Anyone who dines out knows how important visuals are to the whole experience. Not necessarily with the food, though, if the Netflix show Ugly Delicious has taught us anything. It’s more so with the design—everything from architecture to decor to landscaping evokes a mood and helps create an identity.
When you think of a taqueria, what visuals come to mind?
Some spots might lean into traditional symbols and colors to elicit a sense of place; other joints opt for an industrial-modern look that doesn’t signal preconceived notions of “Mexicanness.”
Todd Brown, a lecturer at University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture and an environmental psychologist, studies how physical spaces are racialized. “Aesthetically and visually, there are some of the same kind of biases and assumptions and associations embedded within those spaces,” he says. Does a serape signify legitimacy? Is a street cart dangerous or is it the ideal? What images or feelings does the word “taqueria” conjure in Mexican Americans compared to others?
I put these questions to Texas architects, designers, and taqueria owners. All agreed that a taqueria should be a functional and welcoming space. As for everything else, taquerias are as diverse and versatile as their taqueros and customers. We took the liberty of determining the twelve types of Texas taquerias and how their styles and designs make them iconic in their own unique ways.
The most traditional of taquerias is the street cart or stand, which dot Mexico’s streets. They’re named after their specialty, if they have one, or a person—or sometimes both. Examples include Birrieria Don Chano in Yurécuaro, in the state of Michoacán, and Tacos Tony in Mexico City. Aside from signage, which might include a cartoon animal, the setup is utilitarian: menu board, cutting board, and cooking appliances. There might be a trompo; suadero and chorizo in a choricera bubbling with manteca; and large bowls of stewed dishes. Condiments and napkins have their own corner. Everything is served on colorful plastic plates covered in wax paper or plastic lining. Stateside, Revolver Taco Lounge rolls out a red awning–adorned puesto for events. These puestos are both idealized and exoticized. Held up as the gold-standard taquerias, they are also sometimes described as unsanitary spaces that lead to consequential gastrointestinal distress. In actuality, puestos are perhaps the safest places to eat because the cooking and preparation area is open for viewing. You get exactly what you see.
Another location that serves as a stereotype of a “genuine” taco place is the hole-in-the-wall taqueria. It’s usually an open space with white tile walls and a counter at the front. The counter is crowded with appliances, utensils, and food. Maybe there’s a trompo for tacos al pastor, as is the case with the original location of El Huequito (literally “Hole in the Wall”) in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico. The category’s definition has broadened to include small restaurants that might have a tiny, cut-out ordering counter, such El Come Taco in Dallas and Taco-Mex in Austin.
The Taco Window
This no-frills spot might be in a large, freestanding building or take the form of a tight hole in a wall. Marcelino’s in East Austin has a window protected by metal bars. A mural of el Chavo del Ocho, an iconic Spanish-language TV character with a trademark floppy-eared plaid hat brought to life by legendary Mexican comic Chespirito, urges customers to wear protective face masks. Lupita’s To Go—housed in a corrugated metal beige-and-red building in Amarillo—passes hearty burritos through its window.
The DIY Spot
Hallmarks of this taqueria type are handwritten menus and signage, as well as shelves cluttered with knickknacks, which can range from statues of saints to soda memorabilia to family heirlooms. The ultimate manifestation of this is 66-year-old Ray’s Drive Inn, located on San Antonio’s West Side. Visiting Ray’s is like going to taco church. It even has a makeshift altar with candles and other religious items. The taqueria also features a stuffed big cat, family portraits, and, in the back, a 1926 Ford Model T pickup. Another example is Maria’s Cafe, near San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood. It’s decorated with aging Coca-Cola memorabilia, general bric-a-brac, and a menu that spills onto poster boards decorated with handwritten specials and printed cutouts of cartoon characters.
The Pancho Villa
This type of taqueria might look a little worse for wear on the outside. The signage might be faded or kitschy. Look out for an anthropomorphic taco mascot. Inside, though, is a shrine to nostalgic nationalism. Photos of Pancho Villa, multicolored serapes, and bright, embroidered sombreros adorn the walls and ceiling. The dining room is crammed with heavy wood tables and chairs. One such restaurant is La Flauta Taqueria in Socorro.
The Tex-Mex Palace
Places like these seem to be victims of a gargantuan piñata evisceration. They’re splattered with color and awash in unabashed theater. There are touches of Spanish Colonial architecture, pastoral murals of imaginary Mexican villages, and light fixtures that range from punched-tin stars to rustic wood-and-metal chandeliers. The dining rooms in each restaurant open from one to another, seemingly endless. The menu is a catalog of combo plates listed by number or by the names of ostensible family members. Occasionally, there is an elderly woman encased in a glass chamber tasked with making flour tortillas. Customers tend to be non-Mexican. However, there are restaurants, such as Don Pedro on San Antonio’s South Side, that are crammed with local Mexican American families night after night. Otherwise, the templates are Mi Tierra, an Alamo City institution, and the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston.
The South Texas Diner
While not a taqueria, per se, the South Texas diner is a state treasure. It’s a multigenerational family-owned restaurant, open through lunch, with a hearty breakfast-taco business. There might be stainless steel stools at a Formica counter and a framed photo of a rooster (we’re looking at you, Garcia’s Mexican Food), but the menu is always a booklet that would make the Cheesecake Factory jealous. South Texas diners are prevalent anywhere between San Antonio and the border. Los Jacales in Laredo and Hi-Ho Restaurant in Corpus Christi are stellar examples. The latter is decorated with napkin sketches adhered to the walls.
The San Antonio–style Taqueria
San Antonio is the home of the pork chop taco. It’s also home to a distinct style of taqueria, one that utilizes almost every Pantone-indexed color. Atop all that base color is more color in the form of lettering and iconography. This design style was born from the necessity to distinguish one taqueria from several others on the same block. Con Huevos Tacos is a striking archetype. The building is painted turquoise, with the taqueria’s name in yellow-and-white letters. The characters—in the style of rótulos, Mexican hand-painted signs—went on slightly crooked from stencils purchased at Hobby Lobby. The glazed tiles on the building’s corners were handpicked by co-owner Amanda Fagan.
The Contemporary Taqueria
Modern and chic, this type of taco joint takes many forms: intimate dining spaces, locations filled with communal tables, and sprawling, patio-focused destinations, among others. But the common denominators are clean lines and color—so much color. Nixta Taqueria in Austin has a Mesoamerican-style mural on its east-facing wall. The fashionable clashing of colors continues in building accents, Lotería cards as order numbers, and flowers. In El Paso, Taconeta balances local and Mexican design elements to create a familiar, welcoming feel. This was a deliberate choice by the owners, El Paso–Juárez natives Alejandro Borunda and Daniel Fox. Breeze blocks are used to separate the tables and form short barriers. “The blocks are used on a lot of buildings in the neighborhood,” Borunda says. “We want to be part of the community, look like we fit in naturally, so we utilized them.” Although breeze blocks are prevalent in Taconeta’s part of downtown, the ones at the restaurant were imported from Michoacán and Monterrey, Mexico. Earth-colored tiles bearing yellow, shadowed circles meant to resemble tortillas were imported from Guadalajara. Colorful, mismatched tiles spill out from the dining room floor to the patio and taco window.
The Workers’ Taqueria
This type of taqueria is a quick-consumption shop for laborers and other workers. It usually consists of a small, woman-run kitchen open to counter seating. Many gas-station taquerias cater to workers. A prime example is La Salsa Verde along Dallas’s South Coit Road. Specializing in tacos de cabeza al vapor (steamed cow-head meat)—in this case, using 44 Farms beef—the taqueria is tucked into the back of a Chevron-adjacent convenience store, doling out small tacos on slick corn tortillas to be consumed at a tight counter. There is barely enough space between the stools and the back wall for a person to squeeze through.
The ’Gram Shot Spot
Sometimes bordering on garish, this type of spot embraces social media–friendly trends—like quippy neon signs—with abandon. Perhaps no other Texas taquerias do this better than Austin’s Gabriela’s Downtown and Taquero Mucho, both owned by Gabriela Bucio. The former is located inside a converted house on East Seventh Street with ample patio space and small dining rooms. It’s decorated with neon signage—one reads “Taco Dirty to Me”—and Instagram-tailored art, such as a mural that features two halves of an orange below the words “Mi Media Naranja,” best translated as “My Main Squeeze.”
After noticing a lot of bachelorette parties coming by her eponymous restaurant, Bucio was inspired to create a feminine-focused taqueria. The most important design element, she told her architects at Unhinged Studio, should be the color pink. She specifically wanted Mexican pink, a patriotic color visible in many folk textiles and championed by Mexican architect Luis Barragán. “When they came to me with the first design, I told them there wasn’t enough pink,” Bucio says. “I wanted over-the-top pink. I just knew it was going to work.” The result, Taquero Mucho, opened in early 2020 in downtown Austin. True to Bucio’s vision, it is pink, pink, and more pink. It glows in neon. A pink phone booth is lined with pink faux roses. Even the tortillas are pink. While disorienting at first, the space is fun and serves good tacos. Taquero Mucho isn’t the only social-savvy spot in Texas: Chilangos Tacos in Dallas and Taco Heads in Fort Worth are two other examples.
The Fine-Dining Establishment
When you step inside, you might ask yourself: is this really a Mexican restaurant, much less a taqueria? It’s a good question. This category often obfuscates its identity. Look for mezcales at the bar for a clue. The mixing of varnished wood and metal with exposed ductwork and beams says cool industrial modern, but there is warmth in the laboriously prepared regional Mexican dishes usually set atop complex moles. Chief among this type of establishment is Comedor in Austin. Xochi, the modern Oaxacan restaurant in downtown Houston, takes a slightly different approach with its clean lines, airy feeling, and Mexican art.