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Those of you who don’t live in south Texas or the southwest in general are really missing out on some good Mexican food. More specifically, good Tex-Mex. There’s nothing quite like breakfast tacos on an early Saturday morning. My favorite being barbacoa with an icy cold Big Red. And yes, this is a going to be about guns. I’m getting there . . .

After decades of research, I figure there’s three things to look out for when seeking out a good Tex-Mex place. First, be on the lookout for menus and staff that operate in Spanish. Second, look at the clientele. If the other patrons on primarily Hispanic, you’re for sure getting there. But third – and the real point of this – is that you need to be in a dodgy part of town. You’ll know you’ve hit the spot when you have to order in Spanish, and if you are a white guy like me, you stick out like a sore thumb. Bars on the window are always a good, too.


My favorite dodgy place is a little spot called Ken’s Tacos Subs & More. Ken’s is fairly close to my office so I can run out, get a great lunch, and decompress for an hour outside of the office. It’s also pretty cheap. But it’s definitely in one of the worst zip codes in Austin. Which leads to a bit of a problem for the responsible carrier. On the one hand, avoid stupid people doing stupid things in stupid places. But on the other hand, carne guisada.

Ken’s lets me have my guisada and eat it too. As you can see above, there’s a table in a pocket corner that lets me hang back and watch the comings and goings at Ken’s while I dig in. I figure that in the middle of the day, an armed robbery is the most likely crime and the cash is in the drawer, which is behind the counter. I’m confident in stating that all but the most experienced hold-up men are going to get tunnel vision. Get in, get the cash, and get out are going to be the name of the game.

And my pocket table lets me hang back, enjoy the meal, and in the event that that the worst happens, I’ll be able to watch it unfold and still have an avenue of escape, and a flanking position in case drawing and firing is the best course of action. Am I paranoid? Maybe. But I prefer to think that failing to plan is planning to fail.

Ken’s would be a pretty solid place to get a plate of rice and beans even if the seating were different. And I’d likely go regularly if that were the case. But Ken’s is my favorite workday lunch spot because the seating arrangement allows me keep an eye on the happenings with plenty of options for fight or flight. And carne guisada. You?

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  1. Most of the area I live in (RGV) could be considered dodgy, and is home to some of the BEST Tex-Mex food in the USA. That being said, I always ask for a corner table, sit with my back to the wall, and face the entrance as well.

    • It took me about a year to teach my wife the basics of “tactical seating” after we were married, so she would know which seat to take when we were seated in a restaurant, or, if there was any doubt, to allow me to seat her (“let me get your chair, honey”) so that the tactically-preferred seat was left for me. Now, after 25+ years, she does it without thinking. Another reason I love her so…

    • don’t forget tactical parking. . . . always back in to a spot so you can pull out quickly and when you open your door, and someone is approaching you, it acts as a barrier.

    • It’s not just Mexican. Stay away from the chains if you want good food of any type. Best Burgers in Hayward CA comes to mind. Small place in a dodgy part of town and cash only, no plastic.

  2. Can’t recall the seating arrangements, but Mexico Lindo just off I-35 in Waco otherwise fits your description perfectly–if it’s still there. Best home-made corn tortillas anywhere bar none. Other stuff –I recall chicken enchiladas in particular–was great too. In my town, it’s La Unica, across the street from an abandoned foundry. It’s too small to have a whole lot of seating options, but I do like to sit well back where I can watch the door. Best meal-deal in town is the breakfast special–huevos rancheros, beans with chunks of pork in them, three big slices of bacon, hash browns, and flour tortillas, plus help-yourself coffee, for $5.40 The salsas and pico are home-made, the tortilla chips are thick and warm. The pozole is good too.

      • BTW Mack, you can get some of the best Mexican food at the concession stand at Morris Frank Park when the soccer league is going…

  3. birria huantitan near the corner of north and pulaski. bullet holes, 24hr armed guard. chicago may have more mexaraunts and ghetto taco joints than any where save la. certainly more than queretero, guanajuato or san miguel de allende.
    boar’s head has nothing to do with mexican food. and the tex part just seems to blandify the real deal for the chile sensitive palette. not that they don’t know how to heat it up. mi tierra in san antonio comes to mind.
    little village and pilsen have a bounty of carnitas and ensalada nopales.
    but it’s the chiva, lengua and al pastor that is to crave.

    • cmeat you sure got it right. Little Village too. My own neighborhood south of Chicago has great food. It helps to special order off the menu. Lots of these guys can’t speak English so you need to turn a few phrases. And I’ve never felt in danger even in Little Village or the Westside. Unlike the brothers…

    • One of the things about dealing with Texans, not only will they tell you repeatedly in gushing tones ‘it’s like nowhere else’, they’re so poorly traveled, culturally indoctrinated, and self-deluded, they really believe it.

      There’s plenty of authentic US-Mex (sorry been to TX too many times, nothing unique about Tex-Mex for 100 years+) available anywhere you have authentic Mexican folks. LA, CHI, STL, and a dozen others. Some of the best French cuisine is found far from France, just as is the best Thai, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, whatever. Is it a bit different in TX? Sure. Is it some amazing unique experience that one can experience nowhere else? Just like BBQ, not if you’ve actually been anywhere.

      • Aha–making an unfounded assumption about Texans so you can denigrate them for making unfounded assumptions…

        • Over the decades I’ve spent over a year of my life in DFW, HOU, SAT, and much of the rest of it. I base my ‘unfounded assumptions’ on not only the thousands I interfaced with on those trips, but the hundreds I have dealt with outside of TX.

          Here’s some other ‘unfounded assumptions’ – HS football is waaayyyy more important than anywhere else on the planet, the guys are in ‘gentleman’s clubs’ on Saturday night, and some church w/ the big-haired-wife and kids on Sunday. They also tend to wear cowboy hats and boots, and drive PU trucks/YuSuburbaHos. Feel free to present evidence to the contrary.

          I get that you’ve seen ‘Austin City Limits’ and have heard that the town is like PDX. Well it kinda is, but it isn’t considered to really be TX by the rest of the State.

          Demographics and sociology work because they’re science. Fact is that Target/Fred Meyer/Von’s/Kroger know not only what you buy, but pretty much how you think when you scan that rewards card. Sure, we’re all ‘speshul snowflakes’, but when you drill down on the actual science, it isn’t hard to tell almost exactly how we’re gonna behave given even a few quality data points. The proof of that is the effectiveness of advertising and politics.

          Even outliers function to a rule set. Which includes when they decide to deliberately not follow the rule set.

  4. For those of us further north and west, try the Taqueria El Taco Maestro on Sunset in Renton, WA. The carnitas are tasty and wonderful and the burritos are as well.

  5. I have a cousin who is a volunteer fireman in the greater Pittsburgh area.

    He drilled into us to first to note where the exits are before you sit down.

    Your back against the wall is good tactics.

    Good Tex-Mex with lots of fresh sour cream (How can you tell when sour cream goes bad, anyways?) is pure heaven.

    • I mean RIGHT off I-35–like almost on the exit ramp. Passed it a hundred times I guess, figured it would be good, and finally got to stop there. Was not disappointed, I’m not kidding about the corn tortillas–thick and hand-formed, had to tell the waitress twice, I guess they thought since I was a gringo I naturally wanted flour. Had a colleague that knew about it, but she said she was afraid to go there because of the illegals that congregated at some place nearby–true story.

  6. Taco more on e riverside or parkfield and runberg, la Mexicana market on 79. Y finalmente hay elotes on e 7th……. mmmmmmm mmmmmmm, it’s no Pluckers, but variety is the spice of life. I would definitely recommend going tooled up. Good Mexican food is usually found in bad neighborhood/barrios

    Tex-mex in my opinion is terrible. You either love it or hate it. Kinda like guns

    • Funny thing, I went to school in Tennessee, they served tacos in the cafeteria once. They were realllllly ordinary, but most of the Southern aristocracy that went there had apparently never seen them before and they just raved about them–I had to shake my head…

  7. Real Mexican tacos al Pastor for me – as in from old Mexico. They stack layers of pork on the skewer of a vertical rotisserie like is used for the lamb in Greek Gyros – the ones with a gas flame on one side. When the skewer is almost full they stick half a pineapple on top and let the juice run down over the meat. The meat is rotated a little when the surface begins to brown. The browned meat is sliced off with a sharp knife into a tortilla.

    Add your favorite codimentos. Pure heaven.

    Also, carnitas are only genuine if they are cooked in boiling lard.

  8. I used to go to the Ken’s location at Cameron Road & Rundberg when I lived up in that area, but instead of the Tex Mex, I would usually get the chicken cheesesteak sub. Yum! And yeah, hole in the wall kind of places often have the best food (as long as they’ve been there a while – bad ones don’t last).

    But yes, tactical seating is an important concept, and one I probably need to practice more of, as well coach my wife a little better on (at least until I get her carrying).

  9. I love Mexican food of all kinds, but alas, I’ve yet to find any truly good places here in northwestern Georgia, or DeKalb County either, for that matter. Some okay places but nothing like out West. Interestingly, Kansas City, Kansas has LOTS of little mom-and-pop Mexican places such as you’ve described, but it’s been years since I passed through (my late father lived in Topeka). Regardless of the establishment, whether it’s a buffet, pizza, BBQ or just cheese omelettes and hash browns all the way at Waffle House, I do my level best to take a table towards the back of the restaurant whereby I can see the entrance. Also, as I carry my sidearm in my right front or right rear pocket I try to sit with my right side facing a wall. However, very few people seem to notice the difference between an LCP and a fat wallet, even in cheap Fruit of the Loom knit shorts. And that’s gotta be saying something. I’ve even had cops sit next to me on my right side who were none the wiser.


  10. Thought it worth mentioning…unless Kens changed, that place has always been a cash only biz too. And very popular.

    When I used to work by there in the 90’s, ol Kens itself to drive a taco van by work and would even extend you some taco credit!

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