How Texas Fell In Love With The Taco

The historical path of the taco in Texas traces the history of immigration and the melting pot of cultures in the state.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

It can be no surprise that the taco has been accorded a role in this strange presidential election. The founder of Latinos for Trump, Marco Gutierrez, appeared on MSNBC on September 1 to warn our good, imperiled nation about the coming—brace yourselves—taco invasion.

“My culture is a very dominant culture…if you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks [on] every corner,” Gutierrez said.

Bring it on, the duo behind The Tacos of Texas, a new book published by the University of Texas Press, would say. Part travel guide, part-taco manual, part cultural history of the people and places that have shaped—and been shaped by—this divine dish, Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece have created a fun, stomach-growling romp of a book that is coming out at just the right moment.

Even before Texas became Texas, tacos have been shaping the state’s culinary landscape, and their impact has been lasting.

As one friend put it to me recently, there are only two types of Texas families: barbecue families and Mexican food families (the distinction is determined by the answer to one simple question: what’s the first restaurant you go to when you return home to Texas?).

The path of the taco, in many ways, traces the history of immigration and the melting pot of cultures in the state.

Many believe that the taco was born in the silver mines of Mexico in the 1800s, but Ricardo Romo, President of the University of Texas at San Antonio and a participant in this project, says its roots were around much earlier, during the state’s Spanish Colonial period.

The Mexican influences of the early taco travelled north, while the creation of the flour tortilla, which Rayo says occurred in the San Antonio area, travelled south. All of these elements met and blended together to form the basis for the unmistakable tastes enjoyed today. It’s been taco madness ever since.

Rayo and Neece boil Texas tacos down to three distinct traditions. There are the tacos faithful to a purely Mexican tradition, although even in this group there are distinctions based on region of influence (think tacos al pastor and barbacoa). Others come straight from Texas’s own national cuisine, Tex-Mex—“Part Mexican, Part American, 100% Tejano” (think breakfast tacos and fajitas). The third taco category is what the authors call “New Americano,” these are the experimental tacos benefitting from the new flavors and fusions of innovative chefs.

Tacos may seem like a simple affair, with only a “Holy Trinity” of ingredients necessary to qualify as a legitimate creation—a tortilla (corn or flour), the fillings (traditional choices abound, but the sky is really the limit), and salsas.

But, from the opening pages of The Tacos of Texas, it’s clear that this simple recipe belies a world of taco complexity with a deep multicultural history populated by some truly amazing characters.

It all started 10 years ago when East Texas-born, Austin-based Neece co-founded a blog, tacojournalism.com, dedicated to scoping out all the best tacos in the state. The taco journalists’ intentions were pure, wanting to share “our love for all things taco and wanting to spread the gospel of tacos.”

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Rayo joined several years later and was a natural fit having been born in El Paso “with a taco in my hand,” as he laughingly explains. Now an Austin transplant, he prides himself on what he calls his “taco radar…I can scan any neighborhood and tell you where is the good taco.”

After the taco journalists’ first successful print run in 2013 with a book dedicated to Austin’s iconic breakfast tacos, they decided to tackle an even bigger project: a guide to the best tacos and brightest taco stars across the entire state, focusing on the 10 major cities and regions.

This mission was not for the faint of heart…or the weak of stomach. In the span of six weeks, the team drove 7,000 miles across the state of Texas, ate “hundreds and hundreds” of tacos, and conducted over 100 interviews with the people behind the delicious creations.

As Rayo writes, “no tacos were left untouched.” On the first leg of the tour alone, the team (which also included a photographer and filmmaker) ate 54 tacos in 24 hours.

“Every place we’re going to, they’re opening their doors, they’re throwing as many tacos as they can at us,” Neece says of the trip. “And we’re taking pictures of them, we’re talking to them, and then we end up wrapping up. ‘OK, it’s time to go to the next place,’ which is many more places on the list. And they’re like, ‘Let’s eat real quick.’ So, we eat, eat, eat, eat, eat and then you know we get to the next place and it happens again.”

While just hearing about this may make the amateurs among us want to curl up in an overstuffed ball, both men say this tsunami of tacos was hardly a burden. They claim there was never a moment when they thought, “I just can’t eat one more.” Naturally, Rayo adds laughing, “we’re seasoned professional taco eaters here.” Plus, they needed their “taco adrenaline” to keep going.

For each region they toured, Rayo and Neece call out the area’s iconic taco. These range from the puffy taco in San Antonio (using a corn masa tortilla that’s fried to achieve its characteristic puff) and street tacos in the Rio Grande Valley to gourmet, chef-centric tacos in Dallas and taco trucks in Houston.

Three cities claim the very best taco of all: the breakfast taco (although in Laredo, it is delightfully called a “mariachi”).

While the descriptions of the standout tacos are mouth-watering and make you want to plan a food-focused road trip stat, what really stands out are the interviews with the people who make up this taco culture.

As Rayo writes (in characteristic Spanglish that he says mirrors how he speaks), “Texas is not just cowboys and barbeque. Texas is tacos, Tejanos, Mexican immigrants, y mas, all way before Texas was Texas. With the influx of different peoples and their cultures, all adding their own sabores to their taco-making ways…”

There are the truly unique and entertaining characters that can be found in any subculture worth exploring, like “Chano” Aldrete, the Taco Mystic from Laredo who serves up the El Mexy, the “sexiest of all” tacos at his restaurant, Chano’s Patio.

There’s the priest from Corpus Christi who says he has been asked to bless almost all of the taquerias in town (and who offers his services to anoint the Tacos of Texas truck). There’s the taco aficionado from San Antonio who, on the side, performs taco-themed poetry, and the community activist and mother of two star U.S. politicians, the Castro brothers.

But among these colorful individuals are also the ordinary citizens who show how the current issues of immigration and cultural exchange can be explored through one simple dish.

Many of the purveyors of the unofficial state dish of Texas are first-generation immigrants from Mexico or the descendants of immigrants. The one feature all of their stories have in common is pride, both in their success at achieving the American Dream through their restaurants and culinary creations made “con mucho amor.” But also pride in their cultural heritage and the flavors of home and old family recipes they can share with their current communities.

“I call that dos mundos,” Rayo says. “Because you have your country of origin and your family, where your family’s coming from, even if you’re born in the U.S…you have this American experience that you’re creating. So it’s kind of this dual world that you’re trying to navigate.”

“You can be versatile. You can love tacos and eat sushi too, we don’t all eat taco bowls as Trump would say…but I think at least for me and my point of view, what I use is this food as an extension of the culture. If people are willing to take a bite, take a taste, mix it up, and explore things that are part of this taco, then they get to know real people, hardworking people, that have been here for many years and have contributed to the U.S.”

“Tacos are a gateway drug into Hispanic culture,” Neece adds, provoking laughter from both journalists.

They are also the great economic leveler. Tacos may be the trendy obsession of the moment, but, in the past, they played an integral role at the tables of economically disadvantaged families. Many of the interviewees mention how they used to feel taco shame in their school lunchrooms when they pulled out tortilla-wrapped meals rather than the expensive—and economically out of reach—white-bread sandwiches of their classmates. Now, people across all economic classes can’t get enough of them.

“It’s the food of the people. They’re not pretentious, they’re easy to customize, and even a cheap taco can be really good. It’s the great equalizer, in my opinion,” Jay B. Sauceda, a photographer and taco lover, tells the taco journalists.

“[Tacos are] part of the Texas culture whether you grew up here, [were] born and raised [here], or you got here soon as you could,” Rayo says, laughing. “It becomes part of your diet. It’s just a natural thing. And, definitely being Mexican-American, it’s part of my culture. It’s what we do, it’s how we bring people together. We don’t break bread, we tear off a tortilla for the taco.”