When Steve Guerrero started running NIOSA’s bean taco booth about six years ago, the product just wasn’t up to his standards.
The corn tortillas were store-bought and the beans were out of a can. So, he set out to convince the organizers of A Night in Old San Antonio that his team could do much better.
So, they started soaking their own beans and whipping them into a fine mash, and they rolled out their own balls of masa, which were then flattened into tortillas and cooked on comals over burning charcoal.
The result was a hit with more than the committee. Guerrero’s Tacos de Frijoles booth has developed a local following that grows a little bigger each year.
I had the chance to work with Guerrero, his wife, Cynthia and a host of family and friends on Tuesday, NIOSA’s opening night. Most every year for the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working in a series of different NIOSA booths, where I’ve helped make items such as Shypoke Eggs, Horseshoe Sausage, Fried Mushrooms and Bongo K-bobs. This year, it was time to try my hand at bean tacos, and it was a case of love at first bite.
For the ones who do the prep work before the gates open, the beans need to start cooking at around 2:30 p.m. In the large pots, which hold about 8 pounds of beans, go plenty of bacon grease, fresh onion and a heap of spices, all of which need time to cook together. When the beans are ready, one of the volunteers will take out that immersion blender and go to work, punching it up and down in the mixture until the texture is the consistency of peanut butter, says Victor Gutierrez, who has been volunteering with Guerrero somewhere on the NIOSA grounds for about 26 years.
Together with Gene Arevalos, they have worked tamales, wine, ice cream, enchiladas, quesadillas, you name it. They’re like family. They may only see each other once a year, for NIOSA, but it’s always a reunion that they look forward to, even if they work all four nights of the event, Gutierrez says.
Whenever a task needs to be done, you’ll likely find someone putting on a pair of gloves in order to go to work. It could be preparing the masa, which requires someone to add some of that beloved bacon grease as well as water to the corn mixture and then work it all together so that it is pliable enough. The corn dough is then rolled into balls before being pressed out to the right thickness. Each tortilla is then slapped on the hot griddle and left to cook until golden and perfectly hot to the fingertips.
My first assignment was to help with rolling out the masa balls. We finished off a batch of masa, which resulted in several hundred balls, which were refrigerated until needed. Then Guerrero, Gutierrez and others led me through the paces of pressing them using a metal press. To keep the masa from sticking to the press, each ball of dough was placed between two sheets of plastic that had been slicked down with a little, you guessed it, bacon grease. Gutierrez mentioned how his mother used to use waxed paper for that, which would make sense because the tortilla wouldn’t stick to that.
Once the hot tortillas were fully cooked, they were then wrapped in a towel inside a basket in order to stay warm until one of the women in the front line needed to fill an order. At that point, a steaming hot corn tortilla was placed on a plate, then smeared with plenty of beans before being crowned with shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese. Salsa and salt are available if you want to dress your taco up.
There were few questions asked, though a couple wanted their tacos without beans but extra cheese. Cynthia Guerrero, Steve’s wife, and her team in front were happy to oblige.
Of course, a taco or two had to be sampled, for purposes of quality control, you understand. And the answer is a resounding yes. I’m glad I hadn’t tasted these six years ago when everything was processed and prepared in advance. The creamy smooth beans with their cumin, garlic powder, onion and bacon grease was made even better by the addition of the hot tortilla as well as the cheese that just melted into everything else. Tomatoes, lettuce and salsa just made it all the more wonderful.
Tacos de Frijoles is on the way to anticucho booth. Make sure you stop for a taco to give you strength and patience while you’re standing in the long line there. You’ll really be glad you did.
Steve Guerrero shared the outline for his family’s recipe for beans, which are made each night of NIOSA at the Tacos de Frijoles booth. You can make them using canned beans, but they’re better if you soak your own pintos overnight and then start.
1 pound pinto beans, soaked overnight or canned
1 onion, finely chopped
½ cup bacon grease
Salt, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Cumin, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
In a large stock pan, add the beans and onion with the bacon grease and the seasonings. Bring to a boil, then let simmer covered for at least 2 ½ hours or until the beans are soft. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Using an immersion blender, blend everything in the pot until it resembles creamy peanut butter in sight and texture.
Spread the beans on a hot corn tortilla. Top with cheese, tomato and lettuce, if desired. Serve with salsa.
Makes 10-12 servings.
Adapted from Steve Guerrero