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
Fuel up after filling up your car’s gas tank.
Tacos can be served from practically anywhere, one of the most popular spaces being the gas station. And why not? Customers can fill up their jalopy’s tank then stuff their own. These taco operations are busy throughout the day, but breakfast often calls for patience. Lines are common. That’s where Habaneros — The Taco Revolution in Arlington, Texas, comes in. I stopped at the gas station taqueria en route to Fort Worth. Just off the Ballpark Way exit on I-30, Habaneros takes up about half of the business with tables and booths and a salsa bar against a counter. 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
The restaurant and tortilleria share real estate.
La Mexicana Tortilla Factory supplies taquerias and Mexican restaurants across North Texas, including El Come Taco. And for large-scale production, the tortillas the Duncanville, Texas, operation has been selling for nearly 20 years are dependable and respectable Rarely has the use of La Mexicana tortillas resulted in a poor taco for me. Occasionally, even though the tortillas aren’t fresh-off-the-press job, their application can push a mediocre taco into the realm of admirable nosh.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case when I lunched at the seven-year-old restaurant attached to the tortilleria, Sabor a la Mexicana. The kitsch factor was turned up to 11, though. In the desolate Sunday afternoon parking lot, rusted sculptures of banditos and musicians adorned in spark plugs welcomed us.
While we ordered, the server told my wife that the restaurant is known for its enchiladas. That’s all she needed to hear to request the spinach enchilada platter: fresh spinach (Sabor’s website makes it clear it doesn’t use frozen or reheated ingredients) cozy in corn tortillas topped with silky sour cream sauce, not the magic shell stuff. They were excellent examples of a Tex-Mex specialty. My wife went so far as to call them the best spinach enchiladas she’s ever had. Continue reading
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
San Antonio is the cultural and culinary capital of Texas. Its treasures, edible and otherwise, inspire me and teach me something new every time I visit. It’s also home to Garrett Heath, the scribe behind SA Flavor, a thorough, entertaining and knowledgeable blog covering the city’s food and culture, including this site. Aside from the breakfast taco, there is no other taco more associated with San Antonio than the puffy taco, a cumulus-light fried Lone Star gem. Garrett drops a guest post about one of San Antone’s classic puffy taco joints, just in time for Fiesta San Antonio.
San Antonio has contributed so much to the world in terms of Tex-Mex. But while you might be familiar with some of the big names (chili, Fritos or Rico’s Nacho Cheese anyone?), one item that has remained a regional staple, más o menos, is the puffy taco. While you may not be familiar with this dish, it adorns many Tex-Mex plates, is the unofficial mascot of our minor league baseball team and the locals judge you by which restaurant you favor.
The characteristic that distinguishes the puffy taco is the shell. After a corn tortilla is pressed, it is lightly fried in oil, causing it to puff up like a blowfish. The cook then presses down in the middle of the tortilla with a spatula, making an indention that can be filled with picadillo, shredded chicken, guacamole, beans and cheese, almost anything you can put in a taco.
While Ray’s might be the first to claim the puffy taco and Henry may have one of the largest establishments, I particularly enjoy those served up at Teka Molino. A restaurant that has roots in the Alamo City since 1937, Teka Molino serves some of the finest food in town. What sets them apart is that they make all of their masa fresh, in-house. Continue reading
I have scads of gripes about long lines. Mainly due to their cultish aspects. The way I see it, if I’m going to wait in a long line hours before a restaurant opens it will be at a place where a specific food was invented, like La Fogoncito, birthplace of the gringa taco (a taco al pastor with cheese in a flour tortilla). However, lines are a rarity at a good taqueria.
Breakfast tacos weren’t invented at Stripes gas stations with Laredo Taco Company outposts and there are long lines, but the lines move quickly. When I visited a Stripes/Laredo Taco Company in the Rio Grande Valley, I waited maybe a couple of minutes between getting in line and receiving my tacos. With large flour tortillas that are fresher than that. Your tortillas are made after you order. And don’t be surprised if the woman taking your order breaks some bad news: they’re out of what you want but will be have another batch in 10 to 15 minutes if you’re willing to wait. This kind of freshness can be difficult to find in quiet hole-in-the-wall taquerias in Dallas. Continue reading
“Yeow! That’s hot,” screamed the young man working the fryer at Taco Wagon, which opened in June after a more than a year of renovation and taunting fans of the original Taco Wagon with its coming soon sign, the $5 pony rides in the old drive-in’s parking lot adding a new twist to the anticipation. His pain was a good sign. It meant the crispy taco I ordered would come with a freshly fried shell.
That taco dorado is the anchor of the Tex-Mex menu that includes breakfast tacos and guisos to be eaten under the corrugated metal roof patio with wrought-iron outdoor furniture adjacent to the 1950s building in a shape reminiscent of an old covered wagon, a reminder of the original occupant, the Chuck Wagon. A car under the drive-in shelter in the gravel parking and to-go are the other dining options. 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