‘Eye on quality’: Mission James Beard winner grateful for accolade

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Ana Liz Pulled displays her James Beard medallion Thursday, June 13, 2024 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

When Ana Liz Pulido was named the winner of the 2024 Best Chef of Texas award at the James Beard Foundation awards ceremony on Monday in Chicago, she was so nervous onstage that she got tongue-tied reading the acceptance speech she’d written on her phone in English.

So Pulido, founder and owner of Ana Liz Taqueria in Mission, switched to her first language of Spanish — fitting considering the inspiration behind her celebrated recipes, which she described as rooted in Mexican tradition with some updates.

Case in point: the Vampiro, the tiny eatery’s signature and most popular dish, with choice of meat and encrusted with melted cheese.

“It’s so simple, traditional,” she said. “A little corn tostada with guacamole. … Usually people order fajita, because we do it in the carbon (style), so it has like a smoky flavor, and then we marinate it overnight. It’s super good.”

The company makes its tortillas the hard way, via the ancient Mesoamerican technique of nixtamalization, which among other things makes for a more flavorful and digestible tortilla. The taqueria uses yellow corn and blue corn, Pulido said.

“The blue one is just for the Vampiros and the espadas, and the yellow is for everything else: the tacos, the empanadas, the flautas, the chips on your table,” she said.

Family is another essential ingredient.

Pulido worked closely with her parents in developing all the recipes, and they also help out a lot in the kitchen, with her mother making all the flour tortillas and her father grilling the meat each day. Long before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, in 2019, she was bitten by the cooking bug thanks to her dad, Armando, who Pulido visited frequently when he lived in Mexico City and who owned two taquerias and a hotel in Reynosa, near which his daughter sold edible delicacies from a roadside stand.

Pulido, who was born in San Juan, spent her early childhood in Mexico before coming back to the Rio Grande Valley to live with her grandmother, still has fond memories of helping her father cook every New Year’s Eve.

Ana Liz Taqueria opened in 2021.

Ana Liz Pulido takes a selfie with a fan at her taqueria on Thursday, June 13, 2024 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Pulido was named a semifinalist in the Best Chef in Texas category last year but didn’t make the finals.

This year she was the only Texan to bring home a James Beard award, beating out talented chefs in the state’s major metro areas. Las Ramblas cocktail lounge in Brownsville made it into the James Beard “Outstanding Bar” finals the last two years but has found the top prize elusive, losing out this year to a drinking establishment in New Orleans.

Just being named a semifinalist brought a flood of curious new customers last year, including many who made it their first stop after coming in from the airport, Pulido said, admitting that the boom made her “super happy.”

Still, it was quite a scene for a restaurant with just six tables. Now, with the Best Chef award and Pulido’s fame spreading far and wide (she insists she doesn’t feel famous, just grateful), things have really gotten crazy, to the point that takeout service had to be suspended temporarily to prioritize the suddenly massive dine-in crowd.

The good news is that Ana Liz Taqueria won’t be tiny much longer.

Two weeks before Chicago, Pulido signed a lease on the space next door to her current spot in Mission Plaza, recently vacated by an insurance agency, which she was really hoping would happen because she didn’t want to move. With the new layout, three-quarters of the current footprint will be kitchen and the remainder of the combined spaces dedicated to the dining area, Pulido said.

When the expansion is complete, ideally in a month or two, she’ll be able to accommodate about 50 diners at a time instead of just 12, which should help whittle down the long lines. And while Pulido is thinking of opening a small tortilleria where people can grind their own corn (most Valley tortillerias use Maseca instant corn flour, she said), she has no immediate plans for additional stores beyond the current one on North Conway Avenue.

Pulido is more interesting in continuing to turn out the caliber of food that got her named Best Chef in the first place.

“I just want to keep an eye on the quality and the ingredients and all that,” she said.

Ana Liz Taqueria is located at 215 N. Conway Ave. in Mission and can be reached at (956) 591-0655.

Ana Liz Pulido from Ana Liz Taqueria on Thursday, June 13, 2024 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])