Taco Trail

In Search of Houston's Best Tacos at Sunny Flea Market

Houston's best tacos just might be at its largest flea market.

By Katharine Shilcutt July 8, 2013

"I dream about these tacos," my friend Joshua Martinez told me as we sat inside his restaurant, Goro & Gun, on the Fourth of July. Goro & Gun had just finished giving away the last of the free suckling pig it had roasted for Independence Day, and Martinez's mind was already on pork of another variety. Namely the al pastor tacos at Sunny Flea Market, which he claims are the best in Houston.

Early the following Sunday morning, we were setting out for the city's largest flea market—a sprawling labyrinth that covers 35 acres and appears to have accreted stalls over the years in Old West boomtown fashion. Nearly everything at Sunny Flea Market is made out of corrugated metal and particle board, and although it's an open-air market, the construction materials both trap the heat inside on a warm summer day and allow patches of rain through when it drizzles. It's impossible to emerge from a morning spent there not covered in a light sheen of sweat—and when it's raining, mud.

Yet the allure of Sunny Flea Market cannot be denied.

Here at the intersection of Airline and Gulf Bank in north Houston, it's the modern-day equivalent of a souq, or old-world bazaar, where you can purchase nearly anything under the sun if you're equipped with enough cash and patience. At least 50,000 visitors stream through Sunny on Saturdays and Sundays—the only days it's open—to visit the 1,000 different vendors who bring their wares to sell each weekend.

Custom-made boots and hand-hammered copper pots keep company next to stalls sporting used power tools and puppies that look far too young to have been weaned from their mother. You can buy original Nintendo NES cartridges that look brand new, book your daughter's quinceañera portraits, load a leather sofa into the back of your pickup truck, buy incredibly cheap Toms shoes and Aeropostale shirts that look suspiciously legitimate, ride a Ferris wheel or a pony or a carousel, drink a Tecate at one of the many cantinas dotted throughout the maze of stalls, play paintball at a tumble-down range for $1, obtain legal services from an abogado situated behind a mahogany desk under a tin roof with fiberboard walls, get your hair cut, your shoes shined and your immigration papers secured all in one place.

But the real draw of Sunny Flea Market is the food.

Al pastor taco with curtido and shrimp campechana at Pupusa Xpress.

Everywhere you look are food stands, most of them selling far more than just tacos. There are Sunny-specific specialties, like the giant sheet of chicharrón (crunchy pig skin) covered in refried beans, crema, and all variety of vegetables that you eat like a pork rind-based taco salad. Or the hollowed-out pineapple filled with a blend of fresh juices, chunks of fruit, and chamoy, the Mexican fruit paste that's sweet, sour, salty, and spicy all at once. Anyone not walking the aisles of Sunny on Sunday morning with an icy paleta (popsicle) or a cold beer was sipping on the pineapple drink as if they were strolling the beach at a resort.

But it's the tacos at a small food truck called Pupusas Xpress on the far end of the flea market that Martinez obssesses over. We ended up at a picnic table sporting a cherry-red tablecloth, topped with a giant jar of curtido (spicy pickled cabbage) and another, smaller jar of pickled peppers and onions. Curtido is a typically Salvadoran condiment, meant to cut the fattiness of pupusas with its tart vinegar twang. Here at Sunny, however, it's been repurposed with a spicy Mexican punch. You eat it with both pupusas and pastor.

And that's exactly what we ordered—along with a shrimp cocktail, topped with fatty hunks of avocado, and a few Big Gulp-sized glasses of horchata and limonada to cool the burn. At Sunny, nearly every food court has its own waitresses that work for the various food stands/trucks inside. They'll grab you by the arm and encourage you to eat their fare, guide you to a table, and begin heaping food on you. Just relax and let it happen. Nearly every food stand offers a blend of Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and American food although a few specialize in, say, just trompo or just chicharrones estilo San Leon. (Those are worth seeking out separately if you're not too full.)

A return trip to Sunny is necessary for the chicharron "salad" alone.

We tore through our tacos and pupusas that morning, admiring the perfect ratio of masa to cornmeal in the handmade tortillas and the fine, dark griddling that left them soft yet still crunchy on the outside. The tender hunks of al pastor inside had that same playful textural contrast: gently rendered fat gave way to crispy edges where the pork had been given a quick pass on a screaming hot flat-top. A scatter of cilantro, onions, and curtido gave the tacos an even more emphatic crunch, while lime juice and spicy green salsa brought even more heat into play. I couldn't get enough, tossing three tacos back with greedy glee. It was easy to see why Martinez dreams about the tacos at Pupusas Xpress.

As we left that day, I beat myself up for downing so many tacos and pupusas in one go. I should have saved myself for the old man churning ice cream in wooden barrels near Airline, or the giant trompo I spotted with a line of people to match its enormous size, or those chicharron salads that looked so fun to crunch my way through.

Luckily, there's always next weekend.

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