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Authentic: Searching for culture and connection amid tacos

Authentic: not false or copied; genuine; having an origin supported by unquestionable evidence; representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself.
All photography by Cori Baker

Authentic: not false or copied; genuine; having an origin supported by unquestionable evidence; representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself.

Authentic is a loaded word, particularly when it’s defined within the context of the culinary world; every restaurant that markets itself based on its cultural legitimacy must at once respect the unspoken rules of the cuisine and at the same time, break them in the exact right ways, in the exact right places. From simmering Mongolian hot pots or Lockhart barbecue pits, any restaurant serving dinner with deeply-felt cultural roots puts its reliability to the test. If they fail, they risk frustration from tourists who feel duped and scorn from descendents who know what their food is supposed to taste like.

As an international metroplex, DFW is a fertile testing ground for any discussion of authenticity. Oak Cliff has fostered a thriving Latinx community; Carrollton has a large Asian population and boasts some of the best Korean and Vietnamese joints in the state; Plano and North Dallas share a wealth of Indian and Pakistani food and culture. Any of these would be worth discussing, but Mexican food will always be especially relevant in Texas. We share a border, after all.

Jamal's Convenience Store Authentic mexican food tacos meso maya plano hole-in-the-wall hidden gem
Jamal’s tacos

In scattered pockets along K Avenue and Jupiter Road, a neighborhood of mostly-cash-only Mexican food joints thrive. They’re nothing fancy, and haven’t kept up with the overall pace of Plano, a city known lately for its corporate growth. Some are new locations of beloved DFW chains, serving a population that increasingly migrates north, and others are stand-alone concepts doing small-time local business. Regardless, they dish out all the tripa, lengua and barbacoa you could want. Many are buried treasures that live inside other businesses, predominantly gas stations or convenience stores. Such is the case for one of the most popular taquerias in Plano, La Paisanita Taqueria. But hardly anyone calls it by its actual name; most people know it as Jamal’s.

Jamal’s Convenience Store sits in a cramped, tired parking lot at K Avenue and Parker Road, where cars squeeze in line against each other, sweating in the Texas sun. Inside, a portable fan helps keep things cool. One counter advertises bail bonds and loans; over the other, a sign lists five meat options: fajita, pastor, lengua, barbacoa and pollo. Each taco is $1.59. Extra grilled onions are 50 cents. Customers either take it to go, or sit at the single picnic table sandwiched between the refrigerated section and the potato chip aisle.

Jamal’s won’t win any awards for flash or interior design, but the tacos are dirt cheap and ready in seconds. Each meat is served inside slick, griddled corn tortillas with a pile of grilled onions, a whole jalapeño pepper and cilantro. No one stops at Jamal’s looking for fusion, modern twists or expressions of kimchi. They come to Jamal’s for lunch, plain and simple, quiet and grungy.

Le Salsa Verde Authentic mexican food tacos meso maya plano hole-in-the-wall hidden gem
La Salsa Verde | Torta

Right next door, the Plano outpost of Oak Cliff’s La Salsa Verde Taqueria thrives inside a Shamrock gas station. The ladies in the back chop raw radish garnishes. While the al pastor tacos at Jamal’s have my heart, La Salsa Verde works strange magic with la cabeza, the head of a cow, from which they harvest delicacies such as cachete, maciza, and lengua.

Cachete, beef cheek, is criminally moist and fatty, having been roasted to perfection. Maciza is a lean cut with a cleaner flavor and a note of almost-sweetness. A torta with milanesa—breaded steak—and chorizo, is an act of God. Tender, breaded steak, pounded thin, provides heft, playing beautifully with crumbled chorizo. Tomatoes, lettuce, onions are stacked high and melted American cheese oozes between sliced ham. The bread is crusty, easily crushed flat inside the aluminum foil.

Two old women sit at one of the tables. They have ordered a torta and silently, one divides the napkins while her friend eases apart the two halves of the sandwich. Without a word between them, they share it. Where people are, they will live, cook and eat also. What strip malls are to Chinese restaurants and Korean barbecues, gas stations are to tiny taquerias. They aren’t looking for anyone to impress. They just want to feed people.

Tortilleria La Sabrosa Authentic mexican food tacos meso maya plano hole-in-the-wall hidden gem
Beef fajita nachos | Tortilleria La Sabrosa

One intersection south is Tortilleria La Sabrosa, a relatively unknown sit-down place right off of Park Road and K Avenue. Small and unassuming, it has gumball machines for the kids, about 10 tables and a beautiful counter of fruit where you can order Mango Entero, Arroz Con Leche and juice. Sometimes the soda machine is broken, but the food is worth it.

Grab a seat and they’ll bring you a basket of warm, fresh chips with a bowl of salsa. They’re marked with subtle char lines, and leave an oily sheen behind on the paper lining the basket. Salsas verde and de chile de arbol come on the side. Pair with a mangonada, a spicy-sweet mango smoothie made with chamoy sauce, lime juice, and chili powder.

Once I stopped to talk to the woman who manned the counter, Flora. She confirms that the chips are made in-house and tells me that Tortilleria La Sabrosa opened in 2017 and she’s been there the whole time. On many nights after her shift is done, she brings home cheese enchiladas with red sauce for dinner. I ask her what she likes best about it. The food, she answers, is a huge part of it.

“It’s homey,” she explains. “It’s what I’d make at home for my kids.”

Authentic mexican food tacos meso maya plano hole-in-the-wall hidden gem mariana's taco shop frisco
Mariana’s Taco Shop

It’s not just Plano either. Frisco’s Main Street presents another surprising find, Marianas Taco Shop, a quiet, red-trimmed house with patio seating. The interior is steamy and small. Indoor seating is regulated to the stools that line a wrap-around counter, broken only by the swinging kitchen door, the source of the heat. The menu casts a wider net than a gas station taqueria, trading more typical Texas hints for California influences. Their fish burrito is a perfect example of a Californian twist, replacing more customary fillings with white fish, cabbage, pico de gallo and tartar sauce.

Every state that touches the Mexican border has their own twists on the food and they all overlap. Without experimentation, we wouldn’t have the crowning glory of Tex-Mex, chile con carne. We probably wouldn’t have cabbage-slaw fish tacos coming out of California. Still, the boundaries between Mexican food and its fusions can be elusive and are oft-debated. Who owns hard taco shells? Who uses more cheddar cheese and who uses it better? At once, Mariana’s Taco Shop shows that they can bridge the gap, offering real Mexican food and “authentic California-style Mexican food,” even if that reads like an oxymoron.

While the fish burrito is an encounter, a classic, simple carnitas plate lets the unadulterated character of pork shine. Shredded and slow-roasted, the meat is tender with snappy, salted edges, steeped in layers of garlic and peppers, until the seasonings are deeply infused into every bite, ready to be highlighted by the green acidity of lime and raw onion. A pile of pico de gallo garnishes and heated tortillas wrapped in aluminum foil are tucked under the plate. Douse them in salsa verde or rojo and it’s as emblematic as a homemade corn tortilla.  

Their al pastor tacos feature thick hunks of meat cut from a roast that was marinated in various chiles, pineapple, onion, garlic and cinnamon until it turns a bold crimson, with a rich peppered edge. Tacos al pastor once were considered fusion and have Lebanese roots. I also have some Lebanese roots—just enough to be extremely judgemental about hummus—so tacos al pastor are always welcome on my plate. The Al Pastor cooking style came to be when Middle Eastern immigrants brought shawarma to Mexico in the early 1900s. Local taquerias simply adapted the shawarma technique and applied it to pork. The meat has an outside sear, basted in its own juices as it cooks and pieces are shaved off and into corn tortillas. A huge cone-shaped pork roast on a trompo looks distinctly similar to a doner kebab.

Authentic mexican food tacos meso maya plano hole-in-the-wall hidden gem mariana's taco shop frisco
Al Pastor | Mariana’s

Once pastor was fusion at its finest; now it’s part of taqueria convention. One day, after enough popularity, love and time, the modernity of al pastor faded and was folded into taqueria heritage, pasted into cookbooks. Traditions change.

Most true Mexican flavor, undiluted by popular opinion, is found in taquerias. As for fine-dining, for a long time, the closest we could come to a true Mexican flavor north of Dallas—and outside of Mi Cocina—was Chili’s mix-and-match fajitas. But Meso Maya Comida Y Copas, another Dallas transplant, has recently opened in Plano, offering something that feels more legitimate at a fancier level. There may not be anyone else in the area who serves chicharrones, fried pork skin, with so much grace. Chicharrones can either be quite fat, or crispy, depending on how much fat has been trimmed off each piece, but this dish is best when it’s balanced between the two. At Meso Maya, that equilibrium is achieved. Generously-sized hunks of meat are fried in bubbling oil, bathed in salsa and heaped with pickled onions and cotija cheese. It’s a perfect elevation of the version that can be found in thumbprint-sized taquerias.

Authentic food finds its home with the people who make it, know it and grew up on it. If the food is yours, its meaningfulness hits you. Personally, I know authenticity best through my relationship with Lebanese food, having grown up unraveling jars of grape leaves and laying them in careful, damp piles, working the crank on the antique meat grinder as it pummels lamb shoulder into coarse nubs to be mixed by hand with rice and Syrian allspice. I have had many grape leaves in my life and even if they’re good, if they aren’t familiar, then they’re aren’t quite right.

When it comes to food from your own culture, the minutia matters in a way it never will to a traveler passing through. While anyone can tap into this sharable culture, it seems to me that authentic tastes different for each person, meaning that there is no necessarily wrong way for someone to explore their heritage.

Perhaps authentic at its very best and most distilled means something like, “This is how my grandmother made it and she made it best in the world.”

Flora and the two elderly ladies spitting a gigantic torta at La Salsa Verde, have history with the meal that I, a tourist in the land of Mexican fare, lack. I wonder what nuances they taste.

Originally published in Plano Profile’s November 2018 issue