A couple years ago, during a visit to El Paso, Texas I inadvertently investigated a burning controversy plaguing my hometown. El Paso’s incomparable and perhaps most controversial restaurant, Chico’s Tacos, switched cheeses. Following the chatter online, most commenters seemed outraged that the El Paso institution switched from a vegetable shortening-based imitation cheese to real cheddar. The travesty!
To be honest, I wasn’t in a hurry to check out this new cheese for myself. But on my way to a coffee shop to get some work done, I passed the iconic Chico’s sign and almost instinctively pulled in. Once inside, I placed my usual order and nervously stole glances at the tacos coming out of the kitchen. They definitely looked a little different than I remembered. This real cheese melted like, well, real cheese. I was prepared to curse the most decadent of my guilty pleasures.
But this was the eatery that drew me back from my five-year stint with vegetarianism more than a decade ago. I have a long and fruitful history with this place. So when my order came, I looked at this marker of my childhood – three rolled tacos in a soupy tomato sauce, covered with bright yellow cheese – and hoped for the best. As I took the first gooey bite, my body filled with goosebumps and the tension in my shoulders disappeared.
This was still Chico’s Tacos. This was still home.
But home is a complicated place. Much like the taco chain, “authentic” El Paso identity is complex. The population is 79.6% Hispanic according to census data, but that blanket designation does nothing to catalog the rich cultural mix found in the city. Amongst that number are residents identifying as Chicano/a. Others, Latino or Latinx. For many, the word “Hispanic” is an offensive term that harkens back to colonization. When asked, some people will simply say “I’m American.”
Many immigrants in El Paso consider themselves “real” Mexicans, and look down on Mexican Americans as “pochos,” a derogatory term for people who speak Spanglish. And many Mexican Americans counter by looking at native Mexicans as snobs or “fresas.”
Chico’s Tacos best embodies this heterogeneous border identity by spawning a concoction unique to El Paso.
Since 1953, the specialty at Chico’s Tacos remains largely unchanged. Three rolled tacos – technically, they’re flautas – set in a paper boat filled with soupy tomato sauce, and covered with what was from the early ’80s until 2016, imitation, government-style yellow cheese. The recent switch back to real cheese was the first significant change in decades, and that alone caused the uproar I came home to.
In El Paso, there is no all-encompassing definition of border identity.
When Joe Mora founded Chico’s in El Paso’s south side, he had no idea it would grow to five locations and sell more than 15,000 tacos daily. The restaurant began as a side venture while Mora worked as a jukebox mechanic and boxing promoter, featuring a recipe he developed as a teen while caring for and feeding his siblings as his parents were away at work. Limited resources meant Mora had to be creative in the kitchen, and that’s how he developed the now-legendary tomato sauce and taco combination.
It took some time and extra effort from his wife and children to keep the restaurant afloat, but it eventually grew into a resounding success. Hungry El Pasoans filled the restaurant, leading to expansion to various locations across town. Even with five locations, it’s not uncommon to wait in line for as long as 30 minutes to place an order.
My personal relationship with Chico’s Tacos developed from “enthusiast” to “unintentional ambassador” when in 2014, through a series of fortuitous events, I found myself in the unique position of putting on El Paso’s first ever unofficial South By Southwest showcase in Austin. Like any great SXSW day party, we had to have free tacos. There was only one answer for us: Chico’s Tacos.
But not everyone in town agreed with our decision, and many were vocal about it on our social media pages and in person. Some were angry that we would sully El Paso’s name as one of the best destinations for “authentic” Mexican food in the US.
The thing about Chico’s is, it’s not authentic Mexican food. It also doesn’t adhere to the colorful yet complicated tradition of Tex-Mex. You won’t find this singular concoction alongside puffy tacos or queso on menus across Texas. Chico’s is just Chico’s, and its tacos are synonymous with El Paso – no matter how much that notion incenses some locals.
Locals like me love Chico’s for its unique, nostalgia-inducing flavor, but its legend has spread in recent years. Fueled in part by renowned chef Aaron Sanchez’s appearance on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and in part from word of mouth, the restaurant’s legend has grown across the country. In 2011, when famed drummer of The Roots and Jimmy Fallon bandleader Questlove visited El Paso for a DJ set, he took the first taxi from the airport to the famed institution and tweeted about waiting 15 years for his chance to try the place. He even wore a Chico’s shirt to his show later that night.
But not everyone from El Paso feels the love for Chico’s. A quick look at the comments section of any local news story about the chain reveals El Paso’s complex relationship with the restaurant. Some locals scoff at what they see as a betrayal to the authentic Mexican cuisine of their abuelita’s kitchens. Others point out that Chico’s is excessively unhealthy.
And that’s a fair assessment. Tacos aren’t the healthiest food to begin with, and Chico’s tacos are particularly caloric. The deep-fried flautas covered in heaps of melted cheese can wreak havoc on even the most well-trained digestive systems. Even for a seasoned consumer like me, a Chico’s lunch hits like a ton of bricks and ruins any chance of afternoon productivity.
For others, though, the distaste stems not from health concerns but from the signature Chico’s flavor itself.
“I remember the restaurant was busy, crowded with people and their hunger for tacos,” says Elena Arteaga, a news producer based in Houston Texas, and a born and raised El Pasoan recalling her first visit. “My mom ordered the tacos – those rolled flautas swimming in a tomato sauce with brightly colored cheese… It didn’t taste good. I pushed my food away and sat there quietly.”
For my mother, who was born and raised in Mexico and scowls at the notion of eating Chico’s rolled tacos, it’s about authenticity. Many evenings in my childhood home were spent arguing about yellow cheese and the semantics of “tacos” versus “flautas.” What they served at Chico’s weren’t the tacos my mother grew up eating in Ciudad Chihuahua, and she’s never understood why someone would veer so far away from the recipes she grew up with.
My father, who grew up blocks from my mother in Chihuahua, was less of a stickler for authenticity and always smiles as he scarfs down this signature dish of his newfound hometown. And even my great-grandmother, who lived in Mexico until she passed away at 101 years of age, once even asked me for “las flautitas con tomate.” Some want “authentic” flavors. Others don’t care.
But what does “authentic” even mean anymore? A taco in Northern Mexico can taste vastly different than one from Mexico City. And even the El Paso outposts of successful restaurants from across the border in Juarez often taste different from their counterparts mere miles away on the southern side of the border.
Most importantly, Chico’s Tacos never made any claims of authenticity. “Joe [Mora] never intended for his small restaurant to be classified into a category,” his grandson, Richard Mora Jr. tells me. “He simply wanted to offer good food at a low price for the families in this small community of El Paso.”
By contrast, many vehemently self-proclaimed authentic Mexican eateries in El Paso do make bold claims about having the most authentic Mexican food in town, but a quick trip over the border to Juarez reveals different flavors and techniques that put those claims in doubt. It could be argued that these El Paso eateries are thus less “authentic” than Chico’s, which is only concerned with being true to itself and to El Paso.
“I understand the attraction. It just never hit me that way. I may not like Chico’s, but it is homegrown in El Paso. So in a sense, [it’s] very authentic,” says Bobby Griffing, Executive Chef and partner at Todd English Food Hall in Dubai, and a proud El Pasoan.
It’s clear that, in El Paso, there is no all-encompassing definition of border identity. And that’s why Chico’s best encapsulates what it means to be from this unique border region. It’s an amalgamation of ideas and flavors, much like the people of the “Pass of the North.” And it’s been around for most people’s entire lives.
“Chico’s is all about nostalgia. It is the borderland exemplar of Proust’s Madeleine cookies. In one bite, people flashback through their experiences in El Paso.” says Dr. Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “At a minimum, I think Chico’s is a cultural marker for El Pasoans. Love it or hate it, if you have grown up in El Paso or spent time here, it’s a ‘thing.’ I compare it to Coney Islands in Detroit or Skyline Chili in Cincinnati – they definitely have fans and detractors, but for those towns, they are significant markers.”
Chico’s Tacos doesn’t follow the traditions of classic Tex-Mex found in San Antonio or along the Rio Grande Valley, and it certainly doesn’t fit in with the Northern Mexican cuisine across the border in Juarez.
It was a creation bred from necessity – in Texas, by a Mexican American – and shared with a tight-knit community. It’s purpose was to offer an alternative to fast food restaurants that were beginning to pop up at the time. The unintended result was the creation of a new hybrid of flavors and influences that wasn’t beholden to a rigid definition of identity. Its very inventiveness ensured its own legitimacy.
Chico’s is a copy of nothing. And that’s why it’s El Paso’s most authentic restaurant.