Rental condos, kitschy souvenir shops, and golf carts are the stuff of summer vacation for tourists on South Padre Island. But residents prefer beach barbecues, bobbing on waves atop a floatie—unicorn shapes are popular—and, most of all, elotes served on the cob or in a cup (referred to as elote en vaso or sometimes esquites) but always slathered with mayo, cheese, and a dusting of chili powder. You can find them at the far north end of the barrier island, where buildings give way to windswept sand dunes. Networks of families and longtime friends cruise the beach in retrofitted vans and school buses. They are known as eloteros, which is more of a catchall name for mom-and-pop trucks that specialize in the corn dish but also sell raspas, sliced mangoes doused in chamoy, and gummy bears, fruit cups, and beerless micheladas.
Starting at Beach Access 5, visitors have the option to drive onto the beach, and just about everyone does. By midafternoon, the row of trucks, campers, and occasional horse trailers stretches on for miles. Elaborate campsites with grills, dining tables, and assorted beach gear are audiences for a four-piece mariachi group—dressed in green charro suits and straw hats—that plays for tips. Between the cars and waves is a strip of sand just wide enough for eloteros to drive and sling corn.
Elotes are a street food staple throughout Mexico, and the garden-variety version is pretty simple: an ear of grilled corn dressed with mayo, cotija cheese, chili powder, and a splash of lime. Some eloteros add their own flair, but many in SPI stick to the standard, with corn cooked in boiling water and butter. Marranadas are the exception. The Frito pie–inspired treat includes kernels of corn, cheese, chili powder, and heart-stopping portions of mayo served over Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Some of the island’s forty licensed eloteros offer a version of this recipe, but none have been doing it as long as El Rey Del Elote.
As the family story goes, Frank Torrez Sr. started selling elotes from the trunk of his car in the mid-1980s. After several years of hustling at local pulgas, or flea markets, he bought a van, and in 1991 he took his elotes to the beach. Back then there was no more than a handful of eloteros there, and Frank Sr. outlasted them all, passing the business on to his son, Frank Torrez Jr., in the late aughts.
During the peak of his reign, Frank Jr. managed a fleet of six El Rey Del Elote vans (only two remain, as the business has shifted to using food trucks). Whether he is, or ever was, the king is a matter of debate. There is also La Reyna Del Elote, owned by Mayra Sanchez, who happens to be Frank Sr.’s daughter, and Ruby’s Elotes, owned by Frank Sr.’s sister, Maria Salazar, a longtime elotera in her own right. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new generation of eloteros has emerged, including those who run Snack El Chavito, El Mechon, Snack El Papi, El Scooby Doo Snack, and Elotes La Machaca, to name a few.
Kelly and Luis Hernandez started their business, Snack Attack, in a converted sea-blue school bus a few summers ago. The couple was familiar with the terrain, having sold floaties, a beach business nearly as ubiquitous as elotes. Luis’s mother, Neri, who, incidentally, got the couple into floaties and runs Elotes El Neri, urged them to give elotes a try.
Luis had wanted a snack business ever since meeting Kelly at a raspa stand in Harlingen more than a decade ago. “I wasn’t really into the idea of a snack truck until [Luis] said he thought it was really cool,” Kelly said. Neri got them into the business, and Luis’s uncle, the owner of three Snack El Chavito trucks, helped them navigate the basics. Another elotero, Luis Vega, owner of El Mechon, turned them on to cooking the ears of corn in butter and water instead of salt and water. Another key to the trade is securing savory white corn sourced from Mexico, as opposed to the sweeter yellow corn commonly found north of the border. Frank Torrez Jr. buys his by the ton on a weekly basis.
Becoming an elotero is not always as obvious a vocation as it was for the Torrez family. Take, for example, Destiny and Jorge Herbert, the husband-and-wife team behind La Jeepeta one and two, elote trucks named after a popular Nio Garcia song. During the height of the pandemic, the Herberts were employed at an immigrant detention center for children in Brownsville. It was a depressing place to work—even more so for Destiny, who was pregnant at the time. One day, while perusing Facebook Marketplace, Jorge came across an advertisement for used elote trucks being sold by the elote king himself, Frank Jr. The Herberts had never worked in food service, “but Jorge is impulsive,” Destiny said. “He also has this attitude that if someone else could do it, why not us?”
Admittedly, they needed to learn a lot about operating a viable elote truck. “We didn’t even know that vans were allowed on the beach,” Destiny said. The learning curve was steep. They poured their life savings, about $25,000, into a pair of vans, borrowing another $30,000 from loans and credit cards. Two months later, one of the vans broke down, threatening to bankrupt their fledgling business before it got started. But the Herberts were determined. “We’d come too far to give up,” Destiny said. They scrounged up the money to buy a replacement van. His van is painted blue, and hers is hot pink. They work long hours, getting up at 4 a.m. during the busy summer months and going home after dark. They haven’t managed to break even yet, but they have paid down their debt. Eventually they want to buy more vans, Destiny said.
Elote vehicles primarily come in two varieties: van or bus. In either case, they are painted in bright colors to cover their blemishes. Pictures of the products also draw eyes. The insides are gutted: seats are removed; a commercial-grade fridge, an exhaust fan, and a stove are installed; and a generator is strapped to the rear to keep the fridge running. They have a do-it-yourself look that still meets health department standards.
For some, elotes are a side hustle. Roberto Andrade’s weekdays are filled with toil and steel at the Port of Brownsville. His weekends are spent with his son, Emmanuel, at Snack El Papi. Manual Reyna of Manny Snack has a similar situation. Elotes are not the top-selling snack for every vendor, though they remain among the most popular. It is hot, after all, and something refreshing may be preferable to steaming corn. For an investment of between $300 and $500 worth of ingredients, an elotero may take home as little as $600 in profit per day. One may wonder why they go through all the trouble in the first place. As Reyna explained one summer evening in July, this business is about more than money or, for that matter, corn. “It’s about spending time with your family,” he said, waving to Elotes Nito 2 as it passed by, “and, it’s fun.”