Cheese As an Accessory? A Mr. Taco Story.

The details of the events I’m about to describe are hazy. So many years have passed — and alcoholic beverages slammed — since certain tacos were ordered, since certain hurtful words were spoken amongst close friends.

It must have been the late ’90s or early 2000s. We were at Mr. Taco past 2 a.m. because — why would you go there while the bars were still open? Everyone in our group of four or five ordered their favorite tacos. But only one is relevant to this post:

“Bean and egg with cheese.”

This is how Puff (his actual nickname) ordered this taco.

Seems straight forward. You get a bean and egg — not as common as a bean and cheese, but not exotic either — and add cheese. Except Mr. Taco always botched the order. Instead of “bean and egg with cheese,” the cooks would make, and the waitress would deliver, a bean and cheese, usually.

So the group suggested to Puff that maybe he switch up his ordering method. Maybe order a bean and cheese — this being San Antonio’s signature taco — and ask them to add egg? It’s less confusing this way.

He refused.

“Bean and egg with cheese!” he’d say with righteous indignation.

Puff always complained about the service at Mr. Taco, but the reason he complained about the service was because they always fumbled his favorite taco. He loathed Mr. Taco for this reason. Mr. Taco is long gone, but it’s a grudge he still holds today.

“They got it wrong,” Puff told The Tacoist in a recent interview. “Every time, they forgot the egg.”

It became a debate every time we set foot inside Mr. Taco. Every time we went there, drunkenly, we told him, “Order a bean and cheese . . . with egg!” Every single time.

“I wasn’t going to bend,” Puff said. “I wasn’t going to break on how that taco should be ordered.”

. . .

La Huasteca #3, 3905 San Pedro Ave., is the sight of the former Mr. Taco.

It seems San Antonio’s nightlife eras can be measured by where tipplers flocked to to throw a munch after the bars closed. Mi Tierra has been holding down the downtown fort for decades. If you were partying on the northwest side of town, it’s Chacho’s.

“When it came to the post 2 a.m. taqueria wars, Chacho’s and the King Kong nachos destroyed Mr. Wacko,” Puff said.

But if you were partying late into the night on the St. Mary’s Strip, in the gay clubs on Main Avenue, or anywhere in the SAC area — and you’re currently in your late 30s or 40s — you drove drunkenly to Mr. Taco.

This was before Uber. You would have found your way to Mr. Taco after a night of drinking at Joey’s or Taco Land — the original Taco Land and not the soulless abomination that’s there now. This was before Las Salsas. The Pearl may still have been brewing beer. During this time, in the late 1990s, early 2000s, the St. Mary’s Strip — the White Rabbit and all — was on the decline.

San Antonio was much less Austin, then.

Now, the Mr. Taco building is inhabited by La Huasteca #3. The tacos are probably about the same quality, to be honest, but the hours of operation are less nocturnal.

If I remember correctly, Mr. Taco was open 24/7. This meant that after 2 a.m. the place became lively and filled with drunks — myself included.

“It was a crazy ambiance,” Puff remembers. “You had people from all walks of life, plus the little bar in the back.”

Sometimes we’d get there early, like at 11 a.m. or even midnight, to beat the 2 a.m. rush. If you really want to go back in time, Mr. Taco was located at the current Web House Cafe and Bar on Blanco Road and Ashby Place before it moved to the San Pedro location.

“I would say once they moved to San Pedro, the crowd was more mainstream,” said The Palate, my taco-tasting buddy who’s a frequent contributor to this blog. “At the original location, that was more sort of the Main street neighborhood — the club kids, party-goer types, the (cross-dressers).”

But the San Pedro location is the one that sticks in people’s memory. Maybe Mr. Taco closed in the mid 2000s? I’m not sure, I’ve drank since then.

. . .

Technically, Puff’s entire interview for this piece was off the record, so I’m not supposed use his quotes.

“I guess you’ll disparage my name to sell some T-shirts,” he said.

. . .

I forget her name, but our waitress was a San Antonio original — a short Hispanic lady with long and brightly-painted fingernails that crossed each other as she gripped the pen to jot our orders. She wore brightly-hued eyeshadow, and she had my order memorized.

Soon after Mr. Taco closed, us drunks took the party to Las Salsas. I remember she got a job there and I asked her — drunkenly at 2:42 in the morning, probably — why Mr. Taco had closed. Why? Is it over? Is the dream dead? She basically told me that Mr. Taco was a time and a place and that it was dead and never coming back and that that’s life baby and to get the #@!* over it already.

Were the tacos really that good? I remember them to be magical. After 2 a.m., I guess, all tacos are magical. I remember going there in the daylight one time and Mr. Taco was just another Mexican restaurant. There was no magic, no spectacle, no club kids.

I remember they’d bring the tacos wrapped in wax paper sheets. I still haven’t seen that treatment of tacos anywhere else in San Antonio. The barbacoa always stood out because the grease would soak right through the paper.

The wax paper also added a little extra drama when Puff would open his taco, to see if they would get it right this time. We knew better — they’d mess up the order again.

This is undebatable. The question that we debated, heatedly — and still to this day — is: Who’s at fault?

. . .

The former Mr. Taco building on San Pedro Avenue and Olmos Drive.

In conclusion, I pose these existential questions:

Is the taco a bean and egg with cheese? Or, is it a bean and cheese with egg?

Puff’s rebuttal was two-fold:

• Bean and egg was listed on the Mr. Taco menu.

• Cheese is an accessory not a main ingredient. You order such-and-such taco … with cheese.

Puff was ordering on principle. But isn’t the point to get the correct taco delivered — especially when you’re buzzed and hungry?

“At 2:30 in the morning, they don’t hear ‘bean and egg with cheese’,” The Palate argued. “All they hear is ‘bean and cheese.’ That’s the most popular taco . . . I don’t care if it’s on the menu, it’s 2:30 in the morning.

“You can’t blame Mr. Taco, you can’t blame the service. That’s your fault if they can’t get it correct.”

When Mr. Taco finally closed, Puff was beside himself.

“I think I drove down there during the day and it was shut down,” Puff said. “The only word that came to mind was ‘justice.’ Justice was served.”

The only word that came to my mind? Sadness.

ben@thetacoist.com

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.

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.”

hello@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.