Chico's Tacos, a Love Story
"Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with some Mexican food.
Day-time would find me in old Chico's Tacos;
Eating flautas soaked in a salsa that wooed."
It was 13 years ago that I first had Chico's Tacos in El Paso, Texas. I'd moved there for a month and a half for a change of scene at the invitation of a college friend who had for years waxed poetic about vast blue skies, White Sands, and Mexican food in his West Texas hometown.
It was a long trip. I had $850 to my name and a Greyhound ticket. After two days, three hours, and 55 minutes of sitting next to oversized aislemates, eating fuel-stop food, sleeping as much as humanly possible, and feeling as if there were still days left of watching the road race by with a teenage mother, baby in arm, asleep on my shoulder, I was ready to arrive. More importantly, I was ready to eat. I just didn't know how ready I was for Chico's.
"First thing we need," my friend Fabian Saucedo said at the depot, before we put my bag in the car, "is to get flautas at Chico's. It's the first thing I do when I come home. I need a fix and you need to try them."
No indication of the greatness within. (Photo courtesy J.L. Powers)
To native El Pasoans, that's a familiar refrain, one that's inspiration began in 1953 when local boxing promoter Joe Mora opened the first Chico's Tacos (his children have run it since his death in 1992). But pulling up to any of the five locations gave visitors no indication that they're about to have a formative Tex-Mex experience.
The signs outside the drab, unimpressive buildings, "CHICO'S TACOS: HAMBURGERS-BURRITOS-HOT DOGS," also gave no indication of the joints' signature dish: three rolled "tacos" containing ground beef, covered in finely shredded cheese, all soaked in translucent red "salsa" in a white cardboard boat, and topped with jalapeño salsa. Expectations are similarly low when the dish is set in front of you.
"What on Earth is this and how badly am I going to pay for it later," I thought as we brought trays of the tacos back to a booth, balancing carefully so as not to spill what could only really be described as red water that was filled almost to the top of the fast-food boat.
There's not much else to see. Take the cheese, for example — government issue? It's so finely shredded you could swear you see powder. And the combination of both almost completely covers the tightly rolled taquitos.
But something happens with that first bite. The "flautas" are crunchy, but soaked in the salsa the crispness begins to give. And though it's more like a thin broth, there's surprisingly good flavor. The heat of the broth melts the cheese, turning it into a hot soupy mess of flavor punched up by the heat of the jalapeño sauce. There's a hot, tailor-made, dip-with-every-bite experience. And there's no need for plastic utensils. You just pick one up, bite, dip, and bite again until they're all gone and you're left with a quarter-inch of cheese and sauce that begs you to drink it. It's addictive.
I was so smitten that while working at The New York Times' Dining Section in 2006, I suggested Chico's Tacos to then restaurant critic Frank Bruni as a stop on his cross-country tour of America's best fast food. They made the cut in his recap of the trip. Bruni's not the only well-known food person to have given Chico's a nod of approval. Chef and Food Network personality Aarón Sanchez, a native El Pasoan, aptly explained on the show The Best Thing I Ever Ate — With My Hands, that this dish that should be "destined for failure," one of the most unattractive things you'll ever see, is also one of the best things you'll ever eat.