Laredo Taco Company at Stripes will change the way you think about gas station tacos

If you’ve spent any time in South Texas or the Rio Grande Valley,  you will either welcome this post with a “Finally!” or possibly a “ja ja ja!”

For what I am about to say is no secret to the folks who have driven through Harlingen and Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo. But when you first discover Laredo Taco Company for yourself, it’s a game changer.

(Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

There are Stripes gas stations clustered throughout Texas, with locations in Houston and even a couple as close as Bastrop and Elgin. But South Texas is the land of Stripes.  And many of them are home to the Laredo Taco Company. Yes, Austin has its own gas stations with excellent taquerias tucked in the back. The one that first rushes to mind is Tierra Linda Taqueria in North AustinBut Laredo Taco Company locations aren’t in the back of Stripes gas stations, just beyond coolers of Jarritos sodas and Takis, they are right there up front. Right by the salsa bar. Yes, a salsa bar in a gas station. A good salsa bar. We’re talking red and green salsas, raw onions, escabeche, pico de gallo, cilantro. Whatever you need. (OK, so the red salsa ain’t all that great, but still.)

You can order a bean and cheese and a ham and egg for $2 at breakfast. Two breakfast tacos for $2. Now you know why people from the RGV scoff anytime they come to Austin and see our $3.75 breakfast tacos. The breakfast menu gives way to a lunch menu of fajitas, picadillo, asado de puerco tacos and much more. And the best part, you order them on flour tortillas made fresh in house that rival some of the best flour tortillas at taquerias in Austin. Want to know why people from the RGV don’t take Austin tacos seriously, they get better tortillas when they fill up their tanks than many of us get anytime of the year. Puffed, buttery, lightly toasted and dusted, with just the right amount of chew to them, it’s everything you want in a flour tortilla.

I first discovered Laredo Taco Company from taco aficionado and Laredo native Sammy “The House” Ramirez while touring South Texas on my taco tour. (Read about it here.) After drinks one night, while compiling my list of taco stops, he told me to make sure I stopped by Laredo Taco Company at Stripes to get one. I thought he was kidding, as I’d seen dozens of them on my trip. Sammy doesn’t kid about tacos. 

Laredo Taco Company is now my new road-trip jam: If I’m in Port Aransas, I hit Laredo Taco Company on the way to Mustang Island (this is the Stripes at the south end of the island,  reached via Corpus, not at the north. That Stripes doesn’t have an LTC, and is thus weak.) Going to the outlet mall in San Marcos? There’s a LTC on the right-hand side before you pass under I-35.) Once you come to know LTC, you won’t zip pass the sign if you’re hungry, and you won’t stop anywhere else for gas on your trips south of Austin. I don’t know the history of the stores or why we don’t have any in Austin. (For the record, the closest one to downtown Austin is in Kyle and the ones in Bastrop and Elgin or equidistant from downtown Austin.) But I do know that I’ve seen the light, and it illuminate a green-and-black sign that is now a road-trip taco beacon.

You can keep your Buc-ee’s, I’m  riding with Stripes (as long as they have a Laredo Taco Company).

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South Texas favorite Taco Palenque coming to Austin

The sabor of South Texas will soon be rolling up to Austin. Beloved Laredo-based Taco Palenque, which has locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley and north to Houston, San Antonio and New Braunfels, plans to open a food truck in Austin this summer.

Owner Juan Francisco Ochoa (Don Pancho) opened the first Taco Palenque in Laredo in 1987, several years after selling the American rights to El Pollo Loco, which he also founded. The fast-casual restaurant specializes in grilled beef and chicken plates and tacos, and is well known for its massive pirata, a taco slathered with refried beans and draped with juicy grilled fajita meat and melted cheddar cheese.

Taco Palenque.

The restaurants make their own excellent corn and flour tortillas, the latter soft, chewy and spotted with marks from the grill, and feature fresh salsa bars, with several salsa offerings, grilled jalapenos, pickled and raw onions, cilantro, pico de gallo and more. A visit to Taco Palenque will make you totally rethink the idea of fast-casual Mexican food.

Ochoa and his team told me last week in Laredo that the truck will  feature several of the restaurant’s most popular items on a smaller menu than that found in their 20+ locations throughout Texas. They are not sure where the truck will be located and say there is a strong possibility the truck could lead to multiple Austin brick-and-mortar locations of the massively popular family-owned chain of restaurants, which expanded to New Braunfels four years ago.

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Watch: Matthew Odam’s South Texas Taco Tour: Weslaco, McAllen and Pharr

Espadas at El Rodeo Taco Express in McAllen.

The day took me along the Rio Grande from Brownsville to McAllen, giving me my first glimpse of the border fence. There were meaty gorditas, my first papa asada, a colorful restaurant, some craft beer and my first Mexican hot dog of the trip.

http://players.brightcove.net/1418563061/default_default/index.html?videoId=5389557333001

Watch: Matthew Odam’s South Texas Taco Tour: Brownsville

Barbacoa taco at Tacos d’ Mareclo. (Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

I told you in my intro that things on trips like these don’t always turn out the way you plan them. But it still helps to have a plan. I intended to visit  Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-QueEl Ultimo Taco TaqeuriaGourmet Central by Cel, Brownsville Coffee Shop 2, and The Vermillion. One out of five ain’t bad. I still made it to four places, had one of the best sweetbread tacos I’ve ever had, even after the Spanish-speaking lady at the counter did all she could to warn the tourist what mollejas were. As for those I intended to visit? One was closed, two of them had gotten such mixed and lukewarm reviews (even from the mayor) that I figured I best steer clear, and one just fell by the wayside. So, where did I go? Check out the video below. For Thursday I’m eyeing Super Cream in Brownsville before hitting Nana’s Taqueria and Orale’s in Weslaco on my way to McAllen to visit Ms.G’s, Dejarvis and El Rodeo.

http://players.brightcove.net/1418563061/default_default/index.html?videoId=5386948004001

Matthew Odam’s South Texas Taco Tour

Tacos at El Ultimo Taco Taqueria in Brownsville. (Credit: Facebook.com/elultimotacotaqueria)

Last April I traveled much of the state (beyond Central Texas) checking out some of the best barbecue Texas had to offer.This year, I’m swinging down to South Texas for a taco tour. I’d call it a Rio Grande Valley Taco Tour, but my trip will take me to Laredo, which is too far northwest to qualify. My trip starts in Brownsville and likely takes me over four days to McAllen, Pharr, Weslaco and Laredo. I say likely because you just never know with trips like this. You visit one spot, hear a story about another and next thing you know, you’re off schedule and you’ve lost the plot. Or, as is often the case, your eyes end being bigger than your stomach. But that’s half the fun. As long as I don’t run out of gasoline and I can find the Houston Astros on the radio, I’ll be OK.

After doing online research, chatting with RGV and Laredo natives and picking the minds of  taco experts like Mando Rayo (tacosoftexas.com) and Kelly Stocker, I’ve come up with a tentative schedule. I’ll report back daily with blogs, photos, videos and more. You can follow along on Twitter (@odam) or Instagram (@matthewodam), and, as always, if you have any must-visit  spots, make sure to drop me an email at modam@statesman.com, leave a comment on the blog or holler at me on social media.

The best laid plans of mice and men and taco eaters …

BROWNSVILLE

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que

Brownsville Coffee Shop 2

El Ultimo Taco Taqeuria

Gourmet Central by Cel

The Vermillion

MCALLEN/WESLACO/PHARR

Centennial Club (McAllen)

Mrs. G’s (McAllen)

Dejarvis (McAllen)

El Rodeo Taco Express (McAllen)

Nana’s Taqueria (Weslaco)

La Calle de Taco (Pharr)

LAREDO

Taco Palenque

Taquitos Ravi 

Lira’s Restaurant

El Metate

La Finca Cocina Mexicana