My first visit to Del Norte Tacos in the railroad town of Godley, southwest of Fort Worth, came about as I joined a volunteer group from Granbury in their celebration of a successful early summer event. The directions were given with almost-apologetic nuance: “It’s not a big place. Parking is better around back. It sits close to the highway.”
I expected a typical small-town Tex-Mex restaurant—bold colors; piñatas and bright paper flowers; and the requisite enchilada combo dinners.
Del Norte wasn’t what I expected.
The directions were accurate, and I noted the unobtrusive sign almost on the shoulder of Texas 171 that connects Cresson, on US 377, with Cleburne. I maneuvered into the unpaved driveway that ran alongside the vintage stone service station building and led to a similarly unpaved and potholed parking area around back.
Smoke roiled from the pit behind the building and perfumed the summery evening air with notes of mesquite and savory meat. The aroma was promising, even if the building was a curiosity.
I found my group on the front patio, chatting happily as they lounged in metal chairs amidst a clutter of a half-dozen more-or-less matching tables and en-joyed iced tea, beer, and chips. I noted the walls of carefully stacked mesquite that defined the patio. This mesquite wall not only provides fuel for the smokers, but also creates an inventive (and attractive) boundary between the al fresco dining area and the highway, where traffic rumbled not 10 yards away.
Smoke roiled from the pit behind the building and perfumed the summery evening air with notes of mesquite and savory meat.
As the first dishes of food arrived, I noted the eager anticipation from the crowd. The plates appeared more as tapas than as a Number Three Combo: A chile relleno, topped with melted cheese and stripes of crema; a shrimp cocktail laced with avocado, pico de gallo, and slightly smoky shrimp; grilled corn, sliced from the cob and mixed with peppers and queso fresco. All delivered by the smiling and talkative proprietor, Chris Garcia.
As the diners fell onto the food, they gestured appreciation to Garcia, who enjoyed the approbation for a few minutes before returning to the kitchen for more. In the course of the evening, the crowd shared some of almost everything on the menu. And I looked forward to a return visit.
A few months later, I caught Garcia on a quiet weeknight when only a handful of diners helped themselves to the three salsas (milder verde and roja salsas not intimidated by a spicier habanero blend) and the always-simmering cauldron of charro beans. As we chatted in the dining room, where the hydraulic lift once hoisted vehicles (its supports now hidden under a table and the operating lever providing a hint of industrial kitsch), Garcia called to a customer following her family members out of the room, carrying a white to-go box.
“You forgot your purse,” he said, pointing at the handbag.
She looked back toward the table and answered, “You know I care more about this food than I do about my purse.”
That night, I, too, required a to-go box because I had ordered a mixed plate with a stack of brisket slices, smoked sausage, and barbacoa. With some black beans and guacamole, that was a meal that would work any time of day.
Again, Garcia took obvious pleasure in discussing the food he cooks for his customers, family, and friends. (On one visit, I spoke with an oilfield service truck driver who let me know he was often in Del Norte twice a day.)
Garcia is quick to share his secrets—like adding the cilantro stems to the whole garlic and bay leaves in the water for cooking his charro beans, or marinating the pork ribs with a pineapple-achiote paste—and his basic love of cooking.
“All this really comes from the heart,” he says. “I learned to cook from my family in the Valley, near Weslaco, my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather cooked in the way they do in northern Mexico, where he was from,” he adds. “That is where the name, Del Norte, comes from.”
But even though his discussion of his food often includes family references, Garcia learned the ropes of the restaurant business in some of Houston’s noted dining spots. He even met his wife, Mary (the reason he moved back to Godley) in culinary school. Among his experiences was time with Robert Del Grande’s operation The Grove, as well as Pappas Seafood, the Houstonian, and The Four Seasons.
But, because Mary’s family operates The Inn at Wind Hill Ranch, Chris and Mary Garcia made their way back to the Cleburne area.
“We started with seven-course grill nights,” he explains. “We make some good osso buco, braised short ribs, or poached lobster with crab and seaweed salad on top, and whatever vegetables are available in the Dallas Farmer’s Market.”
Even though one of the lavish grill nights, and even a stay at The Inn at Wind Hill Ranch, sounds like a good plan for another trip, tonight I want to see the smoking operation Garcia has constructed behind his second location. The new Del Norte, open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. only, sits adjacent to a still-working Texaco travel stop in Cresson, which occupies the intersection of Texas 171 and US 377.
But before driving to the new smoker, I stop to ask an opinion from custom-er Chris Peeler of Weatherford, who’s parked his Rustic Roundup Furniture van outside and is enjoying a brisket taco. “This is the best taco I’ve had in all my years,” he says. “It’s worth a day trip.”
If the brisket taco is worth a day trip, the smoked chile relleno is almost worth an overnighter. Garcia smokes the poblanos, peels and deseeds them, then fills them with your choice of meats or cheese (spinach with cheese and onions makes for a vegetarian choice), then tops the pepper with crema.
As I’m enjoying the first bite, Garcia strolls from the kitchen with a couple of pork ribs, normally cooked only on weekends, stolen from the batch destined for a catering event. The ribs are tender, flavorful, and smoky, with a hint of a glaze on the outside. The sauce, on the side, is a tart-sweet enhancement.
“The sauce is just a little tart,” Garcia says. “That’s the pineapple juice. My grandfather worked for TexSun juice company for 40 years, and he always added pineapple juice to the smoker. Then the mixture gradually carmelized on the ribs.”
As the restaurant closes, I’m on my way to see the smokers at work, and I arrive just in time to watch as Garcia’s crew start in on what will be 500 pounds of brisket and 60 pounds of chicken. In the walk-in cooler nearby, vessels of guacamole and black beans await the next day’s enthusiatic crowd.
As we say good-bye, I notice that Garcia’s Astros cap is completely smoked itself, the logo barely visible through the dark patina. I watch as Garcia, engulfed in smoke swirling from the smoker, nudges the briskets around to get the ideal exposure.
Those briskets will come off the smoker at about four a.m. tomorrow. It will be a great day for the lucky diners who stop in to Del Norte Tacos.