Don’t ask Texas Monthly Taco Editor, José R. Ralat, to pick a favorite taco. Or an authentic taco. Or whose grandmother makes the best taco.
“I’m sick of hearing my grandmother made the best Mexican food. My grandmother made the only real Mexican food, ”he says.
In his new book “American Tacos”, which will be presented this week during the Texas Book Festival, Ralat explains what he calls the “Abuelita Principle”. “Tacos are only considered acceptable if they reflect the traditional cuisine of a person’s grandmother,” he says. “Anything else is seen as spurious or a threat.”
But that mindset puts tacos – a large and large category of food – in one box and prevents us from enjoying food by other chefs and from developing the whole idea of a taco along with the many different types of people who cook it.
“Nostalgia tastes good, but as writers we have to be careful about how we romanticize food. This is not a theater. We can’t romanticize that, ”he says.
Also, grandmothers didn’t ask to be the standard bearers. “How dare we put the weight of the entire kitchen on the back of a group of old ladies?” he says with awe and protection. “Many different people have worn these food traditions for a long time.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about tacos is that Mexican tacos are so different from American tacos. Tacos across Mexico differ in the same way as tacos in the United States, depending on the particular circumstances of a particular time and place, including immigration, ingredients, cultural norms, labor laws, and, yes, nostalgia.
All of these factors help shape Campechano tacos and Al Pastor tacos and Gobernador tacos south of the border, as well as breakfast tacos and fish tacos and kimchi tacos, and Kansas City’s parmesan tacos north of the border.
The variety of regional American (and Mexican) tacos was seriously explored by Ralat, who was born in Puerto Rico, while living in Brooklyn with his Texas-born wife, Jessica. They ate lots of tacos as they toured the boroughs and eventually moved to Texas to settle in Dallas, where they now live with their son, a sixth grader.
Part of what led Ralat to publicly speak and write about tacos was a 2006 Texas Monthly list that named the Dallas’ Fuel City Picadillo taco as the best taco in the state.
“I thought it was blasphemy. This taco is like shotgun oil, ”he says. “I started rummaging through them on Twitter for it, but I wouldn’t be writing for Texas Monthly right now if it weren’t for that. And without that nod, Dallas wouldn’t be on the taco menu. “
He got the job as a taco editor in 2019 and sees himself less as a taco critic than as a storyteller. “As food writers, we have to balance the needs of readers with the industry we belong to,” he says. “We are part of the hotel industry, we are not its opponents.”
“Rather, our job is to nurture those who deserve to be championed and to tell stories, whether they’re heartbreaking or historically nerdy,” he says. “It’s a dream job.”
Long before he got the job at Texas Monthly, Ralat knew he wanted to write a book that explores the almost unbelievable variety of tacos that are being sold, enjoyed and valued in the United States
He spent three years proposing the book, watching as more tacos and Tex-Mex books hit the market, and adjusting his pitch over the months.
“I knew exactly what the chapters would look like. I knew I wanted these attachments (on how to identify a good taco truck and what the history of taco owners is like). I wanted this to be a real guide, not just a social story, ”he says.
Over the course of about five years, he traveled to 38 cities in three countries, eating tacos and listening to people’s stories, figuring out the right questions and how to ask them respectfully. “You don’t have to say much; You just have to ask the right questions to get them to talk, ”he says
When speaking in Spanish, he follows a different protocol, speaks formal Spanish and exchanges courtesies to earn your trust. “And it’s better in person than over the phone, which makes my job very difficult at the moment,” he says.
The University of Texas Press released the book in April but, thanks to the quick thinking of its staff, distributed it early so the books could be shipped before the coronavirus shutdown. His personal book tour was canceled, but he was practically out and about in cities across the US year-round chatting with friends and fellow taco fans.
“The virtual tour was a blessing because I can travel to more places than I could have afforded,” he says. “It was difficult, but everything was difficult.”
He misses the big taco festivals that bring these people together in real life, including the Taco Libre event he curates every spring in Dallas.
“The festivals are important and we can’t have them right now, but tacos have a moment, just like they did in the 2008 recession,” he says.
Business owners are opening new taquerias – three in a week in Dallas last month – and Ralat also sees grill restaurants adding tacos that allow them to make some extra cash at a lower cost for the customer.
The last recession sparked an entirely new genre of tacos: K-Mex, a Korean-Mexican hybrid that became popular around 2008 at Roy Choi’s taco truck Kogi BBQ. Twitter was new, and Choi tweeted the truck’s location, drawing long lines everywhere he went. Soon, Korean tacos were selling in cities across the country, including Austin, where the peached tortilla and Chi’Lantro opened around the same time.
“People have already mixed these foods, so he didn’t invent K-Mex, but he saw this opportunity and took it, and that makes him a godfather.”
It’s a prime example of what happens when we don’t let the “Abuelita Principle” get in the way of creative ideas.
“People will do what they do,” he says. “We love to play. Cooks do handicrafts, of course. That manifests itself in this area in the ingredient trade to the point where a whole new genre is codified. “It sometimes takes decades for these new genres to become firmly entrenched, while others, like bulgogi and kimchi tacos, become widespread in just a few years.
Ralat didn’t want American Tacos to focus too much on individual companies that are constantly opening, closing and moving, but rather an overview of eight types of American tacos.
He starts with breakfast tacos and over the years has explored the various online spats about where they were invented or which Texan city “owns” them. He then delves into the history of crispy tacos, from the puffy tacos of San Antonio to the flautas, taquitos, and crunchy tacos found from coast to coast to the grill tacos that are found across Texas and the south can be found.
He dedicates a chapter to Sur Tacos, those fried chicken, smoked pork, and coleslaw tacos found from Tennessee and Louisiana to Georgia and North Carolina, and another chapter to Alta California-style tacos, those tacos from Southern California that A variety of ingredients are often served and filled on blue corn tortillas, from carnitas and guisada to sweet potatoes, mussels, mushrooms and grilled fish.
Jewish and kosher tacos have a long, often misunderstood history, which Ralat explains well. Back to the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish families found ways to continue practicing their beliefs while avoiding persecution, and many of these crypto-Jews found their way to New Spain, which eventually included El Paso and many small towns along the Rio Grande. Now you can find them from Los Angeles and Santa Fe to Kansas City, New Jersey and Brooklyn.
These three categories of tacos (Sur, Alta California, and Jewish) are a bit more cook-friendly and formed the basis of what Ralat calls El Taco Moderno, the contemporary taco movement that includes the high-concept bites found at Comedor Dai Due Taqueria and Suerte in Austin.
Thanks to the rise in taco journalism over the past 10 years, more and more customers are appreciating handmade tortillas and well-sourced ingredients, but Ralat says they have to be willing to pay for them. “You can’t have it both ways. You need to appreciate food as much as you appreciate other foods. “
And people shouldn’t be firing taco chains anytime soon, including Taco Bell. “I can tell that while a taco is not good, it still deserves a mention. I wouldn’t have a job without Taco Bell. As much as I dislike Taco Bell, it is historically significant and needs to be recognized as such. “
Ralat says he doesn’t think people should be so focused on authenticity and cultural appropriation. Food is constantly evolving, and it will continue to do so, but “there’s a sense of protection when it comes to Mexican food, and it’s a coping mechanism because Americans did terrible things to Mexicans and Mexican food.”
Rather than criticize a taco for its “authenticity”, consider how the history and current conditions of immigration, discrimination, oppression, working conditions, economic choice and work could have led this taco to creation.
“The whole point of the book is that we shouldn’t create jerky reactions,” he says. “Just because something exists outside of our realm of experience doesn’t mean it has no value. We just don’t know. “
Trying a new taco can open the door to learning more about a region’s history and the context in which the taco developed. Kansas City, for example, has long been home to Mexicans who used to ride all the way to the end of the Santa Fe Trail. When their descendants prepared food together with the Italian immigrants, these tacos with parmesan became a regionally important dish.
“A taco that no one has heard of (outside the area) is rooted in 150 years of history,” he says. “If you think about it from someone else’s perspective, you can learn something. And it could taste better. “