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From push-cart to downtown brick-and-mortar, the brothers behind beloved taqueria Vaquero Taquero hope to 'gentefy' Austin

Vaquero Taquero employee Alan Jasso serves plates to customers at the bar of the restaurant's new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas on Sept. 26, 2021.
Ella Malena Feldman
Austin American-Statesman

Late nights on Sixth Street just got a little tastier. Vaquero Taquero, the street-style taqueria that started as a push-cart before expanding into its first brick-and-mortar in North Campus in 2019, debuted its second restaurant earlier this month at 603 Sabine Street, tucked between Sixth and Seventh Streets.

During the week, the new Vaquero Taquero will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. But on Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant won’t close its doors until 3 a.m. — when the masses are drunk, tired of dancing, and looking for a meal before calling their Uber. 

PHOTOS: Vaquero Taquero opens new Austin downtown location near Sixth Street

Brothers and owners Daniel and Miguel Cobos are hoping to establish Vaquero Taquero as the go-to spot for late night food on Sixth.

“We have late night hours, like Mexican taquerias,” Miguel Cobos said. “After the bar, you show up drunk — we are your taqueria downtown.”

Downtown, Vaquero Taquero will offer the same bites that have made it so beloved in North Campus: moles, guacamole, chips, salsas, rice, beans, quesadillas and, of course, tacos. The taco lineup includes border-style trompo al pastor, bistec, tinga de pollo, chicken mole, rajas poblas, and nopales, with corn and flour tortillas made in-house.

Vaquero Taquero serves a variety of authentic Mexican foods like Rajas tacos at the restaurant's new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas. Sept. 26, 2021.

Eat up: Best tacos in Austin

That familiar menu is being paired with an entirely new set of beverages. The Cobos brothers are unable to secure an alcohol license for their North Campus location, but they’ve scored one for Sabine Street, and they’ll be using it to sell craft cocktails and beers. Right now, they’ve got margaritas, a “Mexpresso” coffee cocktail, and local beers, but they’re hoping to expand that menu — a tres leches rum-based cocktail is in the works, and they're looking to import artisanal beers from Mexico. The new location also has an espresso machine, which the owners bought second-hand for a tenth of the retail price and refurbished themselves.

Vaquero Taquero co-owner and brothers Daniel Cobos, left, and Miguel Cobos, right, stand in front of the restaurant's new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas on Sept. 23, 2021.

That DIY attitude has been key to Vaquero Taquero’s success. The Cobos brothers spent the past five months building their new restaurant from the ground up, teaching themselves how to paint, weld, woodwork, and set up ethernet cables for their registers. They received financial support from local non-profit PeopleFund, took loans from friends, and funneled every dollar Miguel was getting from his full-time job at Dropbox into the business.

Their work paid off earlier this month, with a “punk and rowdy” opening night that featured ska outfit Los Kurados, hip-hop duo Los Kid Brothers, beat-maker Dr. Loops and lefty country group Texas Textbooks, who performed on a stage the Cobos brothers built themselves.

“We opened up with not money to pay the next rent,” Miguel said. “But here we are. We’re making rent, we'll be alive one more month. And the opening was very successful. So yeah, it's a good sign.”

Vaquero Taquero has a new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas. Sept. 26, 2021.

Vaquero Taquero doesn’t make a massive profit margin, Miguel said. As he put it — “we can't stop swimming, we’ll drown.” That’s partially because as Austin experiences rapid gentrification and seems to get more expensive by the day, the Cobos brothers are committed to keeping their taqueria low-priced and accessible. At Vaquero Taquero, tacos and quesadillas go for around $3 to $5 a piece.

“We set a high volume at a lower price to be able to be accessible to people with lower incomes,” Miguel said. “We don't plan on being this overpriced spot that many places in Austin are getting like. As the social economic forces push everyone out of the neighborhoods that they've been in forever, we want to be able to combat that.”

The Cobos brothers grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and Monterrey, Mexico, eating the border region staples they’re now serving. It’s frustrating, Miguel said, for them to see taquerias in Austin without Mexican representation in the kitchen or ownership — especially when food is sold at out-of-reach prices.

“You rarely see Mexicans in those kitchens, which is kind of disrespectful in my own opinion,” he said. “You’re selling the culture that is theirs, and then make it inaccessible to the people that developed the culture.”

By keeping prices low, Miguel said he and his brother are hoping to “gentefy” Austin. The term is a play on the term gentrification that invokes the Spanish word for people, which is often used in expressions of solidarity. The phrase is catching on in Mexican-American communities as a way to describe the cultural reclaiming of neighborhoods and cities by the people who are being pushed out of them. Cobos cited Los Verdes, the Austin FC fan club, as a successful example of gentefication in his book.

The full Vaquero Taquero staff stands in front of the restaurant's new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas on Sept. 23, 2021.

In addition to accessibility, another element of that charge is cultural preservation. The Coboses are committed to embodying the food traditions of Southern Texas and Northern Mexico: their tortillas are hand-rolled, their al pastor pork is peeled fresh off of an outdoor trompo. It’s a way for the Coboses to pass down traditions to future generations of Texans and Mexicans, Miguel said. Plus, it’s sustainable.

“Nopal is a food that grows here, and it's super tasty,” Cobos said. “Things like kombucha, for example, or mate — how are these things so popular? Mate comes from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay. Kombucha comes all the way from Asia, when we have tepache, a Mexican fermented drink. There's so many good foods here that exist within our culture that we're just forgetting.”

Cutomers can place contactless to-go orders at a kiosk in Vaquero Taquero's new second location at 603 Sabine St. in Austin, Texas. Sept. 26, 2021.

As Vaquero Taquero continues to grow, the Coboses hope to include more and more marginalized communities in their cause. Inspired by the stories of queer friends and family members in Mexico, as well as their proximity to queer clubs like Barbarella’s and Cheer Up Charlie’s, the brothers are planning to debut “Taco Tuesgayz” nights every Tuesday on Sabine Street — coinciding with Barbarella’s “Tuesgayz” dance party — during which a portion of profits will be donated to organizations fighting homophobia in Mexico.

Low prices, convenient location, sustainable ingredients, and anti-discrimination politics may be enough selling points for some. If not, it's worth emphasizing that the tacos at Taquero Vaquero are good. Like, really good. Like, so good that Statesman food critic Matthew Odam called the business one of the city’s best taco trucks, back when the Coboses were in their push-cart days. And they’ve come a long way since.

Read: Some of Austin's best taquerias competing at Migas Fest in October