The secret may be in El Come Taco’s sauces, but the appeal goes deeper
I feel sorry for people who still believe that a “taco” is ground beef at the bottom of a crisp shell, smothered in iceberg lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese and supplemented by chunky tomato sauce squirted out of a plastic packet. But it is a pity born of experience.
In my years before moving to Texas (which I now call The Dark Times), I, too, thought of tacos as coming in two varieties: Bell and Bueno. But the culinary life in
Dallas provides far more diversity than that. The richness of Mexican culture in North Texas provides us with a banquet of taquerias — holes-in-the-wall where, often for two dollars or less, you have the opportunity to experience the exquisite, flamboyant flavors of Distrito Federal street food in the palm of your hand. And it doesn’t take a passport to get it.
Numerous taquerias dot our landscape, some more successfully than others. For those willing to explore the barrio, there are countless, faceless taquerias hidden away and nondescript strip malls, where Telemundo broadcasts a constant stream of telenovelas and soccer games. For authenticity, they are excellent, but may require a more daring spirit — few creature comforts are provided: A chair upholstered in plasticine and duct tape, gray cinder block walls, a wobbly laminate table.
(What do you expect for a buck-and-a-quarter?) I enjoy some of these places immensely, but only for the food.
For foodies intimidated by restaurants where Spanish speakers predominate, there are exceptional but gringo-friendly places like El Tizoncito, the terrific gayborhood joint on Lemmon Avenue that elevates fast-casual food with a Spanish accent. (Other locations of El Tizoncito are peppered around town as well.) And of course we have Urban Taco, Fearing’s, Stampede 66 and assorted other high-end restaurants that know how to do a tortilla proud.
For those in the middle ground, there’s El Come Taco.
It’s in the (sort of) Latino neighborhood of Fitzhugh and North Central Expressway with a (sort of) Mexican flair; there’s a TV with soccer on it, but it’s more likely to be FoxSports or ESPN than Univision, and the colors are festive but not overwhelming (chalk drawing of Mexican wrestler masks, skulls priming you for Dia de los Muertos).
Behind the counter of the family-owned spot, Luis Villalva or his brother Javier greet you in English (if you look like me) or Spanish (if you look like my Puerto Rican dining companion). Luis, who used to manage Café San Miguel just a few blocks away on Henderson, does this for the love of it. Each taco comes with a fresh wedge of lime, even though lime prices have skyrocketed in recent months. The pastor (a vertical-spit-grilled spicy pork) arrives with the option of piña — an essential (and complimentary) add-on, plus fresh white onion and verdant chopped cilantro. Villalva enjoys the traditions of the taco, but he’s sensitive to the desires of his customers. And that’s the mark of a good restaurant.
The tacos run from a mere $1.50 (including the traditional doubled-up corn tortillas, plus cilantro and onions) up to a max of three dollars (for the fish tacos and some of the specialties). There are at least a dozen variations to choose from, from the arrachera (a delectable skirt steak preparation) to vegetarian options (including nopales — tender slices of prickly pear) to the suadero (brisket).
Ah, El Come’s suadero: I have not been able to erase it from my mind. The meat is moist but with a crispness that comes from carbonization, lightly seasoned but distinctly textural. But it’s turned from noteworthy to memorable by the addition of the salsa.
The salsas at El Come Taco are an indelible ingredient in the success of each bite. There are almost as many variations of them as there are tacos themselves. The spicy tomatillo, paired smartly with the suadero by Luis, adds cool fire on the tongue. The pastor taco arrives, per plan, with a squirt bottle of red, chili-flaked salsa — not too potent, but with a burnished earthiness. The luscious, deep-fried tilapia tacos are best with a simple dollop of crema. (They even label each bottle with what taco it best complements, though of course you can mix and match, as I do. But the pairings, like the best work of a sommelier, are already well considered.)
The salsas, though, are not the deciding factor in what makes El Come Taco currently my favorite taqueria, nor does its central location on the outskirts of the burgeoning Henderson Street scene. And the service — pleasant for counter-service dining — is nice but hardly white-glove.
No, it’s the combination of all these things: The sense of discovery, the authenticity without feeling out-of-place, the satisfaction of supporting a business that does what it does for the love of feeding folks. That’s what true foodies are always on the lookout for. And all that is what El Come provides.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2014.