That’s because this sublimely informal food establishment, which sits under ancient spreading trees beside the railroad tracks just north of the East Freeway, might just as well call itself Camp Taco. Both for the mesquite-charcoaled meats and the singular outdoorsy ambiance, attendance at Karancho’s is a peak Houston experience.
The taqueria rambles in all its orange-hued glory across an acre or two of land, with a pony in its stall in a meadow at the east and a brace of open pits spewing forth mesquite charcoal smoke at the west, the aromas beckoning the traffic that whizzes by on adjacent Sheldon Road.
In between are two food trucks spliced together and a willy-nilly series of dining patios shaded by umbrellas and makeshift pavilions. Ceiling fans churn the air and the chuffs of woodsmoke that pour from one end of the truck compound, where achiote-daubed half chickens sputter over hot coals.
On the weekends, a pair of the big upright skewers called trompos appear out front, where great pyramids of pork, capped by a whole pineapple, twirl over the fire, to be hacked off into waiting corn tortillas.
The fat cartoon spires of a pumpkin-colored bouncy castle rise to the north edge of this improbable compound, while to the south, past potted plants and neatly tended agaves, stands a two-story wooden house painted the taqueria’s signature eye-popping orange. Inside are restrooms labeled “Karanchos” and “Karanchas.” (You can’t look up the word--which is slang for "smart aleck"--in a Spanish dictionary, so don’t even try.)
There are swings and a slide and a jungle gym. Bright-striped serapes topped with plastic cover many of the tables. Mexican music pips away brightly over the sound system. A bumptious assortment of furnishings accommodates the crowd, from high bar stools to wrought-iron patio sets to wooden picnic tables, with one section of card tables and folding chairs set under a swoop-roofed carport.
It’s a world unto itself, formed by a process of eccentric accretion and operating according to its own rules, much in the manner of Irma’s, the downtown folk environment wrought by Irma Galvan; or the Shack (nee the Love Shack), Joe Duong’s remarkable burger playground out in Cypress.
And of course Karancho’s smells like heaven, if heaven were forested in mesquite trees. Tastes like it, pretty much, too. I doubt that I’ll ever forget my first bite of moist, charcoal-tinged chicken here: the way the orange-tinted skin snapped and the fat spurted; or the way chopped onion, cilantro and a big squeeze of lime heightened the flavors once I tucked the meat into floppy little corn tortillas.
Fat jalapeños toreados, blistered over the fire, came with the chicken, and every once in a while I’d nip into one of those. Or I’d tuck in a few soft, ripe slices of the avocado I had ordered on the side — a great, green velvety heap that is an affordable luxury here. (But then, everything is affordable at Karancho’s, where you’ll have to work hard to spend more than 25 bucks.)
Every once in a while, I’d just lay off the tacos I had been rolling and chomp into a chicken leg or wing, chasing it with a flap of grilled onion. I had wonderfully delicate pineapple agua fresca to go along, served from a cheerful little juice bar in a Styrofoam vase that held about a quart. It was just the kind of agua fresca I long for in a Texas summer: gentle and not too sweet, the fruit a whisper rather than a shout.
Later, I found that I like the jamaica (hibiscus flower) and limonada aguas frescas almost as much as the piña. And I discovered a couple of tacos that I promptly elevated into my personal taco hall of fame.
The first is the wonderfully earthy, stewlike asado de puerco with its deep-red guajillo tint and its warm spices. Tucked into diminutive, doubled-up corn tortillas with a scatter of crunchy raw onion and a tingle of lime, the pork is nothing short of fabulous.
So are the chilitos rellenos, mini poblano peppers stuffed with white cheese and barely filmed with batter for a turn through the frying pan. Placed atop a schmear of refried beans on a double layer of corn tortillas, these little chiles turn into splendid tacos with their own internal heat source — no salsa required. (If you must, there is a fierce, apple-green jalapeño puree in squeeze bottles on every table, right alongside your individual plastic buffet of chopped cilantro, onion and lime wedges.)
Curiously, I have never had much luck with the tacos de trompo (the ones sliced off the revolving skewers) so beloved by my friend and fellow taco fiend Jay Rascoe, who blogs under the name of Guns and Tacos. Real trompo-style tacos, of the type you would find in Mexico, are a rarity in Houston because of city regulations, and even here in Channelview, the trompos only come out on the weekend.
Other days, if you order tacos de trompo here, you’ll get standard pork al pastor, tinted with achiote and a bit on the dry side. It’s good enough, but it can’t hold a candle to the juicy, multidimensional asado de puerco.
If you’re a tongue fan, you may enjoy Karancho’s rough-cut version, which contains both soft and crisper bits, and which had a distinctive organ-meat funk the day I tried it. If you want your tongue to taste as mild as beef cheek, this isn’t the one for you; but if you want a tongue taco with some swagger, check Karancho’s edition.
The bistek here is a bit of a letdown, simply because it has been chopped and cooked until it resembles pulverized roast beef, without much of a smoky fajita-esque character. Still, I enjoyed it garnished and salsified inside a flour tortilla with melted cheese (the pirata on the menu); just as I did a similar pork version called the gringa. No pineapple on this gringa, though, to my disappointment.
I’ve packed along a torta laden with sloppy asado de puerco to take home, and found it delightful despite that fact that the toasty telera roll could have been better, and that the cheese component was melted rather than the crumbly queso fresco I would have preferred. I’m pretty sure that asado de puerco would taste good on one of my expired tennis shoes.
A whole chicken to go was packed up by the kitchen crew like a veritable treasure chest, bursting with limes and grilled onion hunks and whole blackened chiles, with a generous stack of corn tortillas curled up in the corner. No contest: That’s my favorite takeout chicken in town.
Every time I’ve hung out at Karancho’s, where I tend to linger far longer than I meant to, I’ve been helped by obliging young people dressed in the taqueria’s signature orange T-shirts. On my first trip, when I didn’t know the drill, I mistakenly ordered at the to-go window in front of the complex, facing the parking lot.
Without missing a beat, the young man who took my order finessed it with the waitress who would have served me had I taken a seat out back, the way I was supposed to, and ordered from the menu.
On another trip, my ability to pack away a big mess of tacos and call for more — plus another quart of piña while you’re at it — seemed to quietly amuse my server, who wore a charismatic modified Mohawk about an inch in length, with closely shaved sides.
On every occasion, I was surrounded by a rich mix of fellow Taco Campers: families with screeching toddlers come to grief on the jungle gym; dress-shirted businessmen scarfing down a quick lunch; tattooed roughnecks; straw-hatted caballeros debarking from massive Yukons.
Despite the triple-digit heat we’ve been having, I never once felt uncomfortable here. Something about the fans and the breeze and the scent of mesquite smoke makes everything okay. You can always press a cold bottle of Mexican Coke to your forehead if you start to feel warmish.
Or just go take a ride on the swings. It’s summer and you’re at Taco Camp.
620 Sheldon, Channelview