Raising La Banqueta
This was not what Alberto Neri had in mind when he pictured his new life in America. The Mexico City native would eventually make his name as the Suadero King in Dallas, but he got his start in Riverside, California. Neri, who had never so much as swung a hammer, took a job framing houses all over the suburbs. He recalls timidly wielding this strange new implement (tink, tink, tink) as the workers around him drove their nails home with just a few swings. "It was really, really hard," Neri says.
The pay wasn't so great either. Neri says he'd take home $80 to $120 most weeks and spent time fishing change out of public fountains to buy eggs to cook back at home. He could barely cover his rent, let alone save any money. Neri called his father, who suggested he might have better luck in Dallas. His family had friends here. The cost of living was cheaper, and Neri could get a job tending bar. He left California after four months and moved to Texas.
Bartending wasn't a great fit either. "It's hard to work for someone else when you don't love what you're doing," he says. But ask him about what he did before he left Mexico City and the man describes filling tortillas as though warm masa is part of his character. Neri worked in various street stalls and carts making tacos since he was 5. "You don't have a chair, you don't have a bar stool, nothing," he says, smiling as he describes the vibrant yet ramshackle taco scene. Customers took seats on a curb with sodas at their feet. Sometimes they had to fend off stray dogs while they ate. Neri's grin widens as he tells every detail. "I am a taco man," he says. He is undoubtedly a true taquero.
So when an accident left Neri and his wife with a small settlement, he jumped on the opportunity to open his own taquería in Dallas. Tacos El Guero opened in 2001 in a tiny standalone building on the corner of Harwood and Hickory streets. Three years later they moved to another small kitchen attached to a convenience store on Bryan Street in East Dallas.
While a cease and desist letter from Guero's in Austin prompted him to change the name of his restaurant to Tacos La Banqueta two years ago, Neri now owns four taquerías since his start in South Dallas. You can't refer to his restaurants as a chain — they're all slightly different. But they all serve tacos modeled after the simple street food he learned to make back in Mexico City.
The food is unapologetically rustic, and at no other address is the carnage more on display than the smallest location, on Bryan Street. A handful of stools line the wall where a tiny bar provides a perch for eating, while no more than three feet away a cook runs water through the feathery, pink garden hose of a cow's small intestine. On one day you may walk in as a cook minces cilantro, stems and all, for a garnish. On the next you'll see another cutting whole beef tongues into large, irregular chunks. Most days a large pot filled with murky water obscures whatever is tumbling around inside at a rolling boil. No telling what's in that one, but it's likely delicious.
Lengua (tongue), tripa (intestine), cabeza (cow's head) and suadero (a tough cut similar to brisket) all follow the same basic path to divinity on a double-stacked tortilla. The meats are gently braised with very little seasoning until they are tender and then cut up and stored in pans until customers place their orders. Then each cut meets the searing hot metal of a flat grill till it's cooked to their liking. Customers in the know ask for their meats extra crispy — especially the tripa. Here "crispness" is as much a flavor as it is a texture. Suadero is the most popular, but the cabeza should not be missed. Don't examine the glistening bits too closely, or you might not eat them. But no cut screams cow flavor with greater volume.
Skip the Fort Worth and Arlington restaurants and you'll miss out on chicharrón good enough to ruin other versions forever. The soft and slippery skin is finely minced along with unidentifiable bits of pork and suspended in red and smoky sauce. Take a bite and breathe in. This is the essence of pork, mingled with dark, earthy, fatty flavors.
Neri says that kitchen size and the number of employees keeps him from offering chicharrón at the Dallas locations. The same variables gently steer the menu selection at all of his restaurants. Yet even with panhandlers sitting on the stoop outside, the Bryan Street spot is still the most likeable. Visitors from Mexico say it best evokes the street stalls of Mexico City.
If you understand the charm, you should soak up as much of the suadero as you can in the coming months. Neri signed a lease on a much larger building on the south side of the same block of Bryan Street. He has to put in a new parking lot and dance with City Hall to get his permits, but when he does he'll move his smallest location.
He doesn't know when, exactly, but he hopes it's soon. It took the taquero nine months to get his second Arlington location up and running. The city requirements for simple grease trap and a sampling well set him back much longer than he expected, while rent and utilities on the space nearly bankrupted him. "I'm a taco man, not a businessman," he says, despite his success. While he may be able to handle a smoking grill better than a restaurant inspector, clearly, he is good at both.
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