It’s no secret: I love tacos.
I love breakfast tacos made with flour tortillas and spicy chorizo, I love lunch tacos made with hot corn tortillas and chicharron, I love tacos with queso blanco, I love tacos with cilantro and raw onions, I even love Taco Bell tacos with their cheesy, American accoutrements of tomatoes and lettuce and sour cream.
So when I hear there’s a taco place I haven’t been to yet that will (and I quote) “pull your pants down, it’s so good,” I’m there as fast as you can say jackrabbit slim.
Tacos Del Julio isn’t new to this city or to the restaurant bidness. In fact, it’s quite famous back in its hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. They serve authentic norteño and Monterrey-style food here at their three Houston-area locations, which makes it a popular destination for all those expats missing the food from back home. The Tacos Del Julio closest to me is on Long Point near Campbell, while the others reside on Airline off I-45 and Spencer Highway in Pasadena — all three parts of town where you are almost guaranteed a good Mexican meal.
The interior of the restaurant has all the hallmarks of a well-run, successful mini-chain: colorful, professionally-printed posters advertising Tacos Del Julio‘s taco eating contest held each Wednesday (the current record-holder is at 36 tacos in an hour; beat that and your tacos are gratis!), a Dora The Explorer-themed playground to pen your children into while you eat, a high-tech computer system for taking orders and splitting checks and even an elevated stage for karaoke nights (Los Tigres Del Norte, here I come!). Of course, no respectable Mexican establishment would be complete without a mural, and Tacos Del Julio‘s mural at the front entrance (and mini-murals in the back) sports bright, vibrant colors and boasts not one but two soccer stadiums — the Estadio Tecnológico and El Volcán, which (sidebar) just happens to be owned by my company.
Let me be the first to say that speaking Spanish is an asset here. While they do have the ever-useful “point and grunt” picture menus, speaking English to your waitress will only result in confusion on both sides. If you don’t speak Spanish, take a friend who does. If you have nothing but gringo friends, you can always fall back on the aforementioned “point and grunt” technique. The good news? “Coca-Cola” knows no language barriers, so you can at least get yourself a soft drink. Personally, I recommend their ice cold, creamy horchata.
Tacos Del Julio doesn’t bring chips and salsa to your table, as does nearly every other Mexican restaurant in town. In a refreshing change of pace, they bring you a steaming hot bowl of the most delicious charro beans you’ve ever eaten. The broth is velvety and almost bisque-like — nothing like any charro broth I’ve ever encountered — and the beans are perfectly seasoned. When you’re eating it, you get the feeling that they’ve been cooking for days to get just the right texture and flavor. If you like yours hot (like me), feel free to add a splash or two of the green sauce that’s delivered to your table in an inconspicuous mustard squeeze bottle.
For the main course, you can go one of two ways: a taco or two, which will more than fill you up, or a platter. Be warned, however, that the platters of food are enormous. The platters also come with a hearty side of crispy on the outside, soft on the inside papas fritas instead of rice and/or beans. These papas fritas are more akin to our skillet potatoes, however — not the “French fries” that normally come to mind when you hear “papas fritas.” A generous portion of the tangy, tamarind-inspired red sauce (which is strangely devoid of heat despite the numerous jalapeño seeds it contains — or maybe I just don’t taste “hot” anymore) on top and you’re good to go.
The enchiladas del Julio was my favorite of the platters, with four enchiladas made from corn tortillas wrapped around Monterrey white cheese and cooked down gently in a red sauce similar to the one on your table, sans the seeds, and topped with a entire avocado, sliced into thick, fat ribbons. Simple yet rich and delicious, especially with your charro beans and papas fritas.
Of the tacos, there are two ways to go: flour or corn. The pirata and the gringa are two of the flour varieties that I’d recommend. The pirata has chopped steak and queso blanco with — again — those velvety slices of avocado inside, while the gringa has trompo — another word for “pastor,” meat grilled over a spit — and more queso blanco. Both benefit highly from the addition of the sauteed onions that are served on the side and a generous portion of cilantro and green sauce. The tortillas themselves are obviously made on site, with that coveted slight charring and sweet, doughy interior.
Corn tortillas at Tacos Del Julio are slightly different than what you’d get anywhere else in town. They’re much smaller than average, and seem to have been cooked San Antonio style, a la the famous puffy tacos. They are rapturously good and as soon as the first morsel hits your tongue, you suddenly understand how someone could easily eat 36 of these in an hour and begin to have delusions of entering the contest yourself (call me if you do; I’ll take pictures for posterity and mocking purposes).
The corn tacos which I recommend most are — once again — the tacos de trompo (which come five to an order) and the breakfast version of the tacos, called taquitos (which come six to an order). They come with either beef, potatoes or egg. But why don’t you mix it up and get all three? Two taquitos of each. You’ll thank me later.
If you’re still hungry after all this, you can purchase delicious little bags of caramel-filled, cinnamon-and-sugar crusted empanadas or Monterrey-style spicy peanuts at the register, where your check will be waiting for you after you’ve finished your meal.
The next time you’re in the mood for good, authentic Mexican food or just in the mood for tacos (and, let’s face it, when are you not in the mood for tacos?), head out to Tacos Del Julio. Just do me a favor and send me an email so I can meet you there. Oh, and bring a belt.