I am a taco slut, always have been. I’m not talking about the kind of tacos you get at gringo-friendly margarita-sopapilla-raise-the-flag Tex-Mex places (though I adore them too). I mean the real deal: tacos filled with assorted pig parts and cow-face meats. Nothing makes me happier than an open-faced corn tortilla filled with cilantro, onions, lime juice, and a hillock of some kind of dark, redolent, greasy meat. It’s like catnip.
Recently, a friend and I embarked on a crawl through the heart of one of the Fort’s taco meccas, a Caligulan journey so messy and decadent we’ll be recovering memories of it on a therapist’s couch many years from now. Our territory: Hemphill Street between I-20 and Berry Street, where, on weekends, taco carts and food trucks roll in like carnies setting up a circus.
Our first stop was Los Gueros, a cart stationed in front of Ibarra Welding (3723 Hemphill St.). Like violence with your meat? Then this is your place. In front of a picnic bench that passes for its dining room, a projector screen was showing a video of street fights, car races, and scantily clad women — talk about mucho macho. We each ordered a taco al pastor (with seasoned pork, $1.25) and one al castilla (pork rib meat, $1.25). Both tacos were spicy and delicious, but I was preoccupied with watching large men watching other large men beat up other large men. I needed an adult but settled for a change of scenery.
Across the street from Los Thugs was Taqueria Munoz, a truck parked in the Prism gas station parking lot (3500 Hemphill St.). My guest and I each ordered a buche taco ($1.25), which is menudo (tripe) in a soft corn tortilla. Munoz’ has a picnic table dining room as well, but it was full. So my guest and I took a cue from some other diners and ate on the hood of my car, which made me realize I should have stopped at the car wash if I was going to have friends over for dinner. The tacos were runny and tasted bitter and acidic. They were a bad idea, and so was parking next to a dumpster.
Tired of being out in the heat, we stopped next at El Mil, a real sit-down restaurant. I’ve been there a few times — usually around 3 a.m., peering into its to-go window as if it were Saint Peter’s gate. Since I was at a place where I was confident about food quality, I thought I’d branch out a little and order a plate ($6) with some taco varieties outside my usual comfort zone: deshebrada (brisket), and cabeza (nonspecific cow-head meat) The deshebrada was rich and a tad too greasy, but the green salsa offset some of its gaminess, and the end result was tasty. The cabeza taco was gamey, acrid, and just made me think too much about where it came from. I imagine that had to be the most unhappy cow in cow history, perhaps possessed by a demon. I’ve had cabeza a few times and enjoyed it, but this was not one of them.
We’d planned to hit some other places, but that last taco made us cry tío. Very full and a little sad, we headed home, like kids who’ve figured out that eating at every food booth at the circus is a dubious achievement. We had skipped some brilliant taquerias on Hemphill because the whole point of our journey was to try the places I usually pass on the way to already beloved joints like Juanito’s or Ernesto’s. I did learn a valuable lesson, though — besides the part about not eating next to a dumpster: Love may be unconditional, but taco lust has its limits.
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