It’s no small feat to document taco culture in Texas.
For the authors of “The Tacos of Texas,” it was a 7,000-mile feat.
That’s how many miles Mando Rayo and his team of taco journalists, including co-author Jarod Neece, drove around Texas writing their newest book, which comes out this week from the University of Texas Press.
In 2007, Neece started a blog called TacoJournalism.com, and he invited Rayo to join their taco crew. In 2013, they authored “Austin Breakfast Tacos” (my recipe for a migas taco with shaved Brussels sprouts is in that book) and almost immediately started thinking about how they might dig even wider into taco culture.
They thought about their vastly different taco experiences as kids, with Neece growing up in Beaumont and Rayo in El Paso, 830 miles away.
They hatched a plan to travel to 10 cities over the course of six weeks to not only eat as many tacos as they could in each place but also to talk with as many people as they could about their shared love of tacos.
It couldn’t be a better time to survey the state’s taco landscape.
Rivaled only by barbecue as the state’s most iconic dish, tacos are consumed on every corner, from trucks, high-end restaurants, neighborhood favorites and millions of home kitchens. They take all shapes: flour and corn, yes, but also crispy and soft, puffy and paper-thin, fiery and sweet, meaty and vegan, as small as your palm or rolled up into a burrito the size of a Subway sandwich.
They ate more than 500 tacos on this journey, most of which were captured by photographer Marco Torres and videographer Dennis Burnett, whose images appear on tacosoftexas.com and in a video series that Burnett is working on using more than 100 interviews with people they met on the trip from Abilene to Brownsville.
They recruited taco lovers across the state to be part of their Texas Taco Council and help guide them to the very best spots in each city, but Rayo says the best leads often came from chance conversations with people they ran into at restaurants, food trucks and even gas stations.
“We know some places, but nobody knows like a local,” Rayo says. Sometimes they would drive into town and say, “I heard about a certain dish. Who can we find to cook it?”
With their intense curiosity and deep respect for the different ways that people make, eat and feel about tacos, they were welcomed into restaurants, homes and backyards. “We didn’t want to go into these places as two dudes from Austin to tell you what your best tacos are. We had to get the buy-in from the communities,” Neece says.
They asked the people who made the tacos that they loved for recommendations of their own. “The guy cooking the tacos, he loves tacos somewhere else, too,” Neece says.
What they found was that we hold certain tacos near and dear to us for their taste but also their ability to connect us to a time when we first had them, the people we shared them with or what we were going through.
One commonality? Hometown pride. “Everyone was repping their taco city hard,” Neece says. “The place they grew up eating, their best taco.”
“You can find almost any kind of taco in Texas,” Rayo says, but what tacos you find in any given place depends on who is making them and who is creating the demand, he says.
From San Antonio to El Paso, the tortillas are smaller and thicker than they are as you travel south to the Rio Grande Valley and Corpus Christi, where they become thinner and wider.
In Brownsville and Laredo, the tacos are heavily influenced by the taquerias on the other side of the border, where you might order six to eight small tacos served on corn tortillas. The closer you are to the border, the tacos are seasoned to have “a thicker, earthy tone, something with a kick,” Rayo says. “As you move away from the border, you lose some of that.”
Houston is the taco mecca as far as Rayo and Neece are concerned, if only because you can get so many different styles in one city. “No matter if it’s fusion or Oaxacan or old-school Tex-Mex or street style, they have it,” Neece says. Austin, they say, is lacking in the homemade tortilla department.
In West Texas, tacos are heavily influenced by the ranching culture and proximity to New Mexican chilies and stews. In Dallas and North Texas, they tend to be chef-inspired, Tex-Mex or from a specific region in Mexico, such as Monterrey or Mexico City.
The authors highlight some of the high-end creations coming from chefs trained in culinary schools but give even more reverence to the taco truck operators and abuelitas slinging countless tacos without as much fanfare.
The book is presented in the chronological order of their journey, giving it a diary feel. As with the first book, the contributors are given ample space to tell their own stories. It reads more like an oral history than a nonfiction book, but the many storytellers paint a vivid picture of just how diverse taco culture is in this one very large state.
The book doesn’t include directions, addresses or contact information for the hundreds of trucks and restaurants that are mentioned, but the authors recommend doing an internet search of the name of the place and the location and seeing if you can find it through Google Maps. Not all places have websites or are listed on Yelp.
Rayo notes that people often crave the tacos from their region, so make an effort to try new styles of tacos when you are traveling throughout the state and be open if someone else’s interpretation of, say, breakfast tacos results in something that looks more like a burrito.
As Texas food culture at large continues to evolve, especially as people move from place to place within the state, the taste for tacos will shift, even as people enjoy styles of tacos that might be new to them.
No matter what kind of tacos you are eating and enjoying, it’s hard to argue with the fact that tacos mean a whole lot to Texas.
Consider that it is often at the top of the list of all things, not just food, that Tex-pats miss after they move away. “No matter your background, as soon as you took a bite, you knew you were home,” Rayo says. “Tacos become part of you and part of your culture.”
Del Mar Taco
These fish tacos are from Mellizoz Tacos, the food trailer at 1503 S. First St. that is a popular stop for everyone from coworkers at nearby Vuka to television hosts in town for South by Southwest. The tacos are served with blackened tilapia, slaw, pickled red onion and chipotle aioli.
4 tilapia fillets
Blackening seasoning (see recipe)
12 oz. finely shredded green cabbage
Slaw dressing (see recipe)
4 corn or flour tortillas
2 oz. pickled red onions
2 oz. chipotle aioli (see recipe)
In a shallow dish, coat both sides of each fillet with blackening seasoning and cook on medium to high heat until done — about 8 to 10 minutes.
Mix enough slaw dressing with cabbage until well coated, but not soggy.
Heat tortillas, then place one fillet in each tortilla. Top with cabbage, red onion and chipotle aioli. Makes 4 tacos.
1/2 cup paprika
2 Tbsp. garlic powder
2 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. white pepper
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1/4 Tbsp. ground thyme
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. ground fennel seeds
1/4 Tbsp. kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl.
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup white or rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 tsp. white pepper
Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and whisk well.
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp. garlic, minced
1 whole chipotle pepper (canned)
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. kosher salt
Blend all ingredients well using a stick blender.
First of all, making cecina is an art form. Although it may look deceptively simple, salting and drying meat must be done with precision and lots of care. Cutting the cecina is one of the most important steps and one of the most difficult.
— Chef Johnny Hernandez
1 whole inside round of beef with no fat, 2 1/2 lb., boneless
With a carving knife, shave slices of the inside round of beef as thinly as possible (no thicker than a corn tortilla). The next step is to cure the meat. This is done with salt and through drying time.
Lay out the slices of beef on sheet trays, being careful not to overlap any of the edges. Lightly sprinkle kosher salt evenly over all the meat and allow to dry at room temperature for a minimum of 2 hours.
You will notice that the salt will begin to extract the moisture from the meat. Wait for the moisture to dry; this might take up to 4 hours, depending on temperature and humidity. (In Mexico, this step is done in the open air with lots of sunlight.)
After the moisture has dried, rub olive oil freely over the slices and stack. Grill cecina for 2 minutes on each side. Cut into strips. Serve in fresh corn tortillas with pico de gallo and guacamole. Makes 10 to 12 tacos.
“The Tacos of Texas” authors are hosting a book launch party from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Tamale House East, 1707 E. Sixth St., where you can buy the book and meet some of the contributors and taco ambassadors.