Lucy’s Café and a Brief History of the First Gourmet Taco

TacosAntonioPhotoJaimeCastañeda

Tacos Antonia/Photo: Jaime Castañeda

“The traditional taco has to be fried,” declared The Brownsville Herald in 1950. It might be surprising that a newspaper from a Texas border town with a large Mexican and Mexican-American population would print such a statement. But it shouldn’t. Although there are stateside references to filled and folded tortillas through the 19th century, the first print references to the taco in the United States goes back to the turn of the 20th century. First, in an 1898 travelogue that was published in the Los Angeles Times a couple of years later, and then in 1914 when Bertha Haffner-Ginger included a recipe in her California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook. In 1922, a taco recipe appeared in the Castelar Crèche Cook Book. Both recipes called for the taco to be fried. As a matter of fact, scads of published material defined a taco as a meat-filled folded tortilla that is fried. It is perhaps the greatest joke played on those who insist a taco starts with a soft corn tortilla.

CaliforniaMexicanCookbookTacoRecipe

California-Mexican Spanish Cookbook

CastelarCrecheCookbook

Castelar Creche Cook Book

The Brownsville write-up is similar to previous mentions: “It is made with a specifically prepared tortilla, which is folded along the middle and fried in lots of hog fat. Ground meat, or the shredded meat used down Mexico way, is mixed with whatever sauce or garnishment is on hand. It may be lettuce and tomato, or aguacate salad [guacamole], or the small seed-like chile piquin that burns like acid. A well-made taco is crunchy and delicious.”

The taco’s stateside characterization didn’t temper the spice of novelty, or its allure. The crispy taco retained a sense of a carnival barker’s spiel. It was compelling enough to fill the role of star attraction. Such was the case in January 1965 when the Amarillo Globe Times extolled the virtues of the crispy taco. “It was new. It was different. It was World Famous.” And it would premiere at Amarillo’s El Rancho Restaurant during the business’ 37th anniversary celebration.

The boasts of firsts don’t end there, though. The show was just getting started, and it was going to get refined. Supermarkets across Texas sold the rolled variety as frozen “cocktail tacos” ideal for parties. Crispy tacos were also the first tacos to be described as “gourmet,” as was the case of a 1969 luncheon hosted by Mercedes Ibarra of Elk Grove, Illinois. Even earlier, in 1964, “gourmet taco shells” were being made and sold by the dozen by La Hacienda Restaurant in Lubbock, Texas. Still, there was disagreement on which form of the hard-shell taco was truly highfalutin. “Although the fold-over model is standard fare from Anaheim to Odessa, from Guadalajara [Mexico] (where there are 104 varieties) to Boise, Idaho, the gourmet taco is different, both in configuration and content. The gourmet taco is a rolled taco. It is called a ‘flauta’ in Phoenix, when you can find one, and a taquito in Los Angeles.”

And there’s frontier town El Paso, Texas, where crispy tacos—rolled or folded—are cultural touchstones.

Take the border city’s top-billing taco: Chico’s Tacos. Opened in 1953, the restaurant has reached such iconic status that, in 2003, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution honoring the founding Mora family on the restaurant’s 50th anniversary. It’s been showcased on the Food Network and other cable outlets. El Pasoans can’t shut up about Chico’s rolled tacos (aka flautas), submerged in watery tomato sauce and blanketed with crumbs of orange cheese that taste of glossy cardboard toy packaging in a paper boat.

Thankfully, they share a city with one of the best crispy tacos in the United States: the Tacos Antonia plate at Lucy’s Café.

The platter of freshly fried crispy tacos dusted in copper-colored seasoning salt is packed with shredded brisket, a citrus-cabbage salad, avocado wedges and Muenster cheese (a local specialty topping the majority of crispy tacos). Rice and refried beans nudge up against the tacos. These one-of-a-kind treasures are named in honor of founder-owner Lucy Lepe’s sister, Antonia, who helped create the dish before it was put on the menu in 1979. Hefty with its delightful knotted strings of beef and a solid snap that steers clear of disintegration, the Tacos Antonia are the most popular dish on the menu.

“People order them so much, we’ve had to shorten the name,” says Lucy’s son David Lepe, who manages Lucy’s Café West. “We just call them Toni’s Tacos.” Lepe goes on to mention that there is at least one restaurant in El Paso that tries to imitate Toni’s Tacos. I tell him I know which one it is, which surprises him. But, Lepe insists, “I won’t name names.” I asked if he had ever heard of Stella Taco in Portland, Oregon. “Don’t tell me,” he says, anticipating my next sentences.

StellaTacoPhotoCreditNickZukin

Stella Taco/Photo: Nick Zukin

I told him of the “Austin-style taqueria” co-owned by El Paso natives husband-and-wife Ian and Becky Atkins. Of course there’s a crispy taco on the menu, but it’s not the snappy Tex-Mex nosh typical of the Lone Star State. It’s not yellow and pockmarked, nor is it bubbled. Instead, Stella Taco’s crispy taco bears an uncanny resemblance to Toni’s Tacos—right down to the seasoning salt. But on my visit Stella’s cooks only dressed the top edges of the crispy shell with the salt.

Luckily, Lepe told me there are plans for expansion outside of El Paso. “We’re looking at a couple of place,” he says. “Austin is so new and hip. We’re kind of steering away from the traditional Mexican food, but by that I mean we’re tweaking it a little bit like we did with the Taco Antonia. Besides, there are a lot of people in Austin who have moved from El Paso. I think now is a good time to expand to Austin.” There’s no concrete timeline yet, but hopefully sooner rather than later such stellar gourmet tacos will be three hours away in Austin, and not the ten hours to El Paso.

Lucy’s Café
Multiple locations
www.lucysrestaurants.com

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Filed under Brownsville, El Paso, History, Texas

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