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
Get me talking about tacos and see me light up like a child who receives the exact gift he wished for Christmas morning. From their history and folklore to their variability, there is much joy in tacos. In no particular order, these are the tacos that brought me that joy in 2014.
A plate of tacos at Los Torres.
Taco de Barbacoa Roja Estilo Sinaloa at Los Torres Taqueria
Unlike the barbacoa commonly available in Texas, this specialty of Sinaloa (where the Torres family has roots) is a mix of beef and pork, dark red from chiles colorados and fragrant spices. It’s always included in my order at Los Torres, where homey braises and handmade tortillas band together to give Dallas it’s best taqueria. When you visit the little spot in Oak Cliff—and you will—resist the urge to order tortillas de maiz hechas a mano. Go for the thin, nearly translucent handmade flour tortillas characteristic of Sinaloa.
Taco de Barbacoa de Cabeza at Gerardo’s Drive-In
The table-hushing barbacoa at Gerardo’s on Houston’s east side is among the best I’ve had in Texas yet. It’s silky and full, though delicate, and pulled directly from the cows’ head. My visit to Gerardo’s included a kitchen tour from Owner José Luis Lopez—Gerardo is his son—who obviously has pride in his work. He propped the cow heads for photos taken by the crew I was running around Houston with that morning, amigos in food J.C. Reid and Michael Fulmer, cofounders of the Houston Barbecue Festival, and photographer Robert Strickland.
Taco al Pastor at Taco Flats
Austin isn’t a taco al pastor town. It’s strength resides in breakfast tacos and Tex-Mex. So this killer version of the undisputed king of tacos on a housemade tortilla from Taco Flats, a new Burnet Road bar with taco-focused pub grub came as a surprise. Sit at the far end of the bar for a view of the trompo. Continue reading
Filed under Austin, Best of, Dallas, DFW, Fort Worth, Houston, one of the freaking best, Reviews, San Antonio, Tex-Mex, Uptown
Taco Flats’ modern and sleek exterior.
Taco Flats was the taqueria I most anticipated in 2014. Named, with permission, after a legendary Austin bar and rock club, the business from owner Simon Madera, a Rio Grande Valley native and restaurant industry veteran, opened in November. It has become something of a craft beer bar-modern taqueria along a stretch of Burnet Road that is becoming a taco hub. The taqueria is in the same strip center as the brick-and-mortar home of fancy lonchera Peached Tortilla and a short walk from Fork and Taco, which has an Uchi alumnus in its kitchen. Fork and Taco is an admirable restaurant that understands the importance of the handmade tortilla, but this is a review of Taco Flats, not Fork and Taco. That post is forthcoming.
As I mentioned, the wait for Taco Flats’ opening was worth it. From the moment you open the door, you know you’re in for something different. Continue reading
Potato & egg, bacon & egg and barbacoa de chivo tacos at La Fruta Feliz.
A friend and I were finishing errands in East Austin when I caught a glimpse of La Fruta Feliz in my peripheral vision, and without much prodding my friend turned his car around. In we went hungry for handmade tortillas, for what I heard were knockout tacos.
Being in the land of breakfast tacos, I ordered a potato and egg and chorizo and egg taco on flour tortillas with a taco de barbacoa de chivo (goat) on the house corn.
Welcome to Veracruz All Natural.
After two foiled attempts, my excitement was high for the third try, the sure thing. I was finally going to enjoy what droves of Austinites laud as one of their greatest breakfast taco purveyors, Veracruz All Natural. The original location of the family operation of two trailers and a forthcoming brick-and-mortar sits adjacent to a party store and a barbecue trailer on Cesar Chavez Street, cordoned off by chain-link fencing. Within the confines of the fence, the ground is a mix of broken bottle glass and gravel on which plastic toddler playground equipment, a slide, a picnic table, sat. The rest of the seating was a re-purposed industrial wood spools shaded by straw umbrellas to give the place a coastal feel—the owners are from Veracruz, Mexico—and lawn furniture.
As soon as my large order with tortilla choices up to the cook’s discretion was ready, a friend and I drove five minutes—the maximum tacos will travel without being destroyed—back to his house in East Austin. That’s when the disappointment began. Continue reading
Monterrey Café was difficult to find on a rainy Sunday morning en route to Dallas from San Antonio. A friend’s Google Maps iPhone app pegged it on one side of I-35. My search had it on the opposite side. When we did find the restaurant, we what we found was a freestanding building with colorful murals on its exterior. One the façade, a matador toyed with a bull. A front window bore a scratched, sans serif font in pink declaring homemade flour and corn tortillas. While the south wall a man walked alongside an oxen-led cart. The parking lot was full. A welcoming, potentially great roadside shack, if ever there was one.
We entered into a busy dining room with another space to the left. Black slide letter signs with menu items hung above the tables in the front room where we sat. Everything was a little worn. The service was quick, attentive and in twists and turns in English and Spanish. And the breakfast tacos fresh, served on dusty, cushioned flour tortillas. Continue reading
This is a hole in a wall. Really. Wedged between a laundromat, a hair salon and a convenience store, Taco-Mex is an orange color-framed walk-up taco window. From the menu at the right are available $1.75 vinegar-spiked cactus strips embroiled in scrambled eggs, refried beans speckled with whole pintos and a network of melted cheese, peppy chorizo and egg as well as migas minus the Scoville slap of jalapeños. The $2 barbaoca is a greasy cowhead-lovers dream and would make admirable hangover salve.
The bacon and egg and ham and egg breakfast tacos by comparison are standard fare for the varied clientele of university students, young adults who have pioneered gentrification of surrounding East Austin, locals tapping their feet to the rhythm of the washers and dryers next door, and the fashionable lot who prefer not to shop at in.gredients, the hip grocer across the street. Ratchet up their satisfaction with the creamy salsa verde, a lung-puncher of a condiment. Continue reading
It wasn’t planned. Our Austin taco stop on the return trip from a Brownsville taco tour weekend was supposed to be El Taco Rico. Unfortunately, it was closed. El Taquito, a fast-casual chain outpost on Riverside Drive, was a backup-backup choice. We were there for pork, specifically al pastor from a trompo, after consuming almost nothing but beef in the Rio Grande Valley. A couple tacos al pastor from some joint off the highway would be all that was needed to hold us over until we got home.
As it turned it out, I had been to El Taquito before. On my first visit, midway through an East Austin taco crawl, Roberto Espinosa tried to warn me about the fried tripe before I bit down on a substance that was more PVC tubing than edible offal.
But it wasn’t time for tripe. It was time to leave behind cow country and the border for a pork preparation. Except it wasn’t. El Taquito was founded in Tamaulipas, a border state where Matamoros and Reynosa are located. The original of the three Central Texas outposts, the official company line claims, was the first to introduce avocado and queso fresco, common taco garnishes on both sides of the Rio Grande, as topping options to Austin.
I had just come a trip where I ate such tacos almost exclusively. It was time for pork. Continue reading
A group of wait staff broke out into a ranchera when they learned it was a customer’s birthday. There was clapping. The clapping spread. As did the singing. To my left was a photo of Vicente Fernandez, the king of ranchera music. In front of me, at Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop in East Austin, was a platter of incredible breakfast tacos, flawless homemade flour tortillas—thick without being dense, fluffy without being mistaken for an old pillow—and all. Within one envelope was snappy dredged in flour bacon, firm eggs that bore a sheen, the heavy-handed spread of captivating refried beans. The pictured round breakfast sausage patties are one of only a couple of items not made in-house, but they have to be on the menu. Reportedly, sausage patties are among the first ingredients placed in a tortilla in Texas to create a breakfast taco.
There are myriad theories on the origins and appropriate composition of breakfast tacos. Some believe that Austin can rightfully claim Texas’ favorite day starter. This declaration is justified, they insist, because Austin is where the breakfast taco was perfected and popularized. Support is found in food writers in cities like New York who slap the qualifier “Austin-style” before mentioning our homegrown staple, tourists who return to their hometowns oohing and ahhing about them, and Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop. Continue reading
Credit: Stuart Mullenberg
Authors note: I wrote the backpage “Quench” essay for Imbibe Magazine’s Texas issue, the first issue dedicated to the drink culture of a single state. My contribution explores taco and beer pairings. To read more from the issue click here.
After my wife and son, I have two great loves—tacos and beer. For my food blog, Taco Trail, I’ve eaten at hundreds of taquerías and Mexican restaurants in my adopted hometown of Dallas and across the United States. Meanwhile, I’ve logged countless hours at beer bars and craft breweries.
Texas is the land of the San Antonio puffy taco, the breakfast taco, and the fried-to-order crispy taco, known as the taco dorado south of the border. In the Lone Star State, tacos stuffed with lengua, suadero, barbacoa, carnitas and other fillings are sold in gas stations, from walk-up windows, from kiosks, in check-cashing shops, everywhere. And if you insult another Texan’s favorite taco spot, by saying something like, “Fuel City tacos are trash,” you’re spoiling for a fight. Texans are sensitive about their tacos. Yet somehow—in Texas, at least—craft beer isn’t typically found in the best taco joints. While the craft beer movement has been steadily gaining traction in Texas, the last few years have seen a major growth in markets like Dallas. Last December, in a public ceremony complete with bridesmaids and groomsmen, a local cheesemonger even married a beer (Peticolas’ imperial red ale, Velvet Hammer, which is admittedly a great catch). Continue reading