If there’s one person qualified enough to lead you to the promised land of tacos in Texas, it’s José R. Ralat. The seasoned blogger has been described as “an expert on the folklore of tacos” by the New York Times, a “great ambassador” by Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, and someone who “knows taquerías like Miley Cyrus knows how to write a shitty song.”
Ralat is the food editor of the Dallas-based western lifestyle magazine Cowboys & Indians and founder of the Taco Trail blog, which has been carefully documenting taco culture (especially in Dallas and North Texas) since 2009. Ralat was recently recruited as a member of the statewide evaluation team for Texas Monthly’s taco issue, set for release on November 19th.
Ralat says much of the difference between Texas taco culture and that of other hubs has to do with immigration patterns. In Texas, the scene borrows traditions from Northern Mexico, whereas New York has a significant Pueblan community. “It’s just a different regional influence, which is why we have a lot of flour tortillas; they’re just as authentically Mexican as corn tortillas.”
To help you get the most out of your next excursion to Texas, we asked Ralat break down the various regional specialities the state has to offer, from puffy tacos to beef-head barbacoa.
All photos by José R. Ralat
I. Region: West Texas
Ralat says: “When you order a taco, it is likely going to be fried or crisped up without it being specified. That’s just how they come. In that way you can say it’s a lot more Tex-Mex, especially considering there will be cheese on them. Most places make their own tortillas, which makes crunchy tacos better. If they’re fried to order, they don’t taste like cardboard. There is nothing like a freshly fried crispy taco. In El Paso, you have grated Muenster cheese. In the rest of West Texas you’re going to have orange or American cheese. The taco-meat filling is heavily-seasoned ground beef. Also, in El Paso you have a lot of carnitas and al pastor, but even the pastor is regionally different. It’s aggressively seasoned and they put the chile seeds on the meat.”
Where to eat them: “Go to Elva’s Taco Casa (807 Royalty Ave, Odessa;, 432-333-2831). They crisp up fresh corn tortillas on the griddle. Avila’s Mexican Food (6232 N Mesa St, El Paso; 915-584-3621) in El Paso offers a great crispy picadillo taco with chiles and potatoes topped with white cheddar. For pastor, you have Tacos Chinampa (6110 Gateway E Blvd, El Paso; 915-843-2900), which is a small family-owned chain. They make al pastor from scratch.”
II. Region: Central Texas
Ralat says: “This is breakfast-taco country. Breakfast tacos with flour tortillas were popularized by Austin, but they really came out of San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. Central Texas flour tortillas are generally thicker and kind of squishy. You have your bacon, eggs, and cheese, and your chorizo, as well as what comes out of Tacodeli, for example. Tacodeli is a small chain that’s been around since 1999, founded by a guy from Mexico City, Roberto Espinoza. He understood that tacos are about a time and place. Austin tacos aren’t going to be Mexican tacos. You’re not going to have chapulines like in Oaxaca and what Americans think of as delicacies. You’re going to put barbecue in the taco. You’re going to do all these things that anchor it to the place. The migas taco, Austin’s signature taco, is a breakfast taco filled with fried tortillas bits; migas translates to crumbs—eggs, chiles, tomato, cheese.
Where to eat them: “Get your breakfast tacos at Tacodeli (1500 Spyglass Dr, Ste B, Austin; 512-732-0303) and Joe’s Bakery (2305 E 7th St, Austin; 512-472-0017). Joe’s is more traditional, and they have thick flour tortillas made in-house. One of their signature elements is that they dredge their bacon in flour before frying it.”
III. Region: South Texas
Ralat says: “Here you’ll find crisper hard-shell tacos, but you also have the puffy taco, which was popularized by San Antonio. There’s disagreement as to whether it came from the Rio Grande Valley or Ray’s Drive Inn. But everyone claims their grandma made them anyway. The puffy taco comes with seasoned ground beef and the Tex-Mex trinity of orange cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Raw corn masa discs are deep-fried and formed into a taco shell or boat-like shape. They’re very light, almost like a little fried cloud with a short lifespan. You have to eat them right away before they disintegrate.”
Barbacoa is huge here too. Typically it’s a weekend activity that’s always paired with Big Red soda. Most often it’s cow head. One guy by the name of Mando Vera, of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, prepares up to 90 heads. He’s the only one we know of who’s allowed to cook his cow heads in the ground, the old way of making barbacoa. In South Texas, this means heads wrapped in either burlap or maguey, which are agave leaves. You seal them in a pit so that it’s air-tight, and it cooks slowly for eight to twelve hours. Modern methods use heavy-duty aluminum and a metal sheet.”
Where to eat them: “My go-to place for puffy tacos is Ray’s Drive Inn (822 SW 19th St, San Antonio; 210-432-7171) when I’m in San Antonio, which geographically straddles both South and Central regions. (south and central).”
IV. Region: North and East Texas
Ralat says: “This is where you see the influence of Texas’ Monterreyan population. Dallas and Houston are two major urban centers that have attracted many Monterreyans. Their gift to Texas are the tacos de trompo. The preparation uses a paprika-based seasoning compared to the chile and achiote-based marinade of al pastor. You can get into the whole nitty gritty of cabrito al pastor—split and impaled kid goats roasted over mesquite—but really the most prominent one is the trompo. In my neighborhood in Dallas, there are trompo places every couple of blocks. You can usually identify them from the outside because they’ll have Monterey’s landmark mountain, Cerro de la Silla, painted on an exterior wall. A bunch also show up at night in a parking lot or on the sidewalk. It’s a kind of show.
Where to eat them: “The big boy on the block is Fito’s, but it’s not really where I go. My favorite is owned by a caterer working on his brick and mortar that will be called Trompo. He should be opening in October, but for now he is doing pop-ups. He’s the best there is. In Houston, I like hitting up La Macro (1822 N Main St, Houston). Houston also has a huge taco-truck scene, and they’re generally good. In Dallas, you see many fancy taco places, like Velvet Taco (3012 N Henderson Ave, Dallas; 214-823-8358). I don’t think that Velvet Taco, which makes tortillas in-house and offers paneer and bánh mì tacos, could’ve happened anywhere else first but here. They now have outposts in Fort Worth, Houston, and Chicago. Here you also have more immigrant owned traditional places that work really hard to serve high-quality, fresh ingredients, but just happen to look nice and modern. For example, El Come Taco (the owners are from Mexico City) and Revolver Taco Lounge (the owners are from Michoacan). Chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) and sesos (veal brains) are popular here, too.