This year, I couldn’t make it to Richmond’s 2nd Annual Taco Crawl, held April 21, one day late if you ask me. The crawl took taco lovers from Shockoe Bottom to The Fan, ultimately crowning one taco, “The People’s Taco.” Judging from their stops, I felt a few hidden gems were left out and so, wanting to give our readers and fellow taco lovers alike a little insight into some places off the beaten path, I decided to embark on my own journey to reveal the REAL “People’s Tacos”.
Originally a cheap and portable meal for the working class silver miner, the taco is said to date back to 18th century Mexico. What better way to experience authentic Mexican street food than to dive right into the culture of where the delicacy came from by taste testing the very recipes that have been made in the kitchens of these families’ ancestors? To do this, I headed across the bridge to Southside’s Hispanic Burroughs, where the true locals and residents of that area go to get authentic eats.
I’d say in the past week or so, I’ve eaten about 20 different tacos, ranging from cow head and intestine, to the classics like al pastor and chicken, while speaking more broken Spanish than on my annual Miami vacations to visit my Cuban circus of a family. I’ve gone from rusty taco stands to trailer parks and seen it all, from a pile of tamales by registers to add to your purchase for $1.00 like a pack of gum, to witnessing a Hispanic grandma in action, whipping up some homemade corn tortillas by hand in the back of a hot-plate kitchen.
Fortunately for you, my journey doesn’t start in a trailer park, it starts at an old, family-owned, El Salvadorian bodega on Jefferson Davis Highway called Tienda el Tio. Originally founded in 2001 by husband and wife Melbis and Oscar Romero after leaving San Miguel, El Salvador, Tienda El Tio or, “The Uncle’s Shop,” has coined itself as one of the pioneering taquerias in the Southside of Richmond.
With Telemundo playing re-runs of an old novela on an outdated box TV resting on top of a fridge, a dusty, stand-up, rotating fan blowing in the middle of the room, and WVMZ’s Maxima 1320, Richmond’s go-to Latino radio station playing reggaeton throwbacks in the background, I was hit with a sense of nostalgia from when my grandma and I would take trips to the Annandale butcher at the Bodega Latina to pick up pork for her famous Masita de Puerco, a Cuban marinated pork dish.
I sat down with Kristen Romero, daughter of Oscar and Melbis and the current owner of El Tio since it was passed down the bloodline just two years ago. After looking through some old pictures of her in an apron waiting the same booth we were sitting in when she was just eleven years old, she brought out a menu for me along with what she called an El Salvadorian rendition of a homemade fruit cocktail, filled with diced apples and small red apricot looking things called “Jocotes”.
Served out of a big plastic jug with a ladle into a tall glass chalice over ice, I slurped down the drink which tasted more like juice than the syrupy Dole fruit cocktails we all ate as kids, and proceeded to finish it off with a fork, spitting out the pits of the Jocotes into a napkin.
Kristen said most of their business comes from area workers and the Hispanic population in the neighborhood.
“Predominantly El Salvadorians, but many Guatemaltecos, and Hondurans as well. Mostly men working construction looking for a cheap meal on their way home,” she said. “We couldn’t tackle the lunch rush in our small kitchen so we decided to open up a small stand out front solely for tacos to help keep up.”
After El Tio set up the taco stand, word spread beyond the local community of their delicious eats. “Since then, we have noticed much more of a younger crowd coming in, mostly Americans like yourself,” Kristen said. So the gringos have caught on, but that didn’t deter me from venturing in and chowing down. I decided to order three carne asada tacos off the whiteboard menu, hanging by a nail behind the register. Now tacos are typically a Mexican dish, which is why I was interested to see the game being run by El Salvadorians, and boy did they deliver.
I think what makes a taco truly authentic is being able to have so much flavor compacted in a minimal number of ingredients. This isn’t Chipotle or Taco Bell here people. No cheese, no sour cream, no tomato, and definitely no flour tortillas. One thing I have never seen before was the use of two tortillas stacked on top of one another for each taco. “It’s for support I guess,” said Kristen.
Pupusas are among their most popular items, but they also sell $1 tamales. At first, I was a little skeptical when Kristen brought out my plate. Now keep in mind I hadn’t eaten all day, and with three mini tacos, each the size of my palm, staring me in the face, I thought it had better be a good idea to order some tamales on the side as back up. I picked up the double stacked tortilla, folded the ends, and shoved it in my mouth; leaving just scraps after the very first bite. I had yet to even try the sauces, which Kristen insisted I do. But my first thought was, ‘How the hell did they put so much flavor into just some onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lemon over some steak?’
As I began to feast, Kristen brought out chicken tamales and the mango Jarrito soft drink that I ordered. Now if you try and search El Tio, you will see that it is currently listed as a convenience store, which is possibly what has kept this hidden gem a secret for years. But not for long, Kristen said she plans to change the Yelp and Google listings to “restaurant” to attract more customers.
Not only do their unique condiments separate them from the competition, being one of the older taquerias in Richmond has allowed the place to immerse itself well into the community and contribute greatly to its rapidly increasing orientation. “Everyone around here knows us, my mom, my dad and me,” said Kristen. As for the future of El Tio, Kristen has received several requests to open another taco stand inside of the city bubble, which I believe will be a hit for those looking to take a break from the typical taco joints and discover something new that comes with an entire experience bundled in.
On my way home, I stopped by another taqueria that I passed by on my way to El Tio earlier that morning called Tacos Mexico, a small establishment off Jefferson Davis Highway with very few parking spaces in the gravel, situated right in front of Tom Ford’s trailer park.
Walking into Tacos Mexico during the mid-day lunch rush was probably not the best time to get some words from the ladies running the joint. Crockpots were filled to the brim with beans and rice, turned on low to keep the food warm and ready to serve. I could tell from their sweat-dripped faces and lack of attention that it was a bad time, but I admired their hustle so I left out of respect. It only took me three more visits to get a name, phone number, and an available time scheduled for a brief interview.
Upon my return, I walked in and asked for two tacos, one the American way, and one the authentic way. The perplexed looks on the faces of the women behind the register made me think my Spanish was not as good as I thought, but needless to say, I got the message across. It was interesting to see how these Southside locals are tweaking their original recipes to cater to the typical more city-raised Richmonder, while still providing that same authentic cuisine you would find on the streets of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, I was greeted by 22-year-old Brian Rascon, the son of one the owners. Rascon was a man of very few words, timid in nature but nice and polite. We briefly sat down to talk tacos while family members and co-owners Argelia Perez and Aracely Perez manned the kitchen. Hailing from Chihuahua, the family has operated Tacos Mexico since 2012 and seem to aim to cater to all demographics, selling traditional style tacos, as well as the Americanized versions.
And by traditional, I mean a handmade corn tortilla, cilantro, and onions, and whatever protein you desire. for the authentic taco, you take your food over to a self-service stand where you can add radishes, cilantro, jalapenos, and a variety of salsas.
Although in search of the REAL “people’s taco” of Richmond to pay homage to the ones who originally cultivated the delicacy, I have to say that being an Americanized Latino has really influenced my liking for the “gringo” taco rather than the traditional taco, so I went with the flour tortilla with guacamole, cheddar, and sour cream mix, added by the person behind the counter.
Good thing Cuban’s don’t normally eat tacos or else my Abuela would be pretty damn pissed reading this. One of my favorite things about the authenticity of Tacos Mexico is that when you ask for avocado, the lady in the kitchen grabs a fresh, store-bought avocado right from a bag, and chops it up by hand in from of your very eyes. It is not a sketchy scoop of guacamole soup for $1.85 extra like some places we all know.
Despite the name, the taqueria’s most popular item is not the taco, they are known for their tortas, which is basically a Mexican sandwich. Although I am writing about authentic tacos, let us get one thing straight here, I could not live without guacamole, cheese, or sour cream in my life and quite frankly, I think corn tortillas taste like a napkin. As for the food, I mean, at $2.00 a taco, you get what you pay for, let’s just leave it at that. But, Rascon did say the eatery was very popular in the local community.
“This place is a hit for many Guatemaltecos and El Salvadorians,” he said. Sadly, for me, not so much, but it’s a worth a stop to see authentic tacos being made by a passionate and hardworking family.
The last stop on my taco tasting adventure was Francisco Gonzales’ Taqueria Panchito on Midlothian Turnpike. Panchito meaning, “Little Pancho”, which is a common Spanish nickname for Francisco. Originally from Mexico City, Gonzales came to the states 20 years ago and opened up his restaurant in 2011. In addition to his flourishing restaurant business, which had more customers than the other two combined, Gonzales also runs four food trucks which you can catch at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Center of the Universe, Isley Brewing, local festivals like the Que Pasa Festival, and the downtown Dominion Power construction site from 9:00am-12: 30 pm.
At Taqueria Panchito, Gonzales serves up everything from tortas, to burritos, chicken enmoladas (enchiladas in mole sauce), Pollo al carbon, and of course, tacos such as carne asada, chicken, chorizo, and much more.
I shared some words with Gonzales over a spread of different tacos ranging from cow’s head to cow stomach and some Horchata, Pineapple, Melon, and Jamaica flower juices that he generously offered.
One aspect unique to Panchito’s was their heavy duty sauce bar, ranging from guacamole to medium to an “Atomic Bomb” hot sauce.
“This shit is spicy,” Gonzales warned as I went for the medium sauce to douse my chicken and al pastor tacos in it to my satisfaction. Don’t try to be a hero here folks, they are for real when they say their sauce is spicy, but both tacos were perfection. Their cantaloupe or “melon” drink was absolute fire, and you could even see the seeds and remnants of the fruit at the bottom of the cup. As for the Jamaica flower drink, it was simply Hibiscus, but he insisted I add sugar to the drink for taste, so I added some, he then grabbed it from my hand and dumped a mound of sugar on top of the ice like a man.
As for the cow’s tongue tacos, or “Lengua de vaca”, that was different, but not really a favorite, personally. I began to swallow the fatty fermented flesh recently taken off the face of this cow, and after letting it sit, clenched between my jaw for a while, I began to notice the meat forming into almost like a gum that wouldn’t break down in my mouth any further. Now, anyone who has been invited to a Hispanic friend’s house for dinner before knows that rejecting the food is a huge sign of disrespect, which is exactly why I smiled and quickly washed it down with a gulp of Horchata to cleanse my palette.
After checking out my three places, I started to reconsider my idea of an “authentic” taqueria. It didn’t take me until the end of my taco tour, to realize that what really made a taqueria authentic was much more than the ingredients, if it tasted “good” to me or not, how much of a hole in the wall the place is, or the recipes that are used. It was the entire dining experience as a whole, from barely being able to read the Spanish only menu, to the way you are treated when you walk in the door, to the feeling you get while you are there.
Although a more mainstream establishment than El Tio and Tacos Mexico, I feel Gonzales does a great job immersing his native culture into the Panchito’s dining experience, leaving a sense of nostalgia that brings these expatriates who left their homelands in search of a better life with a little taste of home. For once I didn’t feel as if I was interrogating a restaurant owner. I felt at home, having a conversation with someone who really loves to make people happy with his food. And quite honestly, I feel like my Panchito’s experience would have been much more enjoyable if I was not told which taco I was eating until after I ate it.
Food really is the glue that welds similar cultures together, but let’s get one thing straight, they were originated as a cheap and easy meal for those who needed a quick bite. They were never meant to be gourmet and served on silver platters, so let’s keep it that way and stop charging a limb for ’em, please.
If you’re ever thinking of going across the bridge and exploring what’s off the grid, I suggest you step your taco game up and explore the many family-owned taco stands inside all the different Spanish Burroughs or Richmond.
Photos By: Ethan Malamud