Tyler Loop Taco Tour: El Norteño

For our third Tyler taco tour outing, we headed to El Norteño Restaurant with three locally active young Tylerites.

Kristen Marks, 27, is a graphic designer at Pine Cove and a Tyler resident of five years. She says the abundance of Mexican food options is one of her favorite things about this town, “besides Andy’s, of course.” She calls herself a “spice-wimp, guac lover, anti-green chile, flour tortilla fan — and if you’re offering fried chicken or shrimp in a taco, I’M IN.

If you’re a fan of cold brew or local farmer’s markets, chances are you’ve already met Carlos Barron, 33. He runs CoffeeOutside Tyler, a traveling pop-up stand where you can enjoy free coffee and good conversation at events around town each month. EGuide has a nice profile of Carlos and his ambitions for this project.

Aaron Dunn, 29, is a medical recruiter who moved to Tyler in 2008 for college. “As someone who has worked many years serving tables of small-town East Texans to white collar professionals,” says Aaron, “food service comes natural to me. The entire experience matters, from what’s on the plate to the people preparing it.” Aaron is also involved with CoffeeOutside Tyler; don’t miss #brewingcommunitylive, a Facebook video series he produces with Carlos.

On to the tacos!

This week’s panel agreed there are several reasons to order a taco at El Norteño, and one big one: the magic sauce. That’s what we called it, anyway. It’s a fantastically smoky, complicated, slightly bitter, glossy salsa that comes with every order of tacos. Whether spooned onto bistek or ladled up with a tortilla chip, this salsa’s deep, earthy heat transformed everything it touched in interestingly different ways. I detected roasted and charred guajillo chili; none of us could get enough of it. “Just put it on everything,” says Chris.

Chorizo was also popular here. Kristen loved its “smoky, peppery flavor,” and the self-described “spice wimp” even enjoyed the heat. Other tasters enjoyed its “vinegary,” “full” flavors — and, predictably, everyone agreed that the chorizo here is even better with the addition of a little magic sauce.

Tortillas are clearly handmade, getting especially high marks from Carlos. The horchata is my favorite so far in Tyler, and the hospitality is warm and welcoming. Aaron, who’s visited El Norteño before, wasn’t surprised when the owner came out to greet our table and shake everyone’s hands. El Norteño is a cheery spot that does many things well, and a few things exceptionally well. And given the complexity and depth of that salsa, I’d be very interested in trying an order of mole enchiladas here.

Before signing off, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to say a few words about al pastor.

I first tasted a taco al pastor about ten years ago, when I lived in Chicago. I never heard of the dish till a friend took me to one of the city’s famous La Pasadita restaurants, asked if I ate pork, and ordered me a plate of tacos al pastor. My familiarity with tacos was limited to Chi-Chi’s and school cafeteria food, crunchy shells crammed with ground beef, yellow cheese, and cold lettuce. I was mystified by what landed in front of me at La Pasadita: between three amusingly tiny tortillas and a sprinkling of onion and cilantro sat a restrained portion of neon orange meat, studded with what looked like . . . wait, seriously? Pineapple chunks! What sort of taco tomfoolery was this?

I took a bite and my brain starting pinging like a pinball machine. Smoky! Tangy! Sweet! Sour! I almost couldn’t finish my third taco; the marinade, which gives al pastor its distinct color and it often slathered on again right before serving, was so satisfyingly intense.

I’ve been hoping to replicate that experience as we make our way through the taquerias of Tyler. As in other cities I’ve lived in since Chicago, al pastor in Tyler, in my experience, tends to mean something tamer (and far less orange-hued) than I’m used to. It sometimes seems indistinguishable from carne asada, just with extra lime and maybe a few perfunctory scraps of pineapple mixed in.

El Norteno’s al pastor took me right back to the Windy City. The color, the sweet-sour spiciness, the generous and juicy chunks of pineapple. I wondered if spooning on some magic sauce would be overdoing it. It definitely was. I spooned on some more.

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.