The Taco Salad Will Make America Great Again. A Brief History. Sad!

By now you’ve seen Donald Trump’s Cinco de Mayo tweet (see above). In it, he declares his love for Hispanics while eating a taco salad—taco meat, tomatoes, cheese, whatever Mexican-like ingredients in an edible vessel—in his office. The self-contained very American food he was insincerely enjoying was set atop what looks like an image of his swimsuit-clad ex-wife, Marla Maples. Behind The Donald, we see desk drawers partially open. What a mess! Trump’s tweet came on the heels of his becoming the presumptive Republican nominee for president. You can look at taco salad in one of two ways. First, like the tweet, the taco salad is a pandering product of cultural mutation intended to make the mass consumption of Mexican-ish food and Latinidad palatable to the dominant Anglo culture. Or, as a result of endless cross-cultural culinary innovation, something that occurs when two traditions meet and get down. It’s neither good nor bad. The taco salad just is.

The dish began its slow journey to Trump’s desk in the 1950s when it was known as the Ta-Cup, an invention of Elmer Doolin, the founder of Fritos, as Gustavo Arellano writes in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Ta-Cups were sold at the Fritos restaurant in Disneyland. There was no stopping Fritos and the taco salad.

Not so fast. The edible tortilla-like bowl wasn’t yet the default vessel. One of the earliest references to “taco salad” was a recipe run by the Los Angeles Times. Submitted by a Mrs. Marilyn Jones, it was family favorite during hot weather. The salad utilized corn chips—not a fried tortilla bowl. A recipe serving 40 to 50 people published in the March 11, 1965, “Add a Touch of Old Mexico” installment of The Washington Post’s “Cooking for Crowds” column called for tortilla chips. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under History, News

Austin Tacos (Breakfast and Otherwise) Are Overrated

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

This is a taco with a handmade tortilla.

“This is Taco Country!” Those four words—painted on the burnt orange façade of San Antonio’s legendary breakfast taco haunt, Taco Haven—are carried in every Texan’s heart and stomach. They are as fundamental to the Lone Star State’s identity as Friday Night Lights, “Pancho & Lefty,” and Dr Pepper. This is true across our tortilla-based wonderland from Big Bend to the Piney Woods and South Texas to the Metroplex.

I’m not only referring to the fried envelopes whose broken shards litter much of our cultural landscape. No, I mean all the tacos: jaralillos de res, carne asada tacos smothered under a salty tarp of queso fundido at Tacos El Toro Bronco in El Paso; the ground beef-nestling airships that are Ray’s Drive Inn’s puffy tacos; the slivers of paprika-lacquered pork served across Oak Cliff; Brownsville’s many Sunday barbacoa huts; the big-city gals that love dressing up; the just-this-side-of-familiar menu at new regional restaurants; and, yes, breakfast tacos.

As part of the promotion for its 120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die issue, Texas Monthly is hosted an online reader poll to determine which Texas city has the best tacos. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the editorial package, but the poll we’re addressing is all fan voting.) Ultimately, Austin won the top spot with 42 percent of the votes. The Rio Grande Valley scored a 25 percent, and Dallas, took third place with 15 percent.*

That the capital city is in first place doesn’t come as a surprise. Austin has an incredible PR machine fueled by its perceived coolness compared to other Texas cities. Austin has barbecue. Austin has SXSW. It has breakfast tacos. And, with the assistance of New York food writers who have visited Austin during a big festival or lived in the city for a spell, it’s fooled many into believing breakfast tacos are Austin-style. Let’s take as an example an article run last week by Eater Austin claiming Austin as the home of breakfast tacos. The piece by Matthew Sedacca came off as a rush job and evidence of an editorial disconnect. That same day, Eater LA published Meghan McCarron’s excellent profile of Los Angeles breakfast state mecca HomeState. In her piece, McCarron writes “Austin, Texas, is not the home of the breakfast taco, but it is the place where they became an iconic dish. … It took self-conscious, self-mythologizing Austin to turn them into a thing.” While Sedacca at least acknowledged that Texas breakfast tacos have origins across the state, he mentioned only one other city, Corpus Christi. That the city cited wasn’t San Antonio—where breakfast tacos and tacos in general are so ingrained in residents’ DNA that they’re taken for granted until Austin asserts its PR supremacy—ignited a firestorm and a tongue-in-cheek petition to have Sedacca exiled from the Lone Star State. I chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Allow me to explain why. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Austin, breakfast tacos, History, Tex-Mex, Texas

Tacos Mariachi

MariachiLead

Cesar, the Tijuana donkey zebra, welcomes you to Tacos Mariachi.

For months I watched as demolition and renovation of the old Taqueria La Chilanga plodded along. I peeked in the windows, took photos, snooped (I mean, acted like a journalist), and waited. I got to talking to Jesús Carmona, owner of the restaurant replacing the husband-and-wife-run La Chilanga, and learned what was coming: Tacos Mariachi, a Tijuana-style taqueria. The idea excited me. In less than a year, Dallas had become home to Mi Lindo Oaxaca, an Oaxacan restaurant, La Norteña, a Sonoran-style tortilleria, and Resident Taqueria, a chef-driven Lake Highlands neighborhood spot. And soon, a joint would be slinging Baja California border-inspired fare, broadening Dallas’ taco diversity.

But I had to wait longer than expected. Tacos Mariachi’s opening was repeatedly delayed. My anticipation increased. The first opportunity I had, I bit into the seafood campechano, an octopus-propelled taco studded with juicy chopped steak held firm to a crisped flour tortilla by a layer of melted asadero cheese. Adding thin lines of tart salsa verde and fruity habanero-mango salsa transform the package into something as bright and playful as the patio mural honoring Tijuana’s iconic tourist attraction, the donkey zebra. The mural also includes cheeky statements like Hasta puedes tomar agua (You can even drink the water) and a streetscape representing the Mexican city’s Avenida Revolucion with painted structure outlines standing in for Banorte and Oak Cliff’s Araiza Tortilleria, where Tacos Mariachi gets its tortillas.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, Texas, West Dallas

Curbside Tacos: Leo’s Taco Truck, Tacos La Guera, Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla, and Mariscos Jalisco

IMG_9462

As far as taco capitals north of the border, it’s hard to beat Los Angeles. Often called the largest Mexican city outside of Mexico, the city is home to an intimidating array of tacos styles served in fast-casual spots, full-service restaurants, makeshift corner setups and food trucks.

Faced with compiling a survey of those options for a two-and-a-half day LA taco trip the first week of February proved difficult but fun. The list was revised from 25 stops to 40 and then down to approximately 20. It could have been 70! Four businesses that were on the itinerary from the start were Leo’s Taco Truck, Tacos La Guera, Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla and Mariscos Jalisco. Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under California, East LA, Los Angeles, Reviews

The Original Revolver Taco Lounge to Remain Open

292519_428286043862725_1143130462_n

Photo: Revolver Taco Lounge/Facebook.

Reports of Revolver Taco Lounge’s closing at the end of the year were among 2015’s biggest taco stories. Lovers of the Fort Worth, Texas, gem suddenly presented with trichotillomania. The future of the critically and popularly praised taqueria was in doubt, but then came word that Regino Rojas, Revolver’s owner, was going to move operations to Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood. There was a collective sign of relief.

I’m pleased to announce that while plans for the new Revolver Taco Lounge with its exclusive rear dining room, Purepecha, is still on track, the original location will remain open. Yesterday, Rojas signed on a six-month lease extension with the option to renew. He says Revolver’s continued operation is due to public support. “I was ready to walk away. The main one was the building owner was indifferent to me. So I was ready to change the skin of Revolver and open a new one in Dallas,” Rojas told me during a phone interview late last night. “But the people made noise,” he continued. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Tacoqueta [Update]

IMG_8995

A Tacoqueta taco plate.

When a neighbor asked that I give Tacoqueta a second chance after the taqueria changed ownership as a replacement for Los Torres Taqueria, which closed in late November, I asked whether the tortillas were made in-house as they were at Los Torres. The response was “100 times cleaner, for starters.” Tacoqueta does not make fresh tortillas for its tacos (that craft is reserved for gorditas, sopes and garnachas). I wouldn’t call it cleaner than Los Torres either, as my follow-up visit to the taqueria was met with the stench of sewage mixed with cleaning solution unsuccessfully applied to mask the smell. It was strong. Thankfully, the salsa verde with spurs’ bite heat was stronger.

The salsa played well against the sweet barbacoa de res but coated the diced carne asada until the salty beef was almost nothing but pebbly texture. Better was the taco al pastor advertised as taco de trompo for a Taco Tuesday promotion. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Dallas, DFW, Oak Cliff, Reviews, Uncategorized

The 2015 Taco Trail Year in Review and Taco Honorable Mentions

IMG_8394

It’s been a sweet year for tacos.

It was a banner year for tacos and for the Taco Trail. Not only was the Texas Monthly taco issue published, but also Mike Sutter of Fed Man Walking sought out #500 Tacos, and taco books and Mexican cookbooks were let loose into the world. They included Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico: Recipes and Stories From Mexico City’s Streets, Fondas and Markets, an excellent introduction to Mexico City’s cuisines through visually fetching photographs and hunger-inducing accessible recipes. The book takes its name from the food tour company Tellez established while living in Mexico City from 2009–2013. If you want an authoritative, immersive account of Mexico City and it’s food culture, Eat Mexico is the book for you. Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s TACOS: Recipes + Provocations takes the outsider’s audacious stance, mingles it with what the rest of the country might call a New Yorker’s cockiness, and then infuses it with the sincere desire to learn and adapt. Stupak who is often falsely accused of gringo-izing and cheffing tacos understands the fundamental truth of the taco as a regional representation of a specific time and place based on the tortilla. It’s the use of adjuncts to make tortillas that fascinates me the most. In Mexico and in America’s taco hubs, it’s not unusual to find corn tortillas made with the addition of nopales and chiles. In their book, Stupak and Rothmam offer tortillas made with rye, saffron and more. As for the tacos: I get a kick out of such renditions as the pastrami taco. This is a thing of beauty. It gives us a glimpse of the developing regional New York City taco style, something as legitimate as the San Antonio’s puffy taco or Mexico City’s taco al pastor. Also released this year is Phaidon’s English translation of La Tacopedia, billed as the first comprehensive encyclopedia of taco in Mexico. The original, written by Alejandro Escalante paints taco history and styles with a broad stroke, highlighting major historical markers before diving into regional provenance and the populist nature of taco culture. Infographics displaying the proper method to eating tacos, interviews with longtime taco masters, content listing the breadth of diversity that leaves the reader salivating, a fanciful illustrated map to Mexico’s regional specialty: It’s all there and all cool. It’s everything a taco lover could want. I love La Tacopedia. The English translation, however, is uneven. Take the name of the taco styles: Whereas tacos al pastor are left untranslated to “shepherd-style tacos,” tacos de guisados becomes “stewed tacos” and tacos de canasta becomes “basket tacos.” Readers confident they have a grasp of authentic tacos when they step into a taqueria might be dismayed when stewed tacos or basket tacos aren’t on the menu. That is a minor quibble, because if you want a useful, solid introduction to tacos as an American reader, Tacopedia is your book.

I met Alejandro when he was an honored guest at the North Texas Taco Festival, an event I co-founded in 2013, and was immediately charmed by his humor, passion and knowledge. That trinity was on display during my visit to La Casa de los Tacos, the taqueria co-owned by Alejandro, in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood, in January of this year. It was at La Casa de los Tacos that my traveling companions and friends Nick Zukin, Robert Strickland, and I began our last night in DF. The dinner there, which included food blogger Gastrobites, artist-food blogger mexicanfoodporn, and Jason Thomas Fritz, Mexico City guide for the great food tour company Club Tengo Hambre, was a mezcal-fueled lesson in how taco history and the innovation can share real estate. You can read more about it here.

What follows is a collection of memorable, noteworthy tacos I enjoyed in 2015, including a few scarfed in Mexico City. Some, like the crab taco at Kiki’s Restaurant, were included in one of my Texas Monthly web exclusive taco roundups but not in the final print edition of The 120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die. Maybe they didn’t score well enough to merit listing in the definitive Texas taco list. Perhaps they weren’t candidates for evaluation during the issue’s research period because they hadn’t been opened for at least a year, or were in a city I wasn’t assigned to evaluate, but nevertheless deserve an honorable mention. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Best of, Mexico City, Reviews, Tacoventura, Texas

El Mercadito Taqueria

IMG_8550

A three-taco plate at El Mercadito Taqueria.

The Taco Trail began as a way of finding taquerias via DART, but I haven’t sought out tortilla-based eats via public transit for month, as I have been busy with the Texas Monthly taco issue project for more than a year. All of my research has been done via automobile. So it was a pleasant surprise that I came across El Mercadito Taqueria while riding the Green Line recently.

Adjacent to the Burbank Station in an industrial district on the west side of Love Field and next door to Tortilleria El Molino, El Mercadito serves mostly workers looking for quick and cheap meals. Tacos are $2 and are served a few minutes after ordering. There are seven filling options to listed on the menu, among them carnitas, lengua and non-trompo pastor. The day I went, though there was only beef barbacoa, chicharron en salsa verde and fajita were available. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Dallas, DFW, Reviews

Los Torres Taqueria Is Closed

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

The astonishing taco ahogado de birria estilo Sinaloa.

The home to the best taco in Dallas is gone. It closed last week. Speaking over the phone, co-owner Ramiro Torres said despite their best efforts, the family could not come to a new lease agreement with the landlord. Moreover, Torres told me, his sister Eva, could no longer manage the restaurant. She was burned out. Luis Perez, owner of La Norteña Tortilleria, the provider of Los Torres’ default Northern Mexican-style tortillas, said the family placed their final order last Saturday. This confirmation comes after I rode the bus past the restaurant Thursday night, noticing it was dark. The news does more than sadden me. It makes me physically ill.

Los Torres was the best taqueria in Dallas and served the best taco in Dallas, but to me it went beyond superlatives, beyond naming the taco ahogado as one of Texas Monthly’s top 10 tacos in the Lone Star State in their December issue. The little taqueria opened in 2012 at the rundown intersection of Clarendon and Edgefield. It’s neighbors were an elementary school, an auto shop and a laundromat. It was also 10 blocks from my house, and I was the first writer to review it. It was a helluva find. It reaffirmed traditional tacos while challenging American notions of Mexican food and tacos. The Sinaloan-style tacos heavy on the earthy-spiced goat meat served in gauzy handmade flour tortillas changed everything. Eating there forced me to reevaluate my list of Dallas’ great tacos, and I couldn’t help returning again and again, usually with my son. Los Torres became the father-and-son hang. Eva and the other woman overseeing the day-to-day operations doted on my then four-year-old boy. It’s at Los Torres that he earned the nickname Taquito. He had the run of the place, and would play among the tables and ride his bike inside between bites of carne asada and barbacoa tacos. Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Best of, Dallas, News, Oak Cliff, Texas

Join Me at Urban Taco’s Agave Trail Dinner Co-hosted by Texas Monthly, With Special Guest Revolver Taco Lounge

Los tacos. A La Tuma y Bistek Campechano

Campechano and a la Tuma tacos with elote/Courtesy Urban Taco

By now you’ve read Texas Monthly’s December issue, “The 120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die,” and you’ve begun sketching an itinerary to scarf them all. Thursday, December 10, you’ll be able to check off your list Urban Taco’s taco al pastor a la Tuma, one of top 10 tacos in Texas. You’ll do so at the multicourse Agave Trail Dinner at the taqueria’s flagship location on Dallas’ McKinney Avenue. The dinner is something Urban Taco, Lala’s Cakes and myself—a contributor to the issue—along with Texas Monthly have put together to celebrate tacos, Texan and Mexican, and the wonder that are agave spirits.

Each course will be paired with an agave spirit (e.g., mezcal, tequila, raicilla) in the form of a flight, cocktail and/or in the food, including the appetizer of mezcal-cured ceviche over a chicharrón tostada, a dish created for the dinner. The details follow. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized