Toña’s – Making Good in the Hood

Tortilleras 4418 Prescott St, Corpus Christi, Texas 78416
 

I live in Corpus Christi, and I’ve lived here for 11 years. My mother grew up here. I’ve got grandparents on both sides from here. My papaw worked for the Post Office downtown, and made a 400 pound coffee table out of the marble wall of a stall in the men’s room there when they tore the place down. I’m not an outsider, but I’m not a local. I’m a bolillo, so I’m always going to stick out at the best taquerias.

PrescottVillageSo when I was driving down Golihar and saw Toñas, I pulled in to the decrepit Prescott Village shopping center and expected to do my normal thing. Get in and out with as little muss and fuss as possible. Sneak a photo of the tacos, and then get a parting shot of the front from my truck as I drive away. I really didn’t expect anyone inside to speak English. At most Corpus Christi taquerias the waitress asks what I want in Spanish, and I answer in english, and the correct tacos find their way through the language barrier to my table.

Today was different, though. The guy behind the counter saw my giant camera, and asked if I was from the city, about a maintenance fee. I said no – that I write a blog about breakfast tacos. He told the ladies in the kitchen that I was a writer, and one of them held up a tortilla for a photo. They let me come back in to the kitchen. It was nice to be regarded with amity, and not with suspicion. They were rolling out and cooking tortillas to order. They were as good as you’d find anywhere. There are few things in life as good as a tortilla that’s seconds off the placa.

TacosThe salsa was fair. The carne guisada was pretty tasty, though I suspect there might have been some food service beef gravy mix to help fill it out. The chorizo and egg was fresh, and on those tortillas, everything was better. Many of the patrons knew each other, old and young. If you notice the lady in red at the top had a bow on her shirt where people were pinning money for her birthday. The coffee was par for the course here in town. The setup in this place is a steam tray in plain view of the customers, behind glass. You order at the front, and then you see them prepare your food. If you order coffee, they give you a cup and you go to the coffee station to your left and serve yourself. From the front of the restaurant you can see Cunningham Middle School through the brushstrokes of the hand-painted signage on the plate glass window. Kids come in every 30 seconds or so, on their way to school, and leave in another minute with a taco in a bag, and run out to beat the bell, laboring under the weight of the backpack. Homer, the guy behind the counter confirmed what I expected: that this was the original location, the other being the Toñas on Agnes. The Signage was painted by the same hand. This one has been here for fourteen years, the other for seven.  There are probably kids buying tacos today whose parents were buying tacos here when it opened.

So the ingredients may be lowbrow, just like the neighborhood, but the atmosphere, the people, and the tacos were as enjoyable as I’ve had.

TonasExterior

Our Taco Award Winner for this week is:

EsmeBiancoWinsTacoAward2Esmé Bianco

Game of Thrones, though brutally violent and rapey, is a great show (and a great series of books). Critics are using a term coined to describe this use of sex to move the narrative forward in GOT. It’s sexposition – a pun and a portmanteau of sex and exposition. Women in Westeros are brutalized (as are the men) but have as much power in many cases as the men of the realm. Even the courtesan Ros, is valued. And as she should be, endowed with stunning beauty, grace, and natural gifts by the beautiful Esmé Bianco, a British burlesque performer and lingerie model. Esme belongs to an elite club of beautiful former girlfriends of Marilyn Manson that includes Dita von Teese, Evan Rachel Wood , Stoya, Jenna Jameson, and Rose McGowan. I have respect for HBO and the show’s runners for having the balls to cast people in the roles of prostitutes who actually know something about working in the adult entertainment industry. Esmé’s confidant and fellow prostitute on the show is Shae, played by  who appeared in more than a few ‘genre pieces’ in Germany in the early 2000s. Respect those who deserve it, and Esmé commands it.

Offer includes 2 tacos, an audience with the ‘tacoteurs,’ and a free tacotopia t-shirt. Please redeem this offer at Whetstone Graphics on a Friday morning of your choice. Offer subject to cancellation by order of the wives of the tacoteurs. Enter to win by emailing your name on a tavern wench’s bodice to tacos@tacotopia.net.

 

Taqueria Tierra Caliente – Not That Hot

Taqueria-Tierra-Caliente-Exterior

Taqueria Tierra Caliente
Ayers St and 18th St
Corpus Christi, Texas

Some places are doomed to fail. You know the places I’m talking about. A new restaurant opens up, and by the time you got there to try it out it’s out of business. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. In the restaurant business this is called a ‘location curse.’ These are often buildings with no apparent impediments to traffic, and they can kill businesses that have proven business models and excellent food.

Running a restaurant is no easy business. While it may not be as bad as people expect, according to a data-rich study by the National Restaurant Association of Dallas restaurants, 23% of restaurants fail within the first year. By the second that number jumps to 37%, and by the third year it’s 44%. Bear in mind this is in Dallas, which spends more per-capita on dining out than almost any other city in the US. Dallas is a city with a thriving economy. Corpus Christi, though showing signs of improvement, was dealt an economic disability when the bottom fell out of the domestic oil market. We’ve got the Eagle Ford Shale now, but it has yet to transform the spending habits of most Corpitos. We hold on to our money, or spend it on trucks, or support family who have no means to support themselves. Our money is less disposable than you’d think. When you break down the numbers, adjusted for the cost of living, and compare Dallas to Corpus Christi you’re led to believe we’re in comparable financial situations, but you wouldn’t know it to live here. While Dallas restaurants are packed with people spending money, Corpus Christi has many excellent taquerias that serve food that is artificially underpriced in order to survive in such a competitive market. The bottom line is this: it’s hard to make it as a restaurant in Corpus Christi. You’ve got to be better than the next guy, and your margins have to be razor thin.

If you add to that a location curse, you’ve got to be a really special restaurant to make it. Taqueria Tierra Caliente is not that special. It’s in a location that’s housed two other taquerias I’ve reviewed that have since failed. I was hoping when my wife and I pulled up to the grand opening sign we’d be treated to some hope for the curse to be broken, but instead we were treated to disappointment. The coffee was burnt, the chorizo was undercooked, and the carne guisada was some of the toughest I’ve had. It wasn’t all bad: the tortillas (both flour and corn) were both excellent, as were both the salsas. The green really kicked me in the ass. The server was friendly too. When I checked for the address on google, it gave me the intersection of Baldwin and Ayers, so I can only conclude this restaurant has moved from one doomed location to another. I wish these guys the best of luck, but If you’re looking for a good taco in this neighborhood, you’d be better off trying Chacho’s or even La Ribera.

 

Our Taco Award Winner for this week is:

Cassandra-Peterson-Wins-Taco-AwardCassandra Peterson

You know her as Elvira, and like the undead she refuses to die. First appearing in 1981, Elvira is as much a touchstone of the horror genre as anyone, living or dead (or both). She’s been on television, in movies, commercials, comic books, calendars, posters, records, and lunch boxes. You name it, she’s put her ample cleavage and campy quips on it. She was MS3TK before MS3TK. She was also the stripper on the cover of Tom WaitsSmall Change. I used to watch her every week when I was 12. I’m old now, but she is as sexy as she ever was, at 61 in the photo here. I’d eat flies just to watch over her coffin at night. 

 

Offer includes 2 tacos, an audience with the ‘tacoteurs,’ and a free tacotopia t-shirt. Please redeem this offer at Whetstone Graphics on a Friday morning of your choice. Offer subject to cancellation by order of the wives of the tacoteurs. Enter to win by emailing your name on the ADAM 1976 pinup calendar to tacos@tacotopia.net.

Taqueria Mi Ranchito – New Year’s Revolution

 Mi-Ranchito-Exterior
 
418 US Highway 181 • Taft, TX 78390
361-528-3851

It’s the end of 2012. Fortunately for us, it’s not the end of the world, despite the confused folks who’d gathered at the Pyrenees on the 20th. That’s the good news. The bad news, is now we have to deal with the real world, and the problems we have to look forward to now that it looks like we’ll survive the end of the cycle of the Mayan calendar. Personally, I prefer to believe in the Aztec calendar art of Jesus Helguera. And while there are real, tough issues we have to deal with in the coming year, as a city, as a nation, and certainly for me personally, I look forward to it. I think 2013 is going to be a good year. I hope so, ’cause 2012 was a bitch.

Mi-Ranchito-TacosAnd while there was considerable difficulty in the past year, I can always take comfort in the ultimate comfort food: Tacos. This morning I had my regular – a Carne Guisada and a Chorizo and Egg – at Taqueria Mi Ranchito in Taft. I had business to take care of in Sinton, and I was glad to take some comfort after that. The place is old, beat-up, and worse-for wear. As Tom Waits put it in his song, ‘Small Change,’ “Cause the dreams aren’t broken here, no, they’re just walking with a limp.” My waiter could barely understand my order in English, and less so in Spanish – as bad as my Spanish is, but it came to the table in about two minutes, steaming hot. Everything was pretty good. The carne guisada was good, with the stew meat cooked to tenderness, and good homemade flour tortillas (the corn was quite good too). The chorizo and egg was nice, with a good stream of red gravy (read grease) steadily escaping the back of my taco as I ate. Both tacos were slightly larger than average, and the fresh coffee kept coming. The people in the small-town eatery all seemed to know each other, and treated each other like one big family, greeting one another as they came and left in Spanglish. It was a real, un-coaxed expression of the holiday spirit of family we all hear so much about this time of year. I prefer a place with a little character to a place that’s new and sterile, and this place was certainly not that. I’ll stop in again next time I’m up Taft way and need a taco, or a warm feeling.

MI Ranchito Cafe on Urbanspoon

Our Taco Award Winner for this week is:

 

Morena-Baccarin-Wins-Taco-AwardMorena Baccarin

 

If you’ve watched Firefly, you no doubt share Captain Mal’s burning attraction for the ship’s ‘Companion’ Inara. Malcom hides his love for her, but I will proclaim mine. She’s a transcendent beauty. Hailing from Rio de Janeiro, Morena moved to New York at 10, where she went to PS 41 with her castmate in Homeland, Claire Danes. She is a living argument for people of Brazilian and Italian descent, for Science Fiction, and for girls with short hair (Long Live Short Hair), and perhaps for sheer fabrics, as you see to the right.

Offer includes 2 tacos, an audience with the ‘tacoteurs,’ and a free tacotopia t-shirt. Please redeem this offer at Whetstone Graphics on a Friday morning of your choice. Offer subject to cancellation by order of the wives of the tacoteurs. Enter to win by emailing your name on the back of a bootleg copy of the pilot of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to tacos@tacotopia.net.