Some of the Best Tacos in Texas Hill Country Are on a Sleepy Road Outside San Antonio
Nora's Tacos is worth the drive to Sabinal (population: 1,696).
When most people talk about Texas' Hill Country region, they’re usually referring to an area just outside of Austin that draws millions of visitors a year—namely the trail (a.k.a. Wine Road 290) that leads to tourist-friendly Fredericksburg, and all of the stellar barbecue spots and swimming holes in between.
While it's certainly worth a look if you want to sample buttery slabs of brisket alongside spectacularly distinctive Tempranillos, Mourvèdres, and rosés, a case can also be made for Uvalde County. A lesser explored corner of Hill Country easily reached from San Antonio, the area is best known for its nightly bat flights and daily Frio River dips. And while its restaurant scene is relatively small, a recent trip revealed a few musts, including The Laurel Tree's dynamic Saturday dinners; the secluded canyonside tasting room of the Lenoir-centric Lost Maples Winery; and the downright terrific Nora's Tacos.
If you're staying in Utopia, Concan, or Leakey, Nora's is a natural stop on the drive back to the airport—a beacon of light, hope, and freshly made flour tortillas in the sleepy town of Sabinal (population: 1,696).
Now, I would never claim to be a taco expert; Texas Monthly has an editor for that. What I can tell you is that I've never had breakfast tacos as flavorful and filling as the ones at Nora's. Not in the cities that claim to make the very best: not in Houston, Amarillo, El Paso, or Alpine, and certainly not in this largely undeveloped stretch of the Lone Star State.
There are many reasons, beginning with the menu itself: a panic-inducing pantheon of protein and starch delivery systems that start out simple (entire columns devoted to bean, egg, and potato duets) but quickly branch off into ingredients like Spam, chicharrones, nopalitos, and Chihuahua-style dried beef (machaca). Owner Nora Herrera also offers popular lunch dishes throughout the day, including her two "star plates:" a generous serving of supreme beef, chicken, or shrimp nachos and a signature half-pound hamburger topped with cheese, ham, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onions, jalapeños, pickles, mayo, and mustard.
If those crowd-pleasers sound like concessions to Pace Picante Sauce palates, you're missing the point. Herrera isn't driven by the prospect of press accolades or James Beard Awards; the self-taught chef simply wants to satisfy everyone, whether that means welcoming their wildest suggestions and substitutions or refining the familiar refrains of pure comfort food. In fact, she'd rather not even call Nora's Tacos a "Mexican restaurant" because "we have a little bit of everything."
"Although it can get pricey [for us], we want the best for our customers," Herrera explains via a translator. (She was born in Mexico and moved to Sabinal in 1999.) "We serve Angus beef, all of our chicken is breast meat, and our ground beef has hardly any fat in it. When you come here, it’s like eating at home. If you prefer an item on our menu with something else, just tell us! We cook everything to your liking."
Believe it or not, Herrera has been this flexible since 2005. Back then, she was taking orders from a tiny 16' x 8' trailer, the weathered remnants of which can still be seen in front of the spacious counter service cafe Herrera opened last June. A true labor of love, the long overdue expansion features ample seating rather than a sad takeout situation and heavy wooden furniture that Herrera's husband made entirely by hand.
"He took my designs and desires, and made them a reality," she says. And yet, "This was the most difficult decision I ever made. I have a lot of great customers, but it's always scary thinking you may not succeed. We built our business backwards—by establishing ourselves and then taking the leap to something bigger."
One of the ways she earned a loyal following early on was by maintaining a grueling 5:30 a.m. till 2 p.m. schedule every day but Sunday. That routine is even less reasonable now that Herrera has tables to fill and hamburguesa hounds who are eager for extended dinner hours. As of last month, Nora's has stayed open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and added a slightly less exhausting Sunday shift that starts at 7. The kitchen also prepares heat-and-eat tacos for Sabinal's two gas stations by 6 a.m. six days out of the week because why not, right?
“All of my customers are hard workers who get started very early," says Herrera. "I like knowing that I’m able to give them a good meal beforehand."
When we ask her what a typical day is like, Herrera leaves very little time for sleep or her personal life. "I get up at 3:30 a.m. whether I'm tired, sick, or exhausted, and I go home once everything is clean and ready for the next day. During the week, that may be around 4:30 p.m., and during the weekend, that's around midnight."
No wonder why Herrera claims 90-percent of her locals swing by at least once a week. Some even tear into a breakfast taco or two every day, or call in "huge orders" for coworkers, students, tour groups, and ranch guests. Dove and deer season are especially daunting, leading to tickets full of as many as 60 tacos at a time.
Herrera doesn't mind any of it. After all, she didn't get into the food business by choice. As much as she loves slaying flautas, quesadillas, and salmon at home, she did it to "make ends meet" at a friend's restaurant and ultimately "fell in love with the industry because I like making people happy."
"After 14 years, everyone is family to me," she says. "I know the orders of numerous customers by heart; some will actually give me a hand signal and I’ll already know what they want."
As for how she feels about the country's political climate—a constant point of contention in Texas—Herrera insists, "We treat everyone with respect, as do my customers. You'll always feel comfortable when you come here to eat. In fact, we'll treat you better than our own family."