Mojarra frita (fried tilapia) at Taqueria El Cabrito in the Exxon station at the corner of University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
7 min

Somewhere deep in my hippocampus, elusive and almost impossible to recall when I need it, there is a memory that explains my affection for food made to order inside a gas station. Maybe it’s because, as I have noted before, my family lived down the street from a station, where my sensual pleasures were limited to rock-hard gumballs, a sleeve of Chuckles candy or just the air around me, thick with the fumes of fresh axle grease and high-octane fuel.

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No matter how many times I’ve dined at a gas station — whether fried boudin balls in No Man’s Land in western Louisiana or tom kha kai in Leesburg, Va. — I always experience a childlike thrill at finding something fresh to eat inside a place more dedicated to fueling your car than your body. I know that, culturally, we’ve long since passed the moment when gas-station eateries are novel, but that’s not how I think about these businesses. To me, they remain rare and awesome objects, worthy of appreciation just for existing, like a rainbow eucalyptus in the wild.

I don’t remember how quickly I got behind the steering wheel after learning about Taqueria El Cabrito, tucked inside an Exxon station in Silver Spring, but I’d like to think Usain Bolt couldn’t have kept pace with me. Once I arrived there, I discovered a hard and beautiful truth: This isn’t the only El Cabrito found inside a gas station. The brothers behind the small chain also have taquerias slipped into stations in Annapolis and Laurel, though sometimes under slightly modified names. They have full-fledged restaurants, too, each bearing the mark of the goat.

I learned this background from Miguel Aragon, a friend of the five Soto brothers who own or operate nine taquerias around Maryland. Oldest brother Alberto Soto owns six locations, Aragon tells me, while the next oldest, Raymundo, has three, including the Silver Spring shop. Aragon knows this because he sets up the payment systems for the taquerias. He also serves, as I have come to appreciate, as the brothers’ gringo handler.

The brothers hail from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where their parents still live. Their menus reflect many of the traditions of the state, where the cuisine, for a variety of reasons, has largely held fast to its Indigenous foodways. Inside this Exxon, you’ll find tlayudas, Oaxacan red mole, aguas frescas and barbacoa (though, sadly, not goat, as you might expect from a place whose name translates to “baby goat”). The food is largely executed by Jesus Soto, the middle brother, who leans on family recipes.

The Soto tlayuda is served more like a calzone than the kind of giant flatbread found at, say, Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, where each oversized tortilla is toasted and topped so generously that you begin to understand why the dish’s name is tied to abundance in the Náhualtl language. El Cabrito’s tlayuda may be short on showmanship, but it’s packed with more meats, beans and cheese than that tortilla can contain, especially if you order it with the campechano mix of proteins, which I suggest you do.

El Cabrito offers exactly one mole, but it’s solid: a streamlined, turbocharged take on Coloradito mole. Jesus doesn’t incorporate chocolate or fruit into this version. Instead, he lets three chiles — guajillo, poblano and ancho — take over the mole, making for a nutty, combustible sauce that lights a fire under these pieces of tender chicken.

Ordering here can, on some days, feel like a game of Go Fish. Do they have any mojarra frita (fried tilapia)? Do they have a pambazo sandwich? Do they have any horchata? Some afternoons, the answer is no, which is just the reality for a small counter-service operation with a large menu apparently designed for almost every taqueria in the chain. I offer this more as a cautionary note than as a criticism.

If you do happen to stop here on a day when Jesus has tilapia, don’t hesitate to order the mojarra a la Mexican, a whole head-on fish slathered in spices, including, much to my surprise, Lawry’s seasoned salt. Hey, if it’s good enough for brisket, it’s good enough for tilapia. The fish is deep-fried and then absolutely smothered in a tangle of diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and more, cooked down into a loose sauce. So simple, so perfect.

Should your appetite require something more modest than a whole head-on fish, the kitchen puts together a mean taco plate, featuring the kind of cuts, offal and otherwise, that don’t play in more trendy taquerias. The lengua is so soft and tender, it cuts like butter. The cecina de res, by contrast, demands more effort, giving your jaw a light workout while flushing your palate with salt and savory beef. The cueritos, or pork skin, is pure fatty pleasure, particularly when tucked inside a warmed tortilla, then garnished with chopped onions, cilantro and a generous pour of the chunky housemade salsa verde.

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Every time I’ve ordered tacos here, the tortillas have been pulled from a bag, and you know how I feel about that. Aragon tells me El Cabrito does make its own, too, but you have to ask for them. “If you know, you know,” he told me, “like the secret menu at Taco Bell.” So on the day we met at the taqueria, I asked Jesus for the homemade tortillas. He didn’t have any.

One of the best things about El Cabrito — well, aside from its pozole rojo, so spicy and comforting — is its desire to nurture those who embrace the business, starting with the five brothers who, as Aragon tells me, first take care of one another. They also take care of their communities. One day at the taqueria, I met a woman from Veracruz who now lives in the Silver Spring area. She used to drive all the way to the El Cabrito in Annapolis because she thought it was the only place in the DMV that served real Mexican food. I asked her if the brothers opened this location just for her. She laughed, but also said she’s now a weekly presence, the kind of alliance between customer and casual restaurant that no money can buy.

El Cabrito’s commitment to its community extends to the menu, where you’ll find big caloric platters such as El Ranchero and the aptly named Tres Animales. These plates are designed to feed those men and women who perform manual labor — to give them the energy to make it through the rest of their workday. One afternoon, I ordered the El Ranchero and was overwhelmed by its largesse: crusty flaps of cecina, thin seasoned strips of griddled chicken, slippery lengths of nopales and, for good measure, a pair of fried eggs. If I finished that plate, I’d be facedown on my keyboard. But I’d be happily facedown on my keyboard, dreaming of my next visit to this gas-station taqueria.

Taqueria El Cabrito

2514 University Blvd. West, Silver Spring, Md., 443-714-5857. (The owners have eight other locations around Maryland, including ones in Annapolis, Laurel and Baltimore.)

Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Nearest Metro: Wheaton, with a short walk to the shop.

Prices: $3 to $18 for all items on the menu.