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
Last Thursday I gave a presentation about taco history and its place in DFW’s food culture at Four Corners Brewing Co., benefiting Slow Food Dallas. It didn’t go as planned. A storm took about the venue’s power and led me to improvise. Below is what the lecture I would’ve given if Mother Nature had cooperated.
Thank you, Liz and Slow Food Dallas for having me here—at my favorite brewery, no less. Thank you, Rafael and Eduardo and the family of Taco Party, for your wonderful tacos. Those fried potatoes tacos are among Dallas’ best. And lest you think they’re “gringo tacos,” you should know that fried potatoes tacos are traditional tacos dorados (fried tacos), rolled or flat depending on the region. They’re found all over Mexico.
Fried tacos tend to have a bad reputation, stirring up chilling visions of Taco Bell and prefabricated stale, fragile shells. Glenn Bell, Taco Bell’s founder, wasn’t doing anything new or particularly special, when he opened his first fast-food crispy taco restaurant in 1962. Fried tacos are a tried-and-true variation of the reason why we’re here tonight. In Jalisco state, home of tequila, mariachi and the stewed goat preparation birria, and Michoacán, the birthplace of carnitas, tacos dorados are a common breakfast taco. Continue reading
Jeffrey Pilcher has a thing for tacos and Mexican food. So much so that he has dedicated much of his research to tacos and Mexican food on both sides of the border. He came to popular attention with his 2012 book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, a sequel of sorts to ¡Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, a tracing of the development of Mexican nationalism through a history of its food from the domestication of corn to the 20th century.
Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, took the time to answer a lengthy set of interview questions from Taco Trail HQ, providing answers both light-hearted and rigorous. We cover taquerias outside of North America, favorite salsas, the future of tacos, the need for a beer after eating more than one’s fill in tacos and loads more.
Taco Trail: If pre-Hispanic peoples have been filling tortillas for more than a millennium, why is it important to distinguish that food from the taco?
Jeffrey Pilcher: Food is not just nutrition. It is also culture. Just think about what maize means to Mexicans and compare that with most folks in the United States. We know that ancient Mexican civilizations worshiped maize and ate tamales as a form of communion. They believed that if they did not make sacrifices to their gods, the maize fields would not grow and people would starve. These are deep and important meanings, but they are very different from the taco shops that first appeared in Mexico City about 1900. Historical context is essential for understanding what was important in people’s lives, and I think the taco tells us a lot about working-class people in modern Mexico.
TT: What’s the inspiration for your study of the taco?
JP: Precisely that it gives us such a good opportunity to study the lives of ordinary people.
TT: What are the marks of a great taqueria and a great taco?
JP: Freshness. Fresh tortillas. Meat just off the grill. A really good salsa (that smooth guacamole is my favorite). A squeeze of lime. A Mexican beer. It’s all about freshness. And having a lively scene, with people waiting in line for tacos, is how the taco vendors can serve fresh food and still make a profit. Continue reading