Luis Villalva is a short-statured man with a round, happy face and a soft voice, and he may be Dallas' most likeable taquero. He'll happily describe the difference between his cecina and suadero, two chewy cuts of beef that end up in his tacos, and offer advice for toppings when you order his tacos de casa. Villalva has the sort of demeanor that will persuade you to order four (OK, five) when you only meant to order three, sending you out the door feeling a bit more happy (and full) than you expected.
Perhaps it's the neatly pressed chef's jacket he wears so often behind the counter. Or maybe the fact that he works with his mother, Maria, who can be found behind the counter turning meats whenever her son is not. Whatever the reason, he's managed to create something equally likeable in El Come Taco, the taquería he opened late last year in East Dallas.
El Come Taco
El Come Taco
2513 N. Fitzhugh Ave., 214-821-3738. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday -Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. $
El Come's dining room is just as welcoming as the staff that keeps it filled with the scent of toasting masa. Villalva, who says he has never run a professional kitchen before, enlisted the help of his friend Ron Guest, a designer who has a slew of Lombardi restaurants — including La Fiorentina, Toulouse and Taverna — on his résumé. Guest also designed the dining room of Café San Miguel, a restaurant he co-owned and where Villalva was once a manager.
A fictitious episode of Street Meats on Bravo would dub Guest's work minimalist, taquería chic. Picture blond table tops with the restaurant's blackened logo, a big-eyed calavera wearing a sombrero and sporting a cheeky mustache, branded into the wood. Caged filament bulbs and exposed ductwork hang from above, and when there's a game available (whether fútbol or football), it's playing on the projector screen, sometimes with the sound, sometimes not. The walls are striped in magenta, chartreuse and black, and three more calaveras are stenciled beneath the counter where you'll spend a lot of time contemplating the exact nature of your meal.
The possibilities are laid out in messy chalkmanship on a wall lapped with blackboard paint. There are tacos in the traditional style, the type served on the streets of Mexico City, and house tacos, which are a bit larger and topped with a combination of your choice of soft potatoes and bright-tasting slivers of cactus called nopales. Be sure to order both.
Take notice of the small cone of pastor spinning on the trompo near the flat-top grill, especially if you're in the mood for pork. Villalva's sister Vanessa, who often works the front counter, will ask you if you'd like your pastor tacos with pineapple. Nod yes: The sweet fruit juxtaposes nicely with the fatty, savory flavors. There is house-made chorizo, too. Villalva takes ground pork and grinds it again with more pork fat, because that seems the thing to do, along with chiles for color and heat and spices including cumin and cloves. The results are outstanding, either on their own, with eggs in a breakfast taco or mixed with brisket in the longanisa.
If you're in the mood for beef there is cecina (sirloin), which presents big, chewy chunks of meat, and suadero, which presents little, chewy chunks of meat. There is also cabeza from the head and cheek of a cow, cooked into complete submission, soft, glistening and fatty.
You may have been avoiding tripas after watching cooks in other kitchens run water through the calves' intestines like a garden hose, but you should give them a second chance here. Villalva rinses the organ meats before cooking them as most cooks do, but then he slices them into tubes the size of short rigatoni before rinsing them again. Once you place your order, the tripas are tossed on the grill and cooked to a crisp, resulting in a mild-tasting, texturally pleasing and wholly delicious taco filling.
You'll find the calves' brains less innocuous. Seasoned with salt, wrapped with garlic in foil and steamed for four hours, the brains have the texture of soft, crumbly custard and a very mild flavor. They're the perfect starter taco for budding zombies, but likely not your favorite. Still, they're a rarity on local taquería menus.
Order any of these meats and you'll see them tucked into double-stacked, honest tortillas, sprinkled modestly with onions and cilantro, and delivered on a Styrofoam plate with a Villalva smile and a number of salsas on the side. The most common is a dried-chile salsa the rich color of mahogany and a green number that's light and fresh-tasting and comes with a bit more heat.
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But not too much heat. One of Villalva's flaws, depending on your point of view, is that his cooking reflects his quiet demeanor. His meats are seasoned gently and his salsas are relatively mild, producing tacos that may have you occasionally reaching for the saltshaker or wishing for a little more piquancy.
This is only a nuisance for as long as it takes you to discover chiles toreados scrawled at the end of the chalkboard. The mixture of onions and jalapeños is cooked down to a deep, rich brown, lending notes of sweetness and a smoky heat that will stay with you after you walk out the door. Experience one taco topped with a heaping spoonful and you may be unable to enjoy Villalva's work without them.
And he does work. Tortillas aside, nearly the entire menu is hand-crafted and Villalva says there's more menu to come. His long game for El Come, he says, is a menu filled with even more of the street foods of Mexico City. Picture yourself taking huge bites from a pambazo, a sandwich made with gaujillo chile-soaked bread, while pulling hard on a bottle of Mexican Coke. You may be able to order gorditas or some crispy, fried flautas, too.
Wherever his menu goes, chances are you'll like it as much as you'll like what has turned out to be a first-rate neighborhood taquería. With a slick décor and a warm demeanor El Come updates what can typically be a little rough around the edges, and without losing a shred of character or authenticity. The place feels like it's been tucked into its strip mall space for at least a decade. And if you get to know the people behind the counter, you'll feel like you've been eating there just as long.