and bean. This is one I ate at Gibby’s so the doughy and chewy (in a bad way) tortilla turned me off. Some of the asada were tough to chew. However, the scrambled egg was cooked and mixed in perfectly with the meat. The beans had very good flavor. And the grilled onions were a pleasant surprise. I’ll order this one to go next time.

That’s what happened with the Lalito — an egg taco with cheese and butter. This certainly is new. Tacos aren’t the healthiest food, and then add butter? Sure. They must have slathered the inside of the tortilla with butter, and then added the egg and a yellow-white cheese combo. Again, the steam must have softened the tortilla even more and actually allowed the butter to drip and incorporate more into the egg and cheese mixture. Delicious. I felt my heart skip a beat or two, but delicious.

Other standouts were the bacon and egg, which was mixed together well and not greasy in its steamed tortilla.

The papa ranchera — also steamed — was very good with its way-above-average ranchera sauce, which captured the essence of the tomato beautifully. I would have liked the potato pieces a little less mushy.

The carne guisada and bean and cheese were disappointments. Not bad versions of these S.A. classics, but just not as memorable as Gibby’s other tacos. These were consumed in house, by the way.

Speaking of tortillas, the chilaquiles I had on corn in the restaurant and it was a winner. I loved the freshness of the diced hot onion, tomato and serrano pepper. My thing with Tex-Mex chilaquiles: They must be cheesy, and these weren’t. Still, a good taco with a large and perfectly cooked corn tortilla.

So, my opinion of Gibby’s changed drastically based on how and when I ate these tacos. This proves, if anything, that tortillas really are the key to quality tacos.

Gibby’s La Cocina, 2602 Nogalitos St., (210) 922-9660

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Benjamin Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Efrain’s Food Market, 1222 Saltillo St.

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that a painting of a building behind the register was of Efrain’s. It is not.

Here’s the scoop on Efrain’s Food Market on the West Side: The tacos didn’t change my life and — from the look of things — the tortillas come from packages. Still, I loved the place.

Efrain’s is a throwback to a time when families bought their groceries from the mom-and-pop store down the street. Efrain’s has survived. The store is located on Saltillo Street, a side street off the main thoroughfare of Zarzamora. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you took a wrong turn or unless you were from the neighborhood.

I heard of Efrain’s from a student at Memorial High School — where I attempted to impart journalistic wisdom recently; I think I succeeded — who rhapsodized about the barbacoa and tamales.

When I arrived there on a Sunday, around 10 a.m., the tamales were sold out. I was there for the barbacoa, anyway.

Though it’s not much of a grocery store or meat market anymore, Efrain’s, which was founded in 1953, is still popular in the community. There are those old-school grocery store shelves — the ones that are at chest height — that have some produce such as onions, bananas, dried guajillo peppers, and some household cleaning items. There are a few tables for dining in. It’s all very tightly spaced and cozy. Behind the cash register are pictured of loved ones and lots of Jesus signage. A painting of what looks like the Efrain’s building back in the day is the centerpiece of the arrangement.

Where you’re drawn to is the meat counter. A expansive colorful sign informs you of the choices — barbacoa, chicharrones, carnitas and lengua by the pound. Breakfast tacos only on weekdays. Tamales by the dozen.

On the weekends, the place does steady traffic for its barbacoa, pork carnitas and tamales. This isn’t a restaurant. So the food is cooked and put in warmers, and they tell you what your choices are for that day.

On the weekday when I went, I had a papa ranchera, which was spicy from what seemed like serrano. The potatoes were on the mushy side, but still had very good flavor. However, they seemed old a little old, like the papas had been sitting in the warmer a while.

The beans in the bean and cheese on corn were very good — creamy, fatty and rich in flavor. But the corn tortilla was obviously store-bought.

Another taco — I didn’t get the name because I’m a bad reporter — I can only describe as pork and beans. Like salted pork. Good, not great.

The carne guisada was disappointing. Its flavor was OK with a strong chili powder flavor. It also seemed stewed in water and not in any kind of stock.

Which brings us to the barbacoa. They loaded up the corn tortilla, which was nice. And the meat was good — not greasy and with some fat. Clean, but also very just average. I was expecting more flavor. But, honestly, the slight blandness wasn’t anything a little salt and the very good green hot sauce didn’t fix.

The pork carnitas were similar — well cooked, tender and shredded. But definitely in need of seasoning and salsa verde.

Before wrapping this up, I must say that the service was excellent. The family who runs Efrain’s is extremely friendly, which might explain why it’s remained open since the 1950s.

Efrain’s Food Market, 1222 Saltillo St., (210) 435-4004

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Benjamin Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Mr. Toro, 9503 Bandera Road

Throughout my time at El Toro in Leon Valley, employees appeared only when they were needed. As I walked in, the place seemed empty — no customers or staff. Then, as I stood before the register and the billboard-shaped menu presiding above, out popped a guy to take my order.

They had cameras, I guess, to know when they were needed.

I wish this was a fun quirk to El Toro and that the food was amazing. Instead, El Toro was hit and miss. This small restaurant is attached to a Shell on Bandera Road. So, not gas station tacos, but a separate restaurant with a door that leads straight into the convenience store.

El Toro’s best flavor came from its papa ranchera. The sauce, in particular, was excellent. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say that this is the best ranchera sauce put on potatoes that I’ve had while writing this blog. It was fresh with the pureness of the tomato coming out in a watery sauce that had bits of onion and serrano pepper throughout. It was seasoned perfectly. And the peppers provided kick, but nothing that would leave a mark.

This sauce made the taco worth it. Because the potatoes were average — they were large-cut and like white almost, like they were boiled and not finished in a skillet or hot surface.

So the potato quality was a downgrade, but the flour tortillas really sank this taco and the others.

They were confounding. They appeared flawless — they were puffed up in all the right places. Fluffy AF, if you will. But when I bit into them, they were chewy AF.

The bistec con chorizo was very good, but those damned tortillas. The meat was OK. It was a nice combo. Actually, this taco grew on me. The mixture of the chorizo and steak mixed in beautifully with the cilantro and onions.

The carne guisada was heavy — the meat cold, the sauce nice. Heavy on the chili powder. The meat was tender enough. Add the green hot sauce for an almost sweet flavor. Actually, this taco grew on me, too.

Very average beans and a high quality corn tortilla comprised El Toro’s bean and cheese on corn.

To return to the papa ranchera sauce. If I’m in the area, driving up and down Bandera Road, I’ll definitely return for this taco. I’ll waive to the cameras as I walk in.

Mr. Toro, 9503 Bandera Road, (210) 681-8843

Worth traveling across town for
Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
Mostly misses

Benjamin Olivo

What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.

Great Tacos: Ham and Egg, Mendez Cafe

Ham and egg; $1.89; Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave., (210) 923-6603

Only twice has a taco made me cry.

The first was a bean and cheese on the West Side—but my emotional response I’m sure had to do with me biting into this excellent taco at the moment a father-son duo began belting out corridos three tables away.

The second time I cried was this week, when I tasted for the third time the ham and egg on flour at Mendez Cafe on the South Side. I wasn’t weeping, but tears did form.

If breakfast tacos are San Antonio’s comfort food, this one brings me the most comfort. What’s strange is that it’s unlike your typical San Antonio breakfast taco. It’s unlike your typical ham and egg taco.

What sets apart this ham and egg is its underlying syrup element that cannot be ignored. Yes, the egg and the ham and the flour tortilla are there. But underneath those dominant flavors is the hint of pancakes.

When I wrote about this taco for the overall write-up on Mendez Cafe, and made the same syrupy observation, a reader suggested that the tortillas are cooked on the same flattop as the pancakes. Mendez Cafe, after all, is a South Side institution that specializes in breakfast.

But the other tacos I ordered didn’t have this hint of syrup.

Upon closer inspection, after tasting the ham bits individually, I determined that they must use a maple-glazed ham. What’s crazy is that this was the third time I had this taco, and it was by far the best experience. This ham was charred to a slight crisp—not boiled. The egg seemed prepared almost “over easy,” then folded into the flour tortilla, and not scrambled.

The elements mentioned so far are great on their own. But then Mendez Cafe’s excellent flour tortilla jumps in to provide like a pancake element to accompany the charred bits of syrupy ham.

Other tacos made my Great Tacos list before Mendez Cafe’s ham and egg, and those may be technically better tacos, but this one’s my favorite. It’s tear worthy.

Read the original Mendez Cafe write-up.

Benjamin Olivo

Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at ben@thetacoist.com.