For the Love of Tacos (& Family):
UHD Alum Makes Good on Mother’s Dream
By Sheryl E. Taylor
When thinking of the Lone Star State, a few things quickly come to mind … football, BBQ, and sweltering heat … what about a food lover’s paradise? It’s true. Texas, particularly Houston, is considered a culinary melting pot that never disappoints – and in fact, often surprises.
Take Houston’s Spring Branch District. Not known as the hotbed of Mexican food, Spring Branch nonetheless hosts a restaurant that offers an authentic taste of Mexico: Tacos Doña Lena (TDL).
UHD alum Angel Cabrera runs the taqueria. His mother, Maria Magdalena “Lena” Cabrera, sold tacos in her native home of Mexico before coming to the U.S. in 1992. With the encouragement of her son, she continued to sell tacos, tamales, and other specialties for more than 25 years from her family’s apartment’s front porch.
“We were low income and didn’t have much. So, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was like, ‘Hey Mom, you were making money in Mexico, maybe you should do it again,'" he recalled. “That was how she paid for my UHD education.”
School Before Tacos
Cabrera, a self-described “really good student,” attended Spring Woods High School. He wasn’t documented at the time, and the trajectory of his life after graduating from high school was steeped in fear.
“I felt like my world was coming to an end,” he said. He credits an aunt who encouraged him to “not stop" his dream of earning a college degree. And Cabrera is glad he took his aunt’s advice. “UHD made me feel comfortable and not seen as an awkward and shy 18-year-old teenager who was afraid to speak up,” he remembered. “I couldn’t get financial aid, but UHD helped me with a Texas grant.” It all paid off for Cabrera, who graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish with a minor in Education.
After graduating from UHD, Cabrera was still undocumented and had aspirations of becoming a teacher. “I wanted to inspire young immigrant kids like me to follow their dreams and fulfill what they want to be in this life,” he said.
He was unable to become a teacher because of his immigrant status, but the universe had greater plans for him.
The Universe Called
For the next 10 years, Cabrera worked for Barnaby’s Café (Houston’s Woodway location) where he experienced varied positions in the business – from waiting tables to management. “I always knew I loved the restaurant business because of my mom,” he said. “She’s an extremely good chef and has so much passion for what she does.”
At this point, two events collided for Cabrera: a 30-something life crisis and a change in DACA status. “I was at a point in my life when I was considering whether I should earn my master’s degree or I should do what I’ve seen my mom work so hard for her entire life,” said the 37-year-old. “While I was at UHD, I felt that I had to have a more traditional profession to make a difference and be a role model. But I realized that I wanted to make my mother’s dream of owning her own restaurant a reality.”
Dream to Fruition … Even During a Pandemic
It didn’t take long for Carbera to realize that opening a restaurant could actually be a reality for his family. “I told myself that if it doesn’t work out, I can die happily knowing that I tried,” he said, laughing.
With his husband, Brian Ponce, and mother on board, the hard work began. They eventually landed on an abandoned store front in a retail shopping center off of Hammerly Boulevard. “I always tell people who want to start a business that you should always talk about it,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if your friends think you’re crazy, and they’re tired of hearing it. That’s the spark of you dreaming big. It begins with a dream and wanting it so badly, especially when you come from a really hard background.”
Fast forward to 2020 at the onset of an unprecedented pandemic, yet Tacos Doña Lena opened. The restaurant is named after Cabrera’s mother, “doña” is a Spanish title for women, akin to “Mrs.” Since opening its doors, the restaurant has been featured twice (once on the cover) in the local LGBTQ publication OutSmart Magazine for its “Gayest & Greatest” Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Mexican in 2020 and 2021 and on Yelp’s community list of the Top Places to Eat in 2021. Cabrera was also named among Houston Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” Class of 2022.
Cabrera is quick to credit the restaurant’s success to the love and courage of his parents for bringing him to the states, and, of course, his mother’s recipes. “I bring the customer service and good vibes. She brings the flair of the food,” he said.
The Reward and The Gift
While holding back tears, Carbera shares his greatest achievement – one that’s all due to the success of the restaurant: gifting his parents a house. “To this day, my dad sometimes tells me that he can’t believe that it’s his house,” he said. “When my dad came to the U.S., he was 19 years old, and now he’s in his 50s with his own home.”
In a 2020 Houston Business Journal article, Carbera was asked what he learned during the first year of opening his business during the pandemic: “Never, ever give up on your dreams. When people look at Tacos Doña Lena, I want people to see more than a restaurant. It was just a dream. I want people out there to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from; it doesn’t matter your background; it doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant … as long as you’re determined to achieve that goal, you can do it.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.