I don’t mean to eat as many tacos as I do, but the smell draws me in, always. It’s that hot aroma of seasoned meat that leads me to several mediocre taco stands: a chain store, a restaurant that uses too much sauce, a truck with grease sweating from its windows. The peppery cloud of air wafts in the aimless Dallas breeze, and it always leads to tacos.
It’s hard to move to Texas—Dallas especially—because it’s a place where roots mean so much. I’m surrounded by folks who’ve stayed in one place their whole lives, then moved to the big city—people who were born and raised in tiny towns out west that, despite the state’s vastness, everyone recognizes. This is strange to me. I’ve moved in all directions across state lines from the time I was a child, roaming and shifting to fit the culture where I stand in the moment, but never really finding home.
The only thing I can wrap my head around here are the tacos. There are a lot of tacos.
The river here—well, they call it a river—is the Trinity. It’s a shallow crick on the outskirts of town that runs dry more than flows. I go sometimes because finding nature is hard to do here, and once I saw a coy dog standing on its banks, drinking from the muddy water, and I figured that counted.
After a visit to the Trinity one evening, I ended up lost. One missed turn led me down a series of strange back roads: Cadiz Street, Rock Island Way, Riverfront, Memorial Drive. In the distance, the county jail. To my left, Cut Rate River Liquor and Cowboy Bail Bonds. It was getting dark. But then, a burst of neon flooded my car. Like a mirage in the sprawl it appeared—what looked to be a log cabin decorated in florescent bulbs.
The lights welcomed me, guided me toward the hub of people waiting outside the front doors. I pulled up in my dirty Civic with my old Pennsylvania plates to the gas pumps. There were too many people at the front door for it to be just a gas station. I could see a steaming cart that sold elote outside. In the background, a car wash. There was a good mix of folks, a line about ten deep: Businesswomen and -men getting off work, a young family with a sleeping baby, a twenty-year-old dude and his broad-faced pitbull with pink eyes, a man with tangled brown hair and a forearm tattoo of a skeleton with a gun in its mouth.
The odor of the hot corn was masked by another unmistakable smell—tacos. That, it seemed, was what everyone was waiting for. They stood, quietly in front of a window that held a small, simple menu: Cash only. $1.62 each. Breakfast tacos, chicken fajita, beef fajita, picadillo, barbacoa, pastor. I got in line.
Waiting for my food—one of each taco—I noticed an open field between the gas station and the on-ramps to several highways. It’s part of the Fuel City’s compound. A herd of longhorns lives there. They share the pasture with a drove of white donkeys. I chose a seat on a picnic bench next to the animals and took my first bite.
Fuel City, with its gas and tacos and animals, became an obsession. I looked up the owner, wondering who would build a gas station with the tagline Where dreams come true. It’s the vision of a man named John Benda, a 68-year-old idealist and Texan through and though. He created the gas station-ranch as a respite from city life to show people in Dallas what Texas is like beyond the highways, malls, and sprawl.
Still, the compound itself is cluttered with strange stuff and everything within the Fuel City property has its own sign. The car wash’s sign reads “Famous Car Wash.” A life-sized statue of Sasquatch has one too: “Sasquatch.” The barn where the donkeys live: “the ranch.” The taco window’s glowing letters read “TACOS” in red.
Benda bought these eight acres in 1999, and since then he’s managed to cram in a convenience store, cheap gas, a car wash (biggest and cheapest in town at five bucks and free vacuums!), an extraordinarily small swimming pool guarded by a giant, green dinosaur, the 24-hour taco stand, and of course, the ranch with his longhorns and donkeys. Benda told me he used to have zebras and a white buffalo, but the city of Dallas ticketed him.
Benda rents the taco space to a cook, and it’s a different world inside that window—a register constantly opening and closing, bodies moving and stuffing the small street tacos into Styrofoam to-go boxes. I learned, over time, that if you order three tacos, you may get four or sometimes six, depending on the amount you put in the tip jar. You can’t chat much with the people taking orders, but I like to believe a good spirit can win you more food.
The tacos—served with onions and cilantro—are good. What else can be said? That a reporter from the Dallas Observer recently named them the worst in Dallas but that it’s clear he missed the point? That they taste like something you’ve never tasted before, but always craved. That Benda’s vision of a Texas where all your dreams come true could only be fully realized if people from all walks of life gathered together. And sure, we might get gas here because it’s cheap and by the highway. We might end up here because we get lost. But we keep coming back. Without the tacos, would we return? Would we eat and sing karaoke from a truck with speakers and gaze out at the longhorns with hope in our eyes?
Back on that first night, I can still remember biting into the pastor taco. My shoulders relaxed. I nearly cried. It was relief in warm shell, a chance to catch my breath and get my bearings. The man with the pitbull sat down at a table nearby and split a box of tacos with his dog. “Good, right?” I could hear him whispering to the pup in a soft voice, his face shaded as the night grew darker, Fuel City’s lights bright behind him with the elote stand steaming in the background.
In the top window in the center of it all, Benda has placed a red neon sign:
“Welcome. You are HOME.”