The construction team shovels crumbles of scalding hot asphalt into a divot in East Louisiana Street. Just past old downtown McKinney, Cookie’s Mexican Food’s lights are on, despite the street being carved up, and the open sign is askew in the window. Their access, the road near the main thoroughfare, is one of the few in the area that's blocked by cones and cranes at the moment. Parking is hard to find, which means it’ll take a big leap over an asphalt river to get to Cookie’s front door.
As a crane rolls by the window, Maria Torres is in the kitchen gently dipping a book-sized chile relleno into a deep cauldron of batter. It’s another reason why it doesn’t matter — at all — what’s going on outside. Whether it’s scalp-burning heat or asphalt lava, any challenge is worth overcoming to get to Cookie’s.
Torres cloaks the poblano chile in batter and carefully lifts it by the stem, lowering it into a cast-iron pan that’s roiling with oil. The chile immediately hisses and crackles, a thick crust forming from the air-pocked batter. Before, she’d roasted the pepper, stripped and seeded it, stuffed it with shredded cheese and any damn meat you’d want. It’s delivered as hot as Texas in July, cheese lavishly melting out with each slice. The salsa is even better, a startlingly hot green or rich chipotle sauce.
“Every time we’d get out of school, we’d go straight here,” says Torres’ daughter Estefany Flores. She hustles from the front, after scooping a huge mound of rice onto a diner’s plate, and rings out another customer. She points out an older couple who come five days a week. Inside, the kitchen crackling with chiles and with the fans going, you forget the street’s being torn up by gentrification.
Maria Torres' life has been filled with food. She made tacos by hand and sold them out of her house in Mexico. She stuffed gorditas and tamales and sold them out of a street cart around her home. She pulled 16-hour shifts to get her food ready in her restaurant's early days, while her kids grew up there.
Now, she’s got some help.
Flores drops a basket with a toasted breakfast burrito, stuffed with scrambled eggs, crunchy bacon, Monterey Jack and rich, creamy beans. Two salsa shooters come along, and both will be needed. The beans, simmered with garlic and pepper and layered over the melted cheese, make it one of the best breakfast burritos I’ve had in years. A side of tacos, lengua and barbacoa, are smoky and running with good, salty juices. Fantastic.
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Chiles rellenos happen on Thursdays. It’s forever a joy to behold the making of a home-cooked meal (meaning a recipe born of home) especially in bulk, for many people Torres knows or is, today, meeting for the first time. Torres carefully loads the peppers with mounds of shredded cheese, rolls each in a fine flour — one at a time now — dips in a porous batter, and fries it in a deep pan. The construction crane moves asphalt outside the window, but it doesn’t bother anything happening in the kitchen. She flips a monster chile, one side browned and crunchy, and drops tortillas on the griddle.
Her daughter watches, a brief moment of silence.
“Nineteen years. We’re still here,” she says.
Cookie's Mexican Food, 330 E. Louisiana St., McKinney