Food & Drink : Ich bin ein chalupa

What’s a fella got to do to get a taco named after him?

What’s in a name? Well,the Chalupa Robert from El Milagrito (top) features beans, cheese, picadillo, and a fried egg, while the Niles Taco (middle) from Tito’s keeps it simple with beans, cheese, bacon, and avocado. The Ralphie Special (bottom) from Taco Haven: chicken, cabbage, onion, tomato, and a lemon wedge for extra zing.

Fact: The collective human inhabitants of Earth are divided, neatly and rather irrevocably, into two distinct subsectors: those who have tacos named after them, and everyone else. It will be most assuredly agreed upon, then, that it is a far, far better thing to belong to the first than to the second (those who, finding themselves at a dinner party or chance social engagement with one of the auspicious former, must be sated with saying, “Well, I really like tacos ...”) Yes, to Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, let us, friends, now add Tacocentric Eponymity. Allay frets and fears, though, O Ye of Names As-Yet-Unappropriated: I, who am chummily acquainted with the ignominy of having given nominal birth to nary a tortilla-swaddled scion, have ventured forth to four local eateries, all of which feature at least one commemorative, anthropomorphized morsel. Final count: five people-tacos, two people-chalupas, and a sliver of deep-fried hope.

It’s 9 o’clock on a Saturday; the regular crowd shuffled in a little under an hour ago at Café Salsita, near the Quarry. Nine or so silver-haired apparent sexa- and septuagenarians sit in their customary breakfast spot, smiling, laughing, trading stock-market tales. They are members of the R.O.M.E.O. Club, an easygoing social outfit co-founded years ago by now-75-year-old native San Antonian Eric Heydenreich, president of Ace Bolt & Screw Company. “R.O.M.E.O.” seems to suggest a cadre of James Bond arch-nemeses, but stands, innocuously enough, for Retired Old Men Eating Out, Heydenreich says. (Nowhere in sight are R.O.M.E.O’s bitter crosstown softball rivals, the J.U.L.I.E.T. `Jocular Unemployed Ladies’ and Introverts’ Effusive Tea-sipping` squad — who, incidentally, don’t exist.) Laid on plates before several of the gentlemen are appropriately bulging flour tortillas, slung over an unseen assortment of egg, bacon, pico de gallo, and melted cheese: these are Eric Specials.

“I never knew what to eat here,” says Heydenreich, who by owner Yolanda Mendoza’s estimation has been coming with friends to Café Salsita every Saturday for five of the restaurant’s six years. “One day, I designed a taco.”

The taco, he says, compressed elements of an egg dish he enjoyed, making it smaller and more manageable.

“It kind of caught on, and several guys tried it,” Heydenreich says. “In this group, I think there’s six or seven that get the Eric Special.”

Despite his club’s seeming wholehearted endorsement, the Special’s namesake and creator could not have been prepared for what came next.

“One day when I came, they had it on the computer,” he says. “The ticket ... had the Eric Special on it. So the next time they reprinted the menu, they put it in the menu.” As Mendoza describes it, the decision to make the Special official was an uncomplicated one.

“He started ordering this taco,” she recollects. “All his friends were ordering that taco also, and so we `wound` up putting it on the menu as the Eric Special.”

Eric Heydenreich

Which, of course, begs the question: Is such an occurrence common practice? And: How, finally, does one go about getting a taco doppelganger?

Tread carefully: Amador Montoya may have seen ’em all.

“A lot of people try it,” says a smiling Montoya, who works for his father (also named Amador) at El Milagrito (521 E. Woodlawn), which the elder Montoya has owned for about a year. He does a good-natured send-up of the typical hopeful taco-immortalizee: “‘I want a bean taco with some cheese in there — is `that` an original taco?’” Such attempts are likely spurred by El Milagrito’s trio of personalized, tortilla-based offerings: the Chalupa Robert, the Chalupa Kennedy, and the Lalito Taco. All three, Montoya says, are holdovers from the previous owners, and the chalupas have been around since about 1969. The Robert — an inventive bit comprising beans, picadillo, and melted cheddar crowned with a fried egg (or one of preferable style) — is named after one of the original owner’s cousins, who was partial to the concoction. The Lalito, endearingly enough, is a simple egg-and-cheese number, as that was the only combination deemed acceptable by the owner’s young grandson. Finally, the Kennedy is indeed named for our fallen 35th president, which designation is due not to its ingredients (beans, picadillo, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, cheese), but rather to the fact that the owner’s wife was an ardent JFK fan. With such illustrious company, then, and a staff inured to pleading and ploys, it might be a bit of a hard sell to get your name on the menu at El Milagrito.

“It’s rare occasions,” Montoya says.

Tito’s, on South Alamo, features two personal-touch tacos: the Niles and Chela’s, whose inspirations are a tad more local in flavor. “Chela” is the preferred handle of Tito’s head chef, Margarita Marquez, who has been cooking in the building for six years; she started back when Tito’s was known as B.J.’s.

“I never knew what to eat here. I designed a taco ... One day when I came, they had it on the computer.”

- Eric Heydenreich,
creator and namesake of the “Eric Special” at Café Salsita

“She would always make this certain combination of, you know, bacon and egg, with potatoes and chile,” says Tito’s owner, Tito Cantú. “But she would make this one chile, for us to eat ourselves, and it just was so good that I just said, ‘Well, let’s make that taco and put it on the menu ... see if everybody likes it.’ And it’s hit pretty good.”

Marquez says she’s happy that her nickname, and taco, have caught on.

“I’ve been called ‘Chela’ since I was little,” she says in Spanish. “It’s an honor for me, you know. It feels good that they put `my` name on it because they like the way it’s made, or the taste, lots of times.”

Cantú says naming the taco after the popular Marquez seemed the natural thing to do.

“We thought, well, give it her name, you know, Chela, ’cause she’s such a good cook, and she’s real essential to us here,” he says. “She’s actually the only one that stayed with us from the original `B.J.’s` crew. But she was a diamond in the rough.”

Tito’s keeps it local with the Niles, too, which is named for neighborhood realtor and former wine-bar proprietor Niles Chumney.

“Well, Niles, he comes in here all the time,” says Tito’s manager Mark Rodriguez. “And he used to order a taco ... about every day that he came in and it was the bean and cheese with bacon and sliced avocado. It wasn’t even on the menu ... And being that he lived and ... breathed here, we said, well, let’s `name it for him`.”

Cantú laughs a little. “That Niles, you know, he got lucky,” he says. “It just so happened that he’s such a character, and that he’s so well-known, you know ... He’s a good guy.”

Chumney, a character indeed, sounds off:

“You know, if I was really skinny, it would be a lot more funny,” he says. “But I’m not ... It’s been embarrassing because it’s not exactly a whole-wheat tortilla with, uh, scrambled egg whites.”

Lending your name to a foodstuff may also carry a few occupational hazards, it seems.

“I called ... to get some Mexican dinners,” Chumney says. “I didn’t tell them who I was, I said ... ‘Uh, two Mexican dinners. Uh, it’s Niles.’ And they said, ‘Uh, two Mexican dinners and two Niles tacos?’ ‘No, no, it’s Niles!’” Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Niles taco, though, is its (not-so-)secret origin: “Well, I ripped it off from the Torres Special, from Taco Haven,” Chumney offers. “The difference being that Taco Haven puts guacamole on theirs, and I ask for sliced avocado.”

Indeed, the Torres Special is strikingly similar, at least in composition. Named for Taco Haven co-owner Jerry Torres, it is one of the restaurant’s two namesake tacos; the other is the Ralphie, a chicken taco topped with a shock of cabbage and christened in honor of one of the restaurant’s first cooks. Both are quite popular, says manager Olga Torres, Jerry’s wife.

A pattern has emerged. By and large, it seems, if you’ve got a taco named for you in San Antonio, you’re a cook, a relative of an owner, or some dude who came in and made extra work for the staff by ordering something weird or off the menu — over and over and over again. Is that, then, all it takes? Could I walk into Tito’s, order a shrimp-and-ice-cream taco week after week, and have it named the “Brian?” (Or, perhaps, the “Unendurable Prick”?)

“Pro-,” Cantú starts to say, then changes his mind: “Possibly. Always an opening.”

Hmm. Something to think about, then. Meanwhile: The best perk about having your own taco? Ordering it.

“They know what we want,” says Heydenreich, chuckling a little. “I’ll have the ‘me.’”

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