When I received Nick Zukin’s email invitation to join him on a taco crawl along Maple Avenue in Dallas, I had no idea who he was. After reading the email, I knew I could learn some things about tacos and eat damn good tacos if I accepted the offer from the Portland, Oregon, resident. Since then, Nick has been a kindred spirit and my taco reference book mule. On his way back to Portland from Mexico, Nick has passed along essential reading material.
But Nick is more than a taco enthusiast and trafficker of the printed word. He’s also a food writer, restaurateur, cookbook author, tireless debater, tour guide, friend and, now, a Taco Trail contributor.
Let’s get to know him before moving on to his first post.
Taco Trail: You’re involved in myriad aspects of the food and restaurant world. How did you go from writer to owning and operating your own restaurants, a deli and Mi Mero Mole, a taqueria—even writing a cookbook, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home?
Nick Zukin: I get bored easy. That’s basically it. I was a computer programmer who got tired of sitting behind a computer screen all day and decided to make my hobby my career instead. I knew it’d mean a pay cut and longer hours, but for me it’s more about building something. Writing a cookbook, writing reviews, researching obscure Mexican antojitos—those are all things I’d do anyway just because. There’s not much pay in food writing, as you know, but it’s nice to know that my reviews made a difference for the bottom line of restaurants where people care enough to put out a good product. And my mom gets to have a book on her shelf with my name on it.
TT: When and where does your passion for and knowledge of Mexican cuisine, specifically tacos, come from?
NZ: My mom is from Arizona and my dad from California. I grew up eating Mexican food several nights a week. When we went out to eat, it was either Mexican or pizza. My first cooking memory is my dad showing me how to fry tortillas for crispy taco shells. In college, Mexican was about the only food I could afford to go out and eat that didn’t come from a drive-thru, but even then I wanted to find the best. And then when I started traveling, Mexico being relatively cheap and close and having food that I loved was an obvious destination. It just snowballed from there, especially once I started food blogging, buying Spanish-language Mexican cookbooks, and chatting with people more knowledgeable than me on the internet. I still keep in touch with people I met online and shared a love of Mexican food with, like Steve Sando, Cristina Potters, Sharon Peters, Ruth Alegria, and Nick Gilman. All of us are professional Mexican food nerds of one kind or another now.
TT: How has it changed your view of Mexican food?
NZ: I guess my view has just broadened. There’s just so much more to the landscape of Mexican food than I could have realized as a 5 year old learning to fry tortillas. I think it can be difficult for an American under the age of 40 to really understand the diversity and regionality of Mexican food because the regionality of American food has disappeared so much.
TT: What’s next for you?
NZ: Continuing to build Mi Mero Mole, for sure. Also, I’d like to lead another food tour in Mexico. This last spring Clayton from Experience Tequila and I co-lead a tour of Mexico City, him focusing on the booze, me on the food. We’ve talked about doing another trip, maybe extending it to Oaxaca. It’s not something that I make money on, but it pushes me to research and make sure I really know my shit.
TT: Any chance a book tour will lead you back to Mexico?
NZ: I’d love for that to be the case, but I doubt it. Trips to Texas and Los Angeles are probably as close as I’ll get to Mexico for the cookbook. Hopefully the food/booze tour will happen next spring, though, and it doesn’t take much for me to find an excuse to get back to Mexico.
TT: What should readers expect of your Taco Trail contributions?
NZ: A lot of focus on Mexico City and Oregon. I’m not sure anywhere can touch Mexico City for taco culture, but I think your readers will be surprised by how much great Mexican food there is in Oregon. Obviously, California and Arizona lead the way among western states. But I think I could make a convincing case for Oregon as #3. And I think we’ve got more diversity among taco offerings than a lot of bigger cities with much larger Mexican populations.
TT: Now for the toughie: What’s your favorite stateside taqueria, and what’s in your dream taco?
NZ: That is tough. There are some that have closed down that I really miss that could be contenders for sure. But to choose one, I’d have to say Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon, here on the outskirts of Portland. It’s really a market that also makes wholesale and retail tortillas. But in the back they have a deli counter with several guisados. I ate tacos de guisado there before I ate them in Mexico. Before them, it was all the same fried and grilled meat tacos that most people think about. My first barbacoa de cabeza tacos were from them. My first cochinita tacos were from them. Without having eaten there, I’m not sure I ever would have searched out tacos de guisado in Mexico City and I’m not sure Mi Mero Mole would exist. And a dozen or more years later after first eating there, they still kick ass. And they have the best retail flour tortillas in Portland—easily.
TT: If someone wanted to learn more about tacos, what books would you recommend?
NZ: Well, there’s two kinds of learnin’. Pilcher’s Planet Taco is as good as it gets for learning about the history of the taco. I don’t think there’s a good book in English yet about specific types of tacos. La Tacopedia is awesome, of course, and visual enough that someone who doesn’t speak Spanish might get something out of it. There’s information on the internet mostly stolen from Iturriaga’s De Tacos, Tamales y Tortas. But otherwise, I think we have to hope that La Tacopedia gets translated into English. Hopefully we can add to the knowledge pool here, too.