Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Editor’s note: Even the most devoted Thanksgiving turkey enthusiast eventually needs a change of protein. To that end, Rivard Report staff roamed the city to find hidden gems, longtime local favorites, and other independent eateries that serve slices of San Antonio’s manifold cultures. For more stories in our Escape the Turkey series, click here.
While the posted hours of operation at Taquitos West Ave. list 10 a.m. as opening time, the line on a recent Saturday formed well before, and cooks quickly began taking orders while shaving pork al pastor from the trompo for the steady stream of early morning customers.
Since 2006, the taquería has served “Jalisco-style” street tacos from its corner lot at 2818 West Ave. on San Antonio’s North Side. Bright red signs boasting menu offerings line the building’s modest exterior, making them visible from blocks away.
Owner Luis Cerrillo told the Rivard Report he learned that in order to achieve success, a business and its customers “have to be treated like a feeling,” which includes serving tacos de cabeza from before the doors open until about 3 a.m. when the restaurant starts to close on the weekends.
“You have to respect [a business], take care of it, and love it. If you don’t respond to what the business needs, you will fail,” said Cerrillo, 37.
Before the Taquitos West Ave. team began cranking out several thousand three-taco orders per day, the building was home to Rosti Pollo, a rotisserie chicken shack where Cerrillo would eat every Wednesday. After befriending the owners, he was given the opportunity to take over the restaurant, and began cooking pork al pastor and lengua out of a wooden barrel-turned-propane grill he built with his savings near the sidewalk at the front of the building.
“I went bankrupt three times and was barely making enough to keep the lights on and keep going, until finally one day I made $800 selling just the tacos,” Cerrillo said.
That day marked a turning point for Cerrillo, who realized that “cooking with respect and affection” would help draw in patrons. He scratched rotisserie chicken from the menu and began preparing only taquitos and fresh salsa, and rebranded the establishment as Taquitos West Ave.
“We put the best flavors we can coming from Mexico. It was the rich and authentic flavors of the meats that helped us gain popularity,” Cerrillo said.
Several times a month, Taquitos West Ave. has produce and meat delivered from Mexico, including achiote, the red-orange seed that both tints and flavors the al pastor tacos, and the chiles used in the red and green salsa. While it’s expensive to ship the fresh ingredients, Cerrillo, who is from Jalisco, maintains it helps the restaurant preserve the authenticity of flavor and offer the highest quality products to its patrons.
Tacos come in five varieties – al pastor (slow-cooked, marinated pork), cabeza (head), bistek (thinly-sliced beef), lengua (tongue), tripas (cow intestine), and saudero (a cut of beef between the belly and the leg) – and are served with the traditional accoutrements, including diced onions and cilantro. House-made drinks include agua de jamaica, horchata, and lemonade.
Patrons place orders with chefs, then eat their meals without ever receiving a ticket. They let the cashier know what they had once they are ready to head out the door.
“There is a harmony and camaraderie you can feel here,” Cerrillo said. “You can see that there is trust and comfort between people, and we trust [customers] to be honest.”
Elizabeth Diaz Quintanilla sat at an outside table with her boyfriend and three young children, a variety of mini tacos laid out before them. She said she lives just up the street and has been eating at the restaurant for several years.
“It reminds me of visiting my grandmother in Mexico, and the [sense of community] that came from eating with different types of people,” Quintanilla said. “When you buy food from a [street vendor], you hang out with people you don’t know and it feels comfortable.”
But what keeps Quintanilla coming back year after year is the flavors. “The tacos taste so good, and my kids like the horchata,” she said. “And you can’t beat the price,” which comes out to about $1.50 per taco.
Taquitos West Ave. is Cerrillo’s first and only food business venture. In Mexico, he had invested a small savings in an egg delivery business and lived a relatively comfortable life with his father, a photographer, and late mother, a homemaker, before arriving in the United States at age 24.
He moved to Johnson City and worked as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant, where his cousins taught him the ins-and-outs of the food industry. “I was just curious about what all was possible for me if I came to the U.S.,” Cerrillo said.
In March 2017, Taquitos West Ave. added a second location – Taquitos and Panaderia West Ave. – located at 12734 Nacogdoches Rd. in North San Antonio, with an expanded menu that includes tortas and quesadillas.
The wooden barrel-turned-grill used to cook the al pastor meat that went into the restaurant’s very first taquito now sits in Cerrillo’s backyard “for nostalgic reasons.”
“A simple barrel helped me make so much money when I had nothing,” Cerrillo said. “It is a nice story. A dream come true.”
Taquitos West Ave. will open at 10 a.m. on Black Friday.
Rocio Guenther contributed to this report.