We have a lot of chain restaurants in Dallas. This is the city that launched Chili’s, On the Border and La Madeleine; places like Babe’s Chicken Dinner House and Il Cane Rosso have earned legions of devoted fans. Rise, Il Cane Rosso, Gloria’s and Knife are executing or planning expansions to other cities.
But my favorite Dallas chain is a series of four taco restaurants, two of them on the same city block, the other two inside gas stations and all four specializing in tacos de cabeza, or tacos with meat from a cow’s head. In fact, the chain is recognizable by big, colorful neon signs declaring “Tacos de Cabeza.” In a town saturated with great tacos, La Salsa Verde has some of the best of all.
My love of La Salsa Verde may not be completely rational. I’ve walked alone down sidewalk-less roads in northwest Dallas to inhale its tacos; I’ve shoveled down its habanero-flecked pickled onions until my scorched taste buds begged my hands to stop. There may not be a good explanation for this. Maybe my brain has been taken over by a lengua monster that must consume as many tender ribbons of beef tongue as possible. If that’s the case, please don’t find the cure.
Any stop at La Salsa Verde must involve at least one of the tacos de cabeza. That could mean lengua, or tongue, an ultratender cut that looks, when plated, as if it’s been pulled. The only thing better than a taco de lengua ($1.75) is a taco de lengua rebanada ($2); the only difference seems to be that the meat is sliced, but it is all the more tender for that, all the more lusciously soft, a direct trip to my carnivorous happy place.
Lengua, it must be said, is not always the most flavorful cut of meat. There are taquerias in town, ranging from upscale restaurants to gas station counters, that dry out their meat, don’t bother dressing it up or drown it in grease. La Salsa Verde can show them how it’s done.
If any other meat in Dallas resembles the cachete, or cheek meat, that La Salsa Verde adds to tacos and quesadillas, it’s a good, fatty barbecued brisket. Cachete has a similar ribboning of fat and fall-apart tenderness; similarly, it needs only minimal seasoning to accent the gloriously flavorful, fatty beef.
I’ve had cachete at three locations of La Salsa Verde, in both preparations offered: in tacos ($1.29), the cheek hogging the spotlight with little more than diced onion and cilantro on corn tortillas, and in a quesadilla ($4.95), with flour tortillas sturdy and grilled well enough to stand up to the fatty onslaught of meat and cheese. The taco de cachete is the best $1.29 food item in Dallas, period.
The moronga, or blood sausage, taco ($1.30), with its meaty filling studded with the odd black and white bean, tastes smooth and inexpressibly rich — almost like chocolate, the sweet-savory sausage melting in my mouth. Tacos de chicharron ($1.25) are filled with slippery, tender, pepper-covered pieces of fried pig skins; the chain serves its chicharrones plain, rather than stewed in salsa verde, although there’s plenty of salsa available.
Not every taco is up to that high standard. I’ve had a carnitas taco ($1.25) with dry pork and not enough of it, and a quesadilla that was mainly cheese. Tacos de cabeza tend to outshine more standard varieties — except for the pastor, which has a spot-on marinade that only needs a quick squirt of salsa to become transcendent ($1.30).
Oh, yes: the salsas. La Salsa Verde has, as its name implies, a salsa verde with impeccable flavoring and sneaky, back-of-the-bite heat; a more aggressive habanero salsa; and one that, on the squeeze bottles, is labeled “Cacahuate” (peanut) but is instantly fiery thanks to chiles de arbol.
The four locations are very different.
On Northwest Highway, just north of Love Field, two La Salsa Verdes sit just one strip mall apart. They couldn’t be more different in atmosphere, which is devilishly confusing for car GPS and internet map readers. The smaller location is technically around the corner, on Community Drive, wedged into the back of a laundry. It’s an open kitchen with a long counter and two tables. Staff members don’t speak much English, and the menu is posted on the wall above the front door.
The newer location is bigger, brighter, friendlier to English speakers and designed with an order number system to accommodate the crowds. No menus are posted, however, so order off a takeout brochure at the cash register. (This location isn’t listed on the chain’s website.)
Miles to the northeast, the original La Salsa Verde resides inside a Chevron Food Mart on Coit Road with minimal exterior advertising. This location, like the Plano outpost similarly housed in a Shamrock station, is incredibly tiny, little more than a shoebox-sized kitchen with an ordering counter. On Coit, where the cachete is so tender it really does melt in the mouth, there are five bar stools; when I last visited, they were all occupied, and the cashier told me I’d be taking my order to go. So I devoured my two tacos and a quesadilla bursting with fresh orange squash blossoms ($6) in the car, balancing salsa cups in my lap.
Any chain — from Nobu to Subway — has to deal with some of the same issues, including consistency of execution and reliable quality among its locations. La Salsa Verde doesn’t worry about elegant service or Instagrammable plating; many customers go through the doors in work boots or safety vests. The four taquerias do an admirable job keeping their best offerings consistent.
Dallas has launched dozens of regional and national chains, but when I need fast food, I’ll be looking for that big, bright neon sign: Tacos de Cabeza.
La Salsa Verde Taqueria, four locations in Dallas and Plano, lasalsaverdetaqueria.com: