“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. Continue reading
Category Archives: Texas
“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
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.
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
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
Taco shops open and close every day, and few notice. It seems that everyone noticed Resident Taqueria opened. The restaurant, owned by husband and wife Andrew and Amy Savoie and designed by the Guest Group, has been one of my most anticipated taqueria openings of 2015. Andrew is a chef who honed his craft in renowned kitchens like Jean-Georges before taking root in Dallas’ Lake Highlands neighborhood, where Amy grew up. Both went all in on this concept of a taco spot geared toward the locals, a family restaurant, but with thoughtful fare that shows deference to the taco’s history and Mexican ingredients. Everything from the agua fresca to the signage and tortillas would be handmade. What a taqueria should be. So it’s been, and it’s been nuts.
That goes for the peppy peanuts claiming real estate on Resident’s tacos and for the buzz. Continue reading
John Tesar is a no slouch. He is owner and executive chef at Knife. He has a cookbook in the works with Jordan Mackay, co-author with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. He is developing an Italian restaurant concept. And he is partner-operator at Apheleia Restaurant Group’s Oak. There he has tweaked and streamlined the kitchen and menu and business is improving. Now comes news that he is doing the same at El Bolero, Apheleia’s upscale Mexican spot, after ownership and El Bolero’s opening executive chef parted ways last month.
My only dining experience at El Bolero was the restaurant’s first night of service, when the menu was limited and the service extremely attentive. I had ample time to speak with co-owner John Paul Valverde (whose Coeval Studio also designed the gorgeous space) that night. We talked about the need for a variety of salsa options. I lobbied for a plethora of choices like those available in Mexico City: whole beans, French fries, salsas of every color and Scoville heat unit. I spoke with a manager about agave spirits, and he customized a mezcal flight for me. All of this from the best seat in the house—at the bar in front of the trompo, where I got to watch the taquero work his knife against the spinning top of marinated pork. The tacos al pastor on fresh corn tortillas were good but the execution needed flare. Part of eating these Mexico City favorites is the show taqueros put on for customers, flicking knives this way and that, attempting to catch pineapple slices behind their backs.
I don’t know if the spectacle has been upped since El Bolero opened, but I do know that the trompo isn’t going anywhere. As Valverde told me via Facebook, “[The] trompo is always going to be there.” While that is a relief, like many with deep love and respect for tacos and Mexican regional cuisines, I was leery of how an Anglo chef—no matter how talented and respectful—would treat the food. Anglo-driven “Modern Mexican” has show more disregard than understanding when it comes to the tradition and history of Mexican food.
During a phone conversation, Tesar went a long way to assure me of his seriousness.
Tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink made from maize, cacao, mamey seeds, and other ingredients—all handmade—is a labor-intensive preparation. And that’s an understatement. From the hand-shelling of cacao and the grinding of the nixtamal to the serving, takes several hours.
At Mi Lindo Oaxaca in Dallas, Honorio Garcia and family take that time to make tejate from scratch at their restaurant. Here’s a video of the incredible process that shows how the preservation of tradition trumps the creativity of modernity.
Before Dylan Elchami sold his Scotch & Sausage restaurant concept, he converted part of the space housing it into a taqueria specializing in tacos de guisados. For Elchami, it was a dream come true. For me, it was a chance to eat more tacos de guisados, a massive and unwieldy class of taco filled with homey slow-cooked stews and sauced preparations. Chorizo and papas is a guisado. Bistec en salsa de chile pasilla is another. So are chile relleno and picadillo. And this new operation, S&S Tequileria, put picadillo on the menu. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s idea of picadillo was sauceless, dry crumbles of over-salted beef. It was, in a word, terrible. The rest of the tacos ordered that day weren’t as memorable.
Then I noticed something peculiar, the Scotch & Sausage social media channels had almost no taco images. Had they realized how disappointing the tacos were? Not long after that I received a press release for Le Taco Cantina, a new taco concept taking over the space. It described the food as having a “triage of flavors” melding Mexican and Asian cooking techniques and ingredients with a little French flare. While I’m sure who ever wrote that release was trying to make the food come across as compelling as possible, the use of medical disaster terminology probably isn’t the way to achieve that goal. “Sortie” might have been better.
Shortly thereafter, the blogs began to announce the taqueria’s opening. There was a lot of oohing and ahhing because handmade tortillas and moo shu duck confit. Interesting, right? Not really. Handmade tortillas by themselves aren’t that big a deal. They’re difficult to make well consistently, and a smart taquero knows that if he can’t have them produced in-house perfectly it’s better to find a tortilleria that can meet his standards. Continue reading
Large highway gas stations can offer surprising treats. One of them is tacos. Maybe there is a trompo from which is shaved dark red marinated pork in the Mexico City al pastor style with chiles, achiote and citrus or the Monterrey trompo rendition of sticky smoked paprika. The Fox Gas Station on Marvin D. Love Freeway (Highway 67) in Oak Cliff serves the latter.
My first visit, in early 2014, yielded charred nubs of pork from a tired trompo and soggy tortillas. A return visit a year later, though, had a happier ending. Continue reading