There are moments when you know you’ve created something of value. For Francisco “Paco” Perez and his taco shop, Aquí Es Texcoco, it was the planes landing at Brown Field Municipal Airport.
“When they land, they pass very close to our place,” he says. “And there were some pilots who would call the people in the airport to request somebody go buy four pounds of meat so they can bring it back to Mexico City.”
For our cover story this month, I talked with the people behind some of San Diego’s most revered taco shops. I wanted to get their life stories. And Aquí Es Texcoco’s lamb barbacoa tacos are legend. For a birthday one year, I drove around to seven of my favorite restaurants, just eating my way through the aging process. Texcoco was one of them.
Partially because of its authenticity—both the recipe, and the fact that Perez custom-built an oven that replicates the traditional barbacoa method of cooking underground—he’s been featured on a slew of national TV shows, most notably Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.
This is the story of how a former engineer became the de facto name in traditional Mexican barbacoa.
Troy Johnson: How did you get into tacos?
Francisco Perez: I was born in Guadalajara and moved to Tijuana when I was 12. My uncle had a taco shop there, and he sold it to my mother and father. I worked with them on weekends while I was studying engineering at the university. I noticed people from San Diego and Los Angeles would come across the border, pick up meat, and take it back. I told my parents it would be a very good business in the US. But I got stuck in my career as an industrial engineer. I went to Spain for a while, then moved back to Mexico to work on a big project—creating a device that converts design from two dimensions to three in real time for use in surgeries. One day the project just stopped, and I had to decide what to do next. So I opened Aquí Es Texcoco in Chula Vista.
Why tacos? Why not stick with engineering?
I enjoyed working as an engineer. But normally when you get about 50 years old, they tend to phase out the old people. So I thought, “Okay, when I’m 60 my sons will be 20. I’ll need to pay for their school. I’ll be in big trouble. I just need to make enough money to make sure my kids don’t have problems when they want to study.” With my restaurant, I’m the owner of my own life.
What is Texcoco?
It’s a town near Mexico City famous for its barbecue, much like Puerto Nuevo in Baja is for lobster. Once a year they have an international horse fair and all weekend they sell the lamb barbecue. You drive all the way to Texcoco just to eat it. It’s such a tradition. I went to Texcoco to see it, to see how my family’s recipe compared. And it turns out we had a good recipe.
Traditional barbacoa is cooked underground in a pit. You engineered an oven that mimics that process, right?
I designed a big stainless-steel drum to cook it in. It’s very simple, but it holds more temperature than what you can get normally. That’s what makes the difference. The meat comes out of the oven like it was in a pit.
And you use the whole animal?
Yes, we buy whole lambs. We use the tripe to make the pancita and we also use the head, which gives it more flavor. Most people only buy the legs, but I think it can be too dry, so I prefer the shoulder meat. And everything is certified halal.
Tell me your secrets, why it’s so damn good.
We rub the meat with chiles. Nothing too hot, just for flavor and color. Then salt. We cover all the meat with maguey leaves—we use a green agave that they normally use to make pulque [a spirit made from fermented agave]. We also add avocado leaves for flavor, and then cook it for eight hours. But really the secret is to do something really, really good with passion. Never put less meat in a taco or make a smaller taco.
What’s next for Texcoco?
I’m waiting for an opportunity. Right now I’m just having patience and trying to keep the business open. It’s very slow because of COVID. It’s so important to respect what people have lost. I’m very glad I’m here in the US, because I pay all the payroll and taxes necessary. I report all my sales. That’s important. Because we did things right, my employees had unemployment when we had to close for three months and they will have social security as they age. And we were able to get a lot of help from the government PPP and disaster loans. I think when everything is finished, we’ll be a hit again. I’m looking for another place to open up and keep growing for our employees.