Santos Taqueria

Santos Silerio learned her craft feeding eight hungry children

Santos Taqueria

205 San Antonio St. in Mason, 325/347-6140

Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-2pm

A few summers ago, my wife and I were driving through Aguascalientes in the heart of Mexico. We stopped for gas at one of the downtown Pemexes, and the attendant was working on a gorgeous taco, brimming with juicy carnitas. It was lunchtime, so I asked where he got it and was directed two blocks down to Taco Loco (silly name, great tacos). When we got there, we found a small, family-operated place with Mama hand-making tortillas, Papa pulling carnitas, and the daughters chopping a salsa cruda. A dozen tortillas, a pound of meat, and a bowl of salsa: $3. We went to a small metal table with folding metal chairs, ordered a couple of beers, and dined like royalty.

You can imagine our surprise to find something similar out in Mason, one of the Hill Country's most romantic and creative towns. We had stopped in town to try a sample from the new winery, Sandstone Cellars, owned by Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, with the mighty capable hands of Don Pullum as winemaker. While there, we noticed an old gas station that had been converted to a restaurant. It looked just like a central Mexico taqueria, complete with outdoor seating at metal tables with fold-up chairs. When I asked about the place, it turned out Scott and Manny owned it, too. But the story of how they came about having a restaurant in Mason was amazing.

Scott and Manny met in college in San Antonio. Manny had come from Mason; Scott had come from Des Moines. After college, they both went north. Scott went to Yale, got a master's degree in music, then headed west, where he became a studio musician, playing viola on hundreds on film scores, among them Titanic and Jurassic Park. In the meantime, Manny went back home to Mason.

With royalty payments building steam, Scott was able to put some money into a project he and Manny had talked about for years. Manny's mother, Santos Silerio, had moved from Durango, Mexico, in the Sixties. She raised eight children and developed a reputation in Mason for being a phenomenal cook. Scott and Manny wanted to put together a restaurant built around Santos' recipes. As Scott says, "Santos is not only our namesake, she is our backbone, and her recipes are central to everything we do." They realized their dream in 1998.

Our appetite whetted, we decided to take some wine and move over to the restaurant. Mason is dry, so to have a drink you have to bring your own, and though a beer would have been nice, we decided to carry in an ice-cold bottle of McPherson Rosé – bought from Sandstone Cellars for $10 – along with a couple of borrowed wine glasses. They had several other excellent wine choices available, including McPherson's Sangiovese ($16) and Delaney Vineyard's delicious Sauvignon Blanc ($14), but the Rosé seemed like the right choice.

The menu is simple, straightforward, and Mexican. You order at the counter, and Santos starts making your food then. Nothing other than the salsas (four delicious and completely different versions) and the meats are prepared in advance. If you feel like watching, you can marvel at Santos' dazzling technique as she takes a small ball of masa and forms your taco or gordita while you stand there. We watched for a few minutes until we realized that what she was doing was so far beyond our abilities that we could never imitate it. We made our orders and went outside to the pleasant patio.

Just to make sure we touched on Tex-Mex, we started with chips and queso ($4.95), but these bear no resemblance to chain versions. Instead, they are made from scratch with white cheese and smoky poblanos, along with crispy chips that are fried on the premises by Santos. With that delicious appetizer, a nice breeze blowing through, and a good bottle of wine, we were happy to wait while Santos made our lunch. My wife ordered the Tex Mex Gordita Plate ($5.95), two corn gorditas filled with chicken, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Santos' gorditas are plump and crisp on the outside with a steamy, rich, soft interior. The chicken was juicy and spiced to perfection.

I ordered a Fajita Gordita Plate ($7), with corn gorditas (flour is the norm here). The order comes two to a plate with beef, chicken, or shrimp (50 cents extra) stuffed in along with cheese, grilled onions, and poblano peppers with a side of chunky guacamole. I relinquished one of my fajita gorditas for the chance to have a Barbacoa Gordita ($5.95 for a plate of two), a melt-in-your-mouth corn gordita full of tasty barbacoa with chopped onions, cilantro, and limes on the side. It was pure heaven.

Which just about describes the whole experience. The trip takes about two hours. You might have missed Mason in your weekend travels. Don't miss it now. Santos Silerio learned her craft feeding eight hungry children. Try the food, and you'll wish you could talk her into subbing for your mom now and then.

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