Ismael Leon grew up in the family restaurant business in Houston. “My parents put a crib in the Taquerias El Charro office for me when I was a baby,” he laughs. Now, as co-owner of two Taquerias El Charro locations with his mother, Maria Victoria Leon, Ismael plans to remain firmly rooted in what his family began twenty-eight years ago.
“For people from Jalisco, food is a big part of us,” says Ismael. “Most of my family is in the restaurant business. My mother has 15 siblings, and they are all in restaurants. Everyone on my dad’s side is in restaurants, except one of his brothers who stayed in Mexico to farm with my grandfather.” Farming is a major industry in Jalisco, and the region is known for its tequila agave crop, which Ismael’s grandfather produces.
“If you’re still in Jalisco, you’re still producing crops and farming. If you come here, you’re able to find a job in a restaurant and a place to stay. We’re very united. Everyone has their hands open,” says Ismael.
In fact, it was one of Ismael’s uncles, Jose Luis Melendez, who convinced Ismael’s mother Maria, and his father, also named Ismael, to relocate to Houston once they were married. He had been working as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Chicago, but they agreed that it was too far from their family in Mexico, and that Houston would be a better option.
Jose was the founder of the original Taquerias El Charro (“charro” meaning Mexican cowboy) in East Downtown in 1991. After working in Houston restaurants alongside his in-laws, the elder Ismael decided to open his own restaurant. In 1993, he opened Taquerias El Charro’s second location in what is now the International District. “We kept it a family chain, not a franchise. We preferred it that way so that we could ensure the best quality recipes,” says his son Ismael.
Ismael, the current owner, was a couple months old when the Beechnut location opened. He remembers that once when he was a toddler, he climbed out of his crib and sat down at a table with a customer, started eating the chips and babbling to the amused gentleman. To this day, this customer still frequents Taquerias El Charro, and will jokingly remind Ismael of that day.
Children that Ismael saw growing up eating at Taquerias El Charro are now bringing their own children to eat there as well. “This is some kids’ favorite restaurant,” says Ismael. “For one child, this is the only place he’ll eat. We make a special mini burrito for him, and he gets so happy.”
For customers who eat more than mini burritos, Taquerias El Charro has a wide selection of Mexican food representing not only Jalisco, but regions all over Mexico. “Northern Mexican food is very popular, and we do a little Tex-Mex, as with our melted cheese enchiladas,” says Ismael. The style of menudo that they make is particular to the Jalisco style, and the Leon’s own preference.
The menu offers delicious classics like tacos, fajitas, tortas, camarones (shrimp) in different styles, pozole (stew), barbacoa, burritos, and more. But the highest demand is for the gorditas, which come with beans and cheese, and your selection of meat, nopales (cactus), avocado, or poblano pepper. “We sell about 3,000 gorditas a week, and they are made fresh every morning,” says Ismael.
What’s more, Ismael claims that the deliciousness of the gorditas at this location have been impossible to replicate elsewhere. Their famous gorditas consist of your choice of fillings sandwiched between a thick, soft bottom layer of corn flour, and a thinner layer on top. From the scratch-made dough to the quality of ingredients, to the grilling process, Taquerias El Charro creates gorditas that customers and Ismael’s family members crave.
“We like to take care of our customers. We put pride in our work. Our family is so close, and we want our customers to feel like family too,” says Ismael. Underneath his work managing employees, accounting, and the daily running of the restaurants, keeping customers happy remains one of the most enjoyable aspects of his career.
Ever since he began working in the restaurant while attending Alief ISD’s Hastings High School, “doing something else never crossed my mind,” Ismael recalls. “Being born into this, it’s hard to explain. It’s a lifestyle. It’s in my blood.”
Taquerias El Charro
10860 Beechnut St, Houston, TX 77072