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.

In terms of trying to find similar renditions elsewhere, being introduced to Chico's Tacos' as "flautas" is a great disservice. A passion for Chico's gets passed on, but if you don't plan on moving to El Paso, you're out of luck. You have no idea how many times I've ordered "flautas" at restaurants ever since. They're not tacos. And they're not flautas. Flautas are long corn tortillas rolled around a filling (like beef, chicken, or cheese) into a thin cylinder and sometimes deep-fried. Chico's Tacos are just about four inches long, if that — the distance between the tip of your thumb and the end of your pointer when you make an "L." Chico's Tacos are more like taquitos.

Regardless of what they're called, nowhere in 13 years of examining Tex-Mex menus in Texas, California, and New York City have I ever come across tacos, taquitos, or flautas similarly topped with gooey cheese and soaked in salsa. It just doesn't happen. That's a Chico's thing. And once you've had it, it's something you find yourself looking for... craving.

So when you, as a food-obsessed lover of Tex-Mex and a Chico's acolyte, hear that family members just so happen to be passing through El Paso on a road trip, as was recently the case with my sister and mother, you do what you can to persuade them to stop and find a way to bring back original samples.

And that's how I recently ate Chico's Tacos in New York City — deconstructed, and brought back in Tupperware containers that cost more than the tacos themselves ($1.83 per order). "When I ordered them, I asked for the sauce on the side," my mother explained. "They gave me a strange look."

Sauce gently warmed on the stove, flautas thawed from the freezer where they'd been stored, then flash-fried, placed in the lovingly transported boat, covered with cheese, broth, and jalapeño sauce — I paused to appreciate a dish I'd built up for more than a decade, wondering, "Would it live up to the memory?" And bite after bite of that crisp, cheesy, spicy mess did. No, I couldn't feel the hot El Paso sun, and New York's skyline didn't disappear — I wasn't transported back to White Sands — but that sense of satisfaction, that comfort, the feeling of finding some secret culinary home to luxuriate in, that was there.

It created a new problem. Having gotten a taste of Chico's again, having had them in New York City once, having rebooted the flavor memory and the craving, I'd have to be able to have them again. But how?

Creating a recipe for a renowned dish is tricky. You can theorize, you can do trial and error, or you can do what was done here: Look to see what's out there already. There's no official site for Chico's Tacos as far as you can tell, and, as far as anyone seems to know, there's no official recipe out there for how to best make these signature tacos.

The two of the most prominent recipes on the web are by The Stanton Magazine and Mexican American Border Cooking. They provide some really insightful guidance on different approaches to successful recreations, but neither quite got me where I needed to be. With a few tweaks, fresh ingredients, and the use of a home fryer, I've come up with a recipe for a rendition that looks and tastes pretty close to the original. (One thing I couldn't figure out, was how to fry them without using toothpicks, which if you watch video of Chico's Tacos being prepared, are definitely not being used.) All that's missing is the boat.

Click here for Chico's Tacos Flautas Recipe.

Now, about those roasted jalapeño-stuffed tortas that you can eat on the border with Juarez...