Crispy Sweetbread Tacos
What fuels a restaurant for more than 20 years? Is it money, hard work, customer loyalty, a supportive wife or grateful children? I believe there is only one word that could encompass it all: sacrifice. This is the story of our family restaurant, Los Tacos Grill, and how it was built amongst a decade of generational family conflict, failures, and successes.
It all started in October of 1980 with the opening of La Posta Restaurant. My maternal grandfather Don Jose Fernandez, 55, invited my father to be his partner. My father, Noe, was 26 yrs old and a P.E. teacher. He led a teacher’s life, worked at various schools during the year and enjoyed the summers off. My grandparents owned a Paleteria(popsicle shop) and when they planned to expand their business they decided that Noe was the man to do it with. They built the restaurant from the ground up, literally. However, neither of them knew anything about restaurants or how to run them, but together they learned. La Posta started out as a small room beside the paleteria. They served simple fair like tacos, hamburgers, and grilled chicken in adobo, and skirt steak by the kilo. Noe and Jose turned out to be an excellent team, so over time the restaurant begin to prosper.
Noe thought the time was right to expand the restaurant, so he took out a loan from the bank and enlisted his dad, my abuelo Domingo, to help with the construction. The money borrowed from the bank was not substantial, so they made due with what they had. They hired a carpenter to make the chairs because that couldn’t afford to buy some, and floor was laid with leftover tile from Domingo’s other construction jobs. In a stroke of luck or blessing, Noe, Jose, and an employee of the restaurant won the lottery! It wasn’t the jackpot, but it was enough money to pay off the loan and finish the expansion. After that the restaurant kept growing, a bar was added to the dining room and a banquet hall was built on the second floor. The customers were pouring in.
Years passed, the restaurant progressed, but so did tensions between Jose and Noe. Noe began to think that he could do things own his own, that he was already doing things on his own. What did Jose even do? Jose began to go out of town often and opened a new restaurant in a partnership with one of his sons, leaving Noe out of the equation. That restaurant failed, unfortunately. Soon after, Jose planned on retiring, but when Noe told him how much he was willing to pay for his retirement, Jose responded in anger that he would rather die working. (Wow! Deep stuff, right?) Noe then expressed a desire to open his own place and Jose promptly stated that he would never be able to do it alone. So just as any young stubborn and proud man would do, he set out to do it.
This is when things got a little ugly. My father sold his percentage of the partnership to my grandmother, and with that money construction began right away. Saying the family was angry would be an understatement. Again myabuelo Domingo helped with the construction, but the lack of funds slowed the construction, it took 1.5 years to finally finish. The grand opening was in January of 1991. The restaurant began as a main dining room and a terrace designed in the Santa Fe style, adobe walls painted white and red terra-cotta tiles, but its most impressive feature was the palm thatch roof. True to its name,Los Tacos Grill, sold mostly tacos. Over time the food gravitated to grilled skirt steak and other cuts of beef sold by the kilo just like in La Posta. Years later, a lunch buffet and catering service were added to the menu.
Noe naively thought that the customers at La Posta would follow him to his restaurant, but it was not so. Sure there was the excitement of a new restaurant in town and that brought customers in, but as soon as things went back to normal he found that he was going to have to work hard to bring in more customers. It took 1 year and 1 month to finally break-even, and it was not until the restaurant had been open for 2 years that it finally begin to achieve a profit. Founding a restaurant, training employees, managing the books, and building a customer base was not easy to do alone. Noe soon realized that he had misjudged Jose’s contribution to the success of La Posta.
The conflicts within the family healed with time, but it seemed that as Los Tacos Grill gained customers La Posta lost them. Shortly after, my grandfather Jose retired and left the restaurant to another family member. Los Tacos Grill flourished and a bar was added, a second kitchen, and a small event hall in the second floor. The customers were mostly local people, but soon Americans begin to come. (Acuña is a border town which means tourists come to Mexico often.)
As for our little family, our lives revolved around the restaurant. My mom stopped cooking at home and we took our meals there in order to actually be able to see my dad. We helped when we were needed, and stayed out of the way when it was prudent. I remember being 8 or 9 years old and working the cash register for a couple of hours. For a time I was a hostess, helped out in banquets, and one summer I was an assistant to the accountant. On the other hand, having us work at the restaurant was also my parents’ favorite form of punishment.
Los Tacos Grill has been open for 21 years, but it has not come without a cost for Noe. You know the drill, long hours, very little time left for family, a high stress environment, working all holidays, and physical strain. Some of the important things remain though, loyal customers, a thankful family, and loyal employees. There’s customers that come every day. Every single day! There’s also employees that have worked there since the beginning. I found this review on Tripadvisor which could describe it better than I could:
” Staying in Del Rio, one is hard pressed to find an authentic Mexican food experience with all the robust flavors, accompaniments and local atmosphere. Los Tacos Grill is a quick trip across the bridge from Del Rio. The first time I went, it was a holiday and bustling with families, music and local flavor. There is always a buffet but each time I visited, I opted for entres off the menu. A variety of delicious tacos or a tender cut of beef with grilled cactus and a side of tortillas, grilled jalapenos, a plate of limes, delectable salsa as accompaniments and of course with a couple cold cervezas or margaritas to wash it all down. The best part, the price. Great value and definitely worth the trip.” (Deechee, July 14, 2012)
[My grandfather, Don Jose Fernandez, passed away five years ago. It was then that my father was able to recognize how much he really owed that old man.]
If you’ve stuck around until the end of this story you might be wondering why I’m telling you all of this? This is how and where i grew up. It played a major role in influencing my career choice and lifestyle. Why do I not work there? I ask myself that same question often, but my life has taken a different path, and just like young Noe I have my own dreams and ambitions. The funny thing is, though, the hubby and I have no real desire to own a restaurant. We know first hand the sacrifices that need to be made and now that we have the munchkin we’re unsure wether they are worth it or not.
That being said, if you ever happen to be in Del Rio, TX or Acuña, Mexico, stop by Los Tacos Grill. Be sure to try margaritas and crispy sweetbread tacos!
Crispy Sweetbread Tacos
Yield: 2 servings
Time: 30 min.
|Onion, white, diced||1 cup|
|Green bell pepper, diced||1 cup|
|Bacon, applewood smoked, cut into lardons||3 slices|
|Sweetbreads, veins removed, cut into large dice||1.5 lb.|
|Vegetable oil||4 cups|
|Salt, kosher||To taste|
|Black pepper, ground||To taste|
- Set a sauté pan to medium heat. Add bacon and cook until crisp.
- Add onions and sweat for 2-3 min. until soft and translucent.
- Add bell peppers and cook for 2-3 min. until soft.
- Remove pan from heat and set aside.
- In a medium pot add 4 cups of vegetable oil and heat to 350F.
- Pat sweetbreads dry with a paper towel and drop 1/3 of them into the hot oil.
- Remove sweetbreads from oil when they are golden brown and crispy and set aside. Repeat with other two batches.
- Place sauté pan with onion mixture back on medium heat and add fried sweetbreads. Mix and heat through.
- Serve with warm tortillas, salsa, guacamole & beans.
For those of you who live in Orange County, I found sweetbreads at Gelson’s Market in Dana Point. The sweetbreads are cut small because they have not been soaked for hours as in traditional recipes.