Featured photo: Somewhere in Winston-Salem, there is a secret taco house. (photo by Nikki Miller-Ka)
UPDATE: Monday, March 29: A GoFundMe has been started for the family after a neighbor reported the business to the city. Read more here.
Somewhere on the south side of Winston-Salem off Waughtown Street, deep in the maze of cross streets, lies an underground taqueria.
It lives, secretly, amid a mix of former palatial Queen Anne and Victorian mansions, industrial worksites, and a blue-collar Hispanic community dotted with dilapidated storefronts, Mexican restaurants and dollar stores. The neighborhood whispers to the Washington Park Historic District, with UNCSA looming on the horizon.
Finding the secret house felt like scoring illegal drugs: pulling up to a house only to wait for what seemed like an eternity for someone to emerge and help me out.
After 12 minutes, the only other car on the street, a late-model sedan, pulled off and another vehicle swung into the unoccupied space. My eyes constantly scanned the road ahead of me and the rear-view mirror, looking for cops or for a passerby to ask what I was doing there.
A sudden change in the direction of the spring breeze sent the aroma of braised beef and cooked onions into the sunroof of my car. Hunger and anxiety about the sketchiness fought for equal billing on my emotional marquee.
Finally, a tall, lanky teenager, emerged from the clapboard house. He descended down the steep front steps laden with four bags stuffed with Styrofoam boxes, delivering them to a car parked a little way up the street.
Then the boy headed over to me to take my order and repeat it back: one birria taco, one mushroom taco, one ramen (which comes with two tacos, the internet said). No pen, no paper, no trace. I hoped for him to get it right.
No ramen, he told me. Dang. I had to settle for a torta. I was going to be eating birria for days.
As I waited, more cars pulled up. Soon the crux of the intersection was filled with the cars of potential diners on the quest to for underground tacos.
Tacos, of course, are the centerpiece of this underground taqueria, called El Sabor Tabasqueno, on Instagram. Search the birria hashtag on Instagram and TikTok, and you’ll see how the dish became a viral sensation online. Birria is traditionally served in a bowl, with the tortillas and condiments on the side. The taco seems to have made its way from Jalisco, Mexico to our social media feeds and, eventually, to Winston-Salem.
Thursday through Sunday, diners can choose from four versions of birria-style tacos served on griddled corn tortillas dipped in birria consommé before being layered with cheese, braised and chopped beef, cilantro and diced white onions. Stuffed inside Styrofoam containers lined with aluminum foil sheets alongside pint-sized bowls of steaming hot broth, the tacos overflow with shredded beef, mushrooms asada or pulled chicken.
The taqueria also has specialty dishes such as the birria torta which is a Mexican-style stuffed sandwich with more of the same fillings layered with mayonnaise and garnished with nickel-sized slices of fresh radish on a soft, orange-tinged toasted roll the size of a steering wheel; birria pizza with double layers of corn tortillas, melted cheese and mounds of birria beef; birria quesadillas on tangerine-stained tortillas cut into four pieces; and mushroom tacos with caramelized sliced button mushrooms, chopped cilantro, and more white onions and cheese.
“I was looking up birria tacos on Instagram to add to my food accounts,” said Jen Brown of Winston-Salem. “After following them for a bit, I decided to go for it.”
Brown is a transplant from New York City and misses buying churros on the subway, and tamales from a vendor guy with cooler in a shopping cart in Harlem. She and her husband are vegetarians and plan to stick with the mushroom tacos for now. Although, if she was going to cheat with meat, the birria pizza would be her choice.
The Instagram account features daily stories of videos of satisfied customers sharing 10-second clips of cheese pulls, taco dips into cups of consommé and flashes of Mexican candy, part of a secret menu.
Leslie Ortiz of Winston-Salem found out about El Sabor through her daughter’s friend.
“I’ve only been once, but am dying to go back again,” Ortiz said. “I ordered the sampler ofdulces enchilados with four different dulces. It was $18 and worth every penny.”
Dulces enchilados are typically gummy or sweet fruit candies covered in a spicy chili sauce called chamoy, making the treat both spicy and sweet. Chamoy is a Mexican condiment with a liquid paste consistency that is made of pickled fruit with salt, sugar, sour tamarind and spiced with chili pepper.
Ortiz ordered birria tacos too, but her first time having those was in South Texas where she’s from.
“I’ve been to houses like that before but not in North Carolina,” she said. “In Texas they have them everywhere so, I knew the tacos were going to be fire.”
It was torture waiting until I pulled into my driveway across town to open the first bag full of tacos. Rarely am I at a loss for words when it comes to describing the complex textures and flavors of food, but these tacos, torta and subsequent trips to obtain ramen and quesadillas have done exactly that. The heavily scented, lightly spiced beef burst with the deep, savory flavor that only a strong umami factor can give. The tortilla was more than a vessel to carry the beef; it was the supporting actor carrying the rest of the cast to the awards show. Crispy, yet soft and able to retain its texture after a vigorous baptismal dip to the deep cup of consommé, I had a gastronomic spiritual awakening in my front yard.
Between the rush of ordering clandestine tacos from a house and waiting for ordering instructions via Instagram, the underground taqueria is the only secret supper club I will continue to order from every weekend.
Follow @elsabor.tabasqueno on Instagram.