All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
I don’t know what it was about the tacos, but this time I felt it deep down.
I’m in a small booth, just big enough for me and my stressed-out brain, after the lunch rush. The familiar crackling hiss of fajitas quickly trains by. It takes me a moment to realize that I’m surrounded by circles: Colorful gears designed into the seats and bowls on walls. What emotion do you feel when you think of a circle? Unity? Togetherness? I’m not sure, but I know that I find myself repeat-dunking tortilla chips into Desperados salsa over and over, like I'm in a trance.
But it’s the famous Desperados tacos that put a spell on me. I’ve had them before, years ago, downing them with friends without thinking. This time, one bite in, I taste the depth, and stress melts away. It’s booted out of my mind, and the joy of a great, comforting meal washes over me. I spoon on some salsa, which kicks with garlic and spice; all is right in the world.
Why? Because joy comes in circles at Desperados — bowls of salsa, delicately crunchy taco hemispheres and a little plastic cauldron of refried beans topped with cheese. Everything’s round and happy. I could sit here, listening to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, drinking beer and eating chips and salsa all day. I could keep my spot in the quiet booth, start ordering tacos and just never stop.
These tacos cast such a spell on me — but how do they stack up in a market flush with tacos? José R. Ralat, taco writer and food editor of Cowboys & Indians magazine, weighed in.
“The Desperados tacos with beef have never failed me,” Ralat says. Years ago, he sung their praises, and gave them a best in Dallas nod.
“They're unique, yet familiar," he says. "The pair of tacos have salty, spicy and creamy components that don't sog-up the crunchy shell, but rather work together to create something I have been unable to find elsewhere.”
He’s onto something here. You know these tacos, but you don’t know them: The fried tortillas — nothing like hard shells — softly cradle melted Monterey Jack cheese, a heap of tender steak or chicken and a flourish of pico de gallo. Add dabs of their garlicky salsa and you've found taco nirvana.
Last Thursday, Desperados celebrated their 40th anniversary. They had a party in their Greenville Avenue parking lot, a band played, and they served margaritas and free tacos.
“After 40 years, I still get excited coming to work,” says owner Jorge Levy. We talk about his favorite recipes, most of which come from his mom. His sons work with him. He’s from Monterrey, Mexico, a couple hundred miles south of Laredo. Levy has been experimenting with Tex-Mex since opening, incorporating his old recipes with new dishes. The chile relleno is one of his favorites: Brisket simmers overnight with ample garlic, spices, almonds and raisins. He beams with pride over his margaritas.
“Are you crazy? You’re going to squeeze the limes?” He says, relaying the reaction he got to his margarita recipe, featuring loads of fresh lime juice. “If you want to do better than the competition, you have to be willing to do what the competition isn’t willing to do.”
Desperados’ tacos reflect this energy. The flour tortillas have Monterey Jack cheese folded into the mix before they’re fried. The result is a delicate, nearly puffy crunch that ends in softness. The skirt steak is marinated and seared on the grill. The salsa is spicy and loaded with garlic. They’re working on new tacos with shrimp and lobster, Levy says, bubbling over.
“They love what we do,” he says of his chefs’ work. Enrique Hernandez, one of Desperados’ chefs, has worked there for 38 years.
Somewhere in between the subliminal unity of circles, or the raw energy that goes into the food, joy finds its way to the table at Desperados. I down both tacos, stretchy cheese and all, showering fresh lime juice over everything until it's time to go.
The original Desperados location is at 4818 Greenville Ave.
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