Americans’ love for Mexican cuisine is undeniable. Every Barstow student is certainly familiar with the abundance of American-ized quasi-Mexican establishments littered throughout the suburbs of Kansas City. Names like “Cactus Grill,” “Jose Pepper’s,” “Salty Iguana” exude just enough Spanish-language influence to indicate their type of cuisine, while keeping their suburbanite customer base from interacting too closely with a culture they don’t understand. But thankfully, there exist many fantastic Mexican restaurants on the opposite end of the authenticity spectrum, many of which are known as taquerias. Taqueria refers to a casual fast-food style Mexican restaurant specializing in tacos, burritos, and often in other Mexican cuisine staples like tamales. The following are descriptions of three of my favorite taquerias and their relationships with their surrounding cities.
Occupying the west side of a small and somewhat dingy storefront on the northwest corner of Holmes Rd. and Blue Ridge Blvd. lies a shining beacon of culinary light for those who know it: Taqueria Dos de Oros. Once past its modest exterior, customers are greeted with colorful walls filled with massive framed and labeled pictures of menu items, inspirational quotes in Spanish, and paintings that pertain to Mexican culture. After ordering at the counter, customers proceed to a table of their choosing in the bright, decoration-filled dining area. There, they can choose among an array of homemade salsas at the salsa counter to supplement their food. If a customer finishes their meal and somehow still feels hungry (they must not have ordered the Burrito Grande), they may return to the front for an ice cream cone filled with one of the various flavors from the ice cream counter. Ice cream selections include standard fare like chocolate chip and vanilla in addition to unique flavors like Gansito, which imitates the flavor of a popular Mexican snack similar to the Twinkie. As is standard for a taqueria, all selections come at a modest price. At a mere 3.5 miles from Barstow, a visit to Taqueria Dos de Oros is certainly worthwhile.
On the other hand, the following taqueria is a bit farther from Barstow, at 101 miles to the southwest in the city of Emporia, Kansas. Emporia lies at a prominent crossroads in east-central Kansas, almost exactly halfway between Kansas City and Wichita. Despite being the largest city in the surrounding swath of gently rolling plains and one of the larger cities in Kansas overall, its population has stagnated for decades, and its current 24,000 or so residents make up a population smaller than that which the city had in 1980. These details mark the surroundings of what unsuspecting drivers on E 6th Avenue, the town’s commercial corridor and former main highway, might mistake as simply another abandoned gas station. However, a closer look reveals the former gas station is actually a bustling taqueria by the name of Tortas El Toro. In the few years that Tortas El Toro has existed, its owners have improved the tiny building’s interior dramatically, with colorful decorations and plenty of carpentry improvements to the building. These improvements supplement the taqueria’s main attraction; its menu. Tortas El Toro serves an even greater variety of Mexican dishes than Dos de Oros, with offerings including gorditas, sopas (soups), and horchatas. A gordita, which translates literally to “chubby,” is a corn-flour pastry filled with fillings including meat and cheese, while a horchata is a delicious drink comprised of milk, rice, cinnamon, and vanilla. All items are prepared quickly while remaining cheap and delicious. If you find yourself hungry from driving the long and lonesome expanse of I-35 across rural Kansas, take the 6th Avenue exit in Emporia and satisfy your hunger at Tortas El Toro.
On the subject of rural Kansas, Emporia is a booming metropolis compared to any town dotting the massive swathe of sparsely populated prairie and immense untamed Flint Hills landscapes that comprise Greenwood County. Bordering Emporia’s Lyon County to the south, Greenwood County displays deep rural Kansas in all its beautiful desolation. A drive south on Commercial Street out of downtown Emporia quickly reveals the sparse and gorgeous rural landscapes of southeast Kansas as State Highway K-99 traverses the varied terrain of the eastern Flint Hills. Despite being the state’s second-largest county by land area, Greenwood County had just 6,151 residents in 2016, a number that has been declining since 1930 when it had almost 20,000 residents. Since the 2000 census alone, Greenwood County has lost over 1500 people, a population decline of nearly 25%. Fortunately, one example of a business which brings light to counter the darkness of rural decline is La Taqueria B&B. This taqueria sits on a small patch of land on the north side of US-54 in the small county seat of Eureka, and is perhaps the ugliest and most unwelcoming building I have ever seen house a restaurant. The building is little more than two ungainly shacks joined together, and as a result has strange proportions. This detail, coupled with a multitude of other questionable design choices, may be enough to suppress the appetite of a less adventurous eater. Nevertheless, the food is delicious, and that should matter most to the Taqueria-goer. Offerings are similar to other taquerias, with tamales, tacos, and burritos being customer-favorites. The owners are especially friendly as well, and you are certain to get your money’s worth in tasty and filling food. If ever you pass through Eureka, Kansas, a short stop for a meal at La Taqueria B&B is worth your time.
These examples of Taquerias represent the special beauty of authentic restaurants, both Mexican and otherwise, and show why these establishments should be appreciated. They serve to bring together the local Spanish-speaking population while allowing those of different cultures to enjoy the unique experience which these restaurants offer. In addition, Tortas El Toro and La Taqueria B&B bring much-needed life and culture into their respective small towns, allowing the immigrant families who opened them to positively impact their communities. In conclusion, I recommend visiting unfamiliar and authentic restaurants like these taquerias when given the opportunity, as you will likely leave satisfied with the experience and pleased to have expanded your horizons.