Maria’s Cafe, 1105 Nogalitos St.

Ordering at Maria’s Cafe is an experience unlike any I’ve had in San Antonio. The standard array of San Antonio tacos is on display in a diner-like letter board. Look around and you’ll find specialty tacos written on additional signage like the Taco Loco #2 (wieners, papas, beans, cheese and pico de gallo; also recently named a Great Taco) and the Taco Ondo (papas, egg, carne guisada gravy, bacon and cheese; above).

A handwritten sign near the kitchen window shills a taco called El Hugo, a slice of brisket, an over-easy egg and pico de gallo — a combo you’d find easily in Austin, but that’s embraced here. There are even off-the-menu items Maria’s super fans describe such as the enchilaco, a single beef or cheese enchilada inside a puffy taco shell.

Friends have been telling me about this place for years, and now I know why. Everything about Maria’s Cafe was simply wonderful. Perfect flour tortillas and excellent fillings. Everything’s fresh, including a very seedy and coarsely chopped pico. I cannot emphasize enough the freshness of the food that comes from that kitchen. I don’t know everything there is to know about Maria’s. Its menu is one that you keep exploring. “It’s the real deal” says the sign outside. They’re not BS-ing.

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Maria’s Cafe, 1105 Nogalitos St., (210) 227-7005

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

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

Mendez Cafe has become a Southside institution

Previously published
» Great Tacos: Ham and Egg, Mendez Cafe
» Taqueria Report: Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave.

The maple-glazed ham and egg at Mendez Cafe. Photo by Ben Olivo / The Tacoist

Delores Mendez rolls out little balls of dough into discs and tosses them on the griddle — a routine she’s practiced on the same griddle for 31 years. Outside the kitchen, in the small and packed dining room of Mendez Cafe on the Southside, servers carry plates of enchiladas, fajitas and tacos to customers who recognize and greet one another as they walk in.

On a wall in the back are several photographs of a baseball team that Mendez’s husband and co-owner Lupe Mendez played on for nine years. A small picture of the Virgin Mary hangs by the ticket holder in the kitchen.

“You have to like what you do,” Mendez said as she began to separate more balls of tortilla dough from a larger mass.

In June 1986, when Delores and Lupe Mendez bought the property at 201 Bartholomew Ave., they didn’t have any experience cooking professionally. When they bought the restaurant, they planned on Delores Mendez’s sister to cook the food and her family to be the staff.

The building was in bad shape: The ceiling was caved in and the floors desperately needed to be replaced.

“It was horrible,” Delores Mendez said.

The Mendezes took out a loan and put thousands of dollars into repairing the building and getting it ready for business. Then, her sister suddenly lost interest in the business, and the Mendezes were left with a restaurant they couldn’t afford to quit and had no idea how to run.

“I really thought I was just going to shut it down and that would be the end of that story.”

Lupe Mendez talks about Mendez Cafe’s history recently. Within 10 years of opening the restaurant, the Mendezes added another room to the building and more parking space. Brianna Rodrigue / Special to The Tacoist

She didn’t know where to turn, so she went to church. There, she met Sister Angele, the principal of Saint Margaret Mary Church & School. Mendez said Sister Angele encouraged her to stick with the business a little longer.

She began developing her own recipes based on the food her mother and grandmother cooked when she was growing up. She slowly started finding workers, and Mendez café began to build its clientele.

“After that happened to me with my sister, I said, ‘From now on, I’m not going to depend on anybody for anything.’ If I have to sweep, mop, wash dishes, I’ll do it,” she said.

Thirty one years later, the Mendezes have built a gathering place for their part of the Southside. They’ve seen children, once brought to the café by their parents, become adults who now bring their own children.

Edward Mendoza has come to the restaurant since he was in high school, when one of his friends worked at the restaurant as a cook.

“It’s that nostalgic, home-cooked type of things that we grew up with,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said that Delores Mendez’s enchiladas are the must-try dish at the café. Mendez said they’re the place’s best-selling dish.

Mendez said her tacos sell even better than the lunch plates. The carne guisada is the most popular. She said the secret to good carne guisada is finding the right balance of spices — garlic, cumin, chili powder and black pepper, to name a few.

“I just put enough (spices), but not to where it stands out,” she said.

Mendez’s ham and egg taco is another stand-out item. Maple-glazed ham from the local H-E-B is chopped up and fried on the grill before being folded into eggs and delivered in one of Mendez’s fresh tortillas. The ham is so memorable that some regulars substitute slices of it for bacon in their huevos rancheros and other plates.

Mendez said regulars at the restaurant often substitute items or go off-menu. “If people prefer something else, it doesn’t have to be on the menu; we’ll make it for them,” she said.

Yessica Reynoso makes a carne guisada taco; she’s been working the line at Mendez Cafe for eight years. Brianna Rodrigue / Special to The Tacoist

When you’re a regular at Mendez Café, you start to recognize the faces of other Mendez obsessives. In fact, most of the customers in the restaurant are regulars. You don’t eat Mendez’s tortillas just once.

“We have made friends with our customers,” Delores Mendez said. “They’re not just customers, they’re friends.”

The Mendezes have worked to build not only the community within their walls, but the surrounding area as well. They, along with other business owners in the area, started a neighborhood association shortly after establishing the café, advocating to their council members to improve sidewalks, clean up graffiti and other neighborhood upgrades.

“I feel that I have a lot of important people that come in here,” Mendez said. “Even though it’s just a little restaurant … I feel that the neighborhood should be a nice place for people to come and eat.”

Vanessa Mendez, the Mendez’ youngest daughter, grew up in the café. She started working in the kitchen when she was 12.

“I don’t know any other life,” she said. “This is life to me.”

Now, 33-year-old Mendez brings her young sons to the restaurant sometimes. Her 9-year-old says he wants to work there when he’s older, too. She said she loves getting to know the café’s regulars and hearing their stories.

“I feel like they’ve created something, I don’t know, amazing,” she said.

It’s not always easy to run a beloved café. Delores Mendez said she’s had many issues with staff and customers throughout the decades, but she always finds a way through them.

Her business is “like we say in Spanish, muy celoso — business is jealous,” she said. “If you don’t give it what it needs, it’s going to mess you up.”

Despite those hardships, however, the Mendezes don’t see themselves stopping any time soon.

“I’m not a really good stay-at-home mom,” Delores Mendez said. “I’m that type of person that has to be doing things.”

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

Hacienda el Tule, 403 SW Military Drive

The Palate and I cruised down SW Military Drive, because that’s what you do. You don’t drive down SW Military Drive. You cruise. And in the sea of business signs — amid the Peter Piper Pizzas and Chinese restaurants and auto stores — we spotted, in one of the endless retail strips, Hacienda el Tule.

(Yes, you read that correctly. The Palate is back! Or, was back for this write-up, at least. Good to bring some respectability and real tastebuds to a Tacoist post.)

Having two of us meant more tacos to taste. Overall, Hacienda el Tule’s tacos were about average. However, there were surprising moments.

The papa ranchera would have been a very, very good taco if it hadn’t been for a few slightly undercooked potatoes. Otherwise, the tomato-based ranchera sauce was excellent.

We both really enjoyed the “chicharron w/sauce.” Usually, you’ll see the sauce described as red or green. Here, it’s just “sauce.” That’s because it appears of red or orange hue, but it’s obvious there was tomatillo mixed in. The result is a tangy and very acidic sauce. And delicious. It could have used some salt to cut through the acidity, but otherwise this was a very tasty taco. The skins were cooked perfectly.

The Palate really liked the machacado and egg. So did I, but I thought the meat was over salted and the egg slightly overdone.

The carne guisada had good flavor up front, but then it trailed off considerably. The beans in the bean and cheese were average on a very good corn tortilla. The chorizo and egg was your standard, average, blah chorizo and egg. (My least favorite kind of breakfast taco.)

Hacienda el Tule generally delivered the flavors. When it didn’t, like in the case of the carne guisada, the garlicky green hot sauce served as one of the best flavor enhancers I’ve had in any taqueria. So why isn’t my rating higher? The flour tortillas were very standard.

If you’re cruising down SW Military Drive, know that there is some talent inside Hacienda el Tule’s kitchen. But there are also setbacks.

Hacienda el Tule, 403 S.W. Military Drive, (210) 924-4232

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

El Sol, 1815 Pleasanton Road

You can tell that El Sol Mexican Restaurant on the South Side (across from Harlandale High School) is more than a restaurant when you pass a table covered with bracelets and earrings for sale. Once inside, the shilling keeps on going. I looked down on the table and there appeared two Virgen de Guadalupe keychains with notes tied on them from a woman claiming to be deaf: $3, if we were so inclined. Three minutes later, I looked down again and the keychains had disappeared. I never saw the woman.

A man came armed with spangled Spurs shirts and tank tops — literally around each arm. Another held out to each table a metal plate with the words “Go Spurs Go” engraved on it. A father and son duo belted out corridos as they walked through the restaurant’s different chambers.

I thought: Who cares about the food? I was having a great time soaking up the atmosphere on a Sunday morning on the South Side.

Turns out the food was fantastic.

This is one of those places where clearly everyone in the neighbor knows of it — and not many people outside the neighborhood do. And that’s the way it should be.

There with a new sidekick, The Conch, we went to town:

» The Coaches taco was a combo of bean, scrambled egg, bacon and cheese. Very, very good. The Conch liked how the bean and scrambled egg are a natural mix and then you add bacon and cheese. I tried a trash can-style taco before and didn’t prefer it. This one, I do.

» The carne guisada was also very good and seemed more of a simple rendition with tender meat and thin and watery stew.

» The barbacoa on flour was not greasy, semi crunchy. It included some fat, but not enough to discard. Great flavor on a flour tortillas that was also very good.

» The bean and cheese on corn was also very good with the beans and cheese equally played in a tortilla that was soft and obviously homemade.

» The patties and egg was about what you’d expect from Jimmy Dean-style breakfast patties and nicely scrambled egg — freakin’ delicious.

» The chicharron con salsa was good — the salsa seemingly placed on top of the skins as the taco was made and not braised together for a long period of time. Still very good with a chunky kind of ranchera sauce.

» The papa, chorizo and egg mix was my least favorite, but still good.

I really liked El Sol and gladly give it two and a half salsa cups. It’s not three, because everything there was very, very good — but nothing like outstanding. But I’d say it’s still worth the crosstown visit because of the seven tacos we had, none of them were bad or even mediocre. They were all very good.

El Sol, 1815 Pleasanton Road, (210) 923-5553

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

Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave.

When the waitress brought my order of four tacos at Mendez Cafe on the South Side, the plate smelled unlike tacos. It smelled like — sniff, sniff — pancakes? Syrup? For some reason I wrote “cinnamon” in my notes, but upon reflection, that observation may have been off target.

It’s hard to tell where the entrance is to Mendez Cafe. Parking spaces completely surround the building. So I missed the sign on its facade that said “Breakfast Served All Day.” This would explain why Mendez Cafe was full of activity on a Monday morning. They do breakfast — that’s what they do. Before I was served, the waitress brought a plate of huevos rancheros to the viejito sitting next to me and under framed photos of what looked like softball teams from the 80s. I almost changed my order, the dude’s plate was a vision. The egg was picture-perfect over easy — slightly browned — and like four strips of bacon that looked as crispy as bacon gets. The man sat next to the kitchen where a sign read “No microwave, no fast food. Homestyle food only.”

Another sign, on the front door, said “Cash Only.”

So it was appropriate that the first taco before me was ham and egg on flour. The most breakfast of breakfast tacos? Except here, it’s taken to another level. I’m serious, I couldn’t shake the smell of pancakes. Or was it maple syrup? When I bit into this taco, it was like a pancake taco with egg and ham. But the pancake taste wasn’t strong, but subtle. It was delicious. The flavors of the pancake and syrup were foreign in the context of a taco, but they worked. The cinnamon, in retrospect, I think I was getting from the ham. Was there pancake mix in this tortilla?

I realize this sounds confusing. Did they actually incorporate syrup or pancake mix into this taco? I have no clue. But I know those aromas and tastes were there by some measure. I didn’t imagine them.

These combination of flavors were placed in an excellent flour tortilla. Mendez Cafe’s tortillas are fluffy, soft and on the thicker side.

Perhaps more satisfying was the carne guisada. Only Mi Celayence’s version, on Fredericksburg Road, might eclipse the one at Mendez Cafe. Here, the meat is perfectly tender and seasoned. The stew has a perfect consistency — not too thick, not too watery. It had that spot-on reddish, chili powder-ish color with hints of tomato paste.

The potato con chorizo was very good. The potatoes were a little on the mushy side, but the flavors were there. And the papas were coated perfectly with the chorizo _ not an abundance, but not skimping, either.

The bean and cheese on corn was a slight misstep. The beans were very good, and they were loaded with plenty of cheese, which I prefer. But the corn tortilla was obviously store bought.

But I forgive the corn tortilla, because being inside Mendez Cafe made me feel good. Like I was in the right place. I also felt like an outsider. Like the neighborhood was in the know — it’s encompassed by houses and abuts the heavily-trafficked Quintana Road — but that the rest of S.A. isn’t. Like this place that could probably be characterized as an institution — it’s been around more than 30 years — hasn’t been ruined by some a-hole journalist. And here I am.

And cheap. I had four tacos, a water and a pack of Doublemint for less than $8.

Oh, here are my notes from when the man’s huevos rancheros arrived, and I started to drool as I waited for my tacos:

This dude’s plate just arrived and holy shit that looks good. Crispy bacon. Perfect plump egg over easy??? Potatoes that look perfect.

Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave., (210) 923-6603

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

La Rosa de San Antonio, 1103 Pleasanton Road


Give me a little funk on the cured meats on a charcuterie board all day, every day. But no funk in my tacos, please. Gross!

At La Rosa de San Antonio on Pleasanton Road, the waitress brought a plate of tacos and I immediately smelled it. It was reminiscent of the appetite-killing and lingering odor that rises after the waitress has wiped the table with an old washcloth.

That funk — or something similiar to it — permeated my machacado taco. The four tortilla was about average, but one bite into the taco and that was it. No second bite. And you can tell from the photo that it seems to have like a film on it.

Conversely, the bean and cheese on corn was very, very good — the corn tortilla was soft and thin.

The other two tacos were about average: The carne guisada had a decent depth of flavor and seasoning — the meat tender, the stew a bit watery. The egg a la Mexicana was good but lacked seasoning and — thankfully — did not contain funk.

I hope the funky machacado — band name alert! — was an anomaly. The service was excellent. They even brought me a coarse salsa that was done in a molcajete that was a great change of pace in terms of salsa.

Maybe, hopefully, the funk was a one-time thing.

La Rosa de San Antonio, 1103 Pleasanton Road, (210) 922-1177

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