September 16, 2019 | News | No Comments
Twenty-two years ago, Texas Monthly, the venerable “national magazine of Texas,” published a ranking of the state’s fifty best barbecue joints. The magazine had named the state’s best barbecue before, but the Top Fifty was an extraordinary feat of carnivorousness—a massive inventory of smoked meat, involving hundreds of meals and uncountable thousands of miles—and it became a phenomenon, on and off the newsstand. Regularly revised and updated in the years since, the list drives tourism both to and within the state, names and shapes trends, makes kings of newcomers, and topples long-established empires. So tremendous is Texans’ desire to read about barbecue, so essential is the food to the very notion of Texan-ness, that in 2013 Texas Monthly appointed the food writer and meat savant Daniel Vaughn to the freshly created role of barbecue editor.
This week, the magazine announced the creation of a new position to stand alongside its barbecue editor: beginning September 18th, José R. Ralat will become the magazine’s and the nation’s first taco editor. Ralat—who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City, and now lives in Dallas—has been something of a professional taco-eater for more than a decade, first writing taco reviews for the New York Press, and then, after decamping from Brooklyn to Texas, ten years ago, launching a weekly taco column with the Dallas Observer. He’s the author of the blog Taco Trail and, until the end of this week, the food and drink editor at the Dallas-based magazine Cowboys & Indians. His new role sounds like an office drone’s daydream: a full-time salary, plus benefits, just to wander around Texas and eat tacos? Sure thing, kid, dream on. But, as with its editorial commitment to barbecue, Texas Monthly considers this job to be not only serious business but essential Texas journalism: in a state where more than forty per cent of the population is Hispanic, including Mexican and Mexican-American residents, tacos are part of daily life, and key to Texan culinary identity.
I recently spoke with Ralat by phone about his new gig; in our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also explored how to categorize burritos, why tacos are essentially Texan, and Ralat’s mission to correct the record on breakfast tacos.
Do you already have an itinerary mapped out for your first few months on the road?
I have a rough idea that was part of my initial conversation with Texas Monthly—I sent them a list of, like, twenty ideas, thirty ideas. And it just keeps getting longer! It’s a big state, you know? It’s a huge state! And I have some friends who want to travel with me who are up for the drive. I’ll need them, because I don’t drive at all.
That seems like an obstacle for this kind of job.
You’d think so, but it hasn’t stopped me yet. I’m from New York, and I have epilepsy, so at first I just never learned to drive, and then I couldn’t drive—I probably never will. But there are a lot of buses, and there are my friends. Daniel [Vaughn, the magazine’s barbecue editor] lives in Dallas, too, and he and I could conceivably team up on things so we can hit the road together, tacos and barbecue at once. I do plan on doing a taco of the week and a taco of the month, but Mexican food in Texas is evolving quickly, and so I’ll be covering Mexican pizza, and Mexican burgers, paletas, burritos—I’m a little scared of those, to be honest. I don’t know what that’s gonna be like. But I consider burritos to be tacos.
You say that like it’s a controversial opinion.
It’s not, though! There are a couple of books out of Mexico that detail the history of the burrito—an older book, called “Los Tacos de México,” and a more recent one, called “La Tacopedia,” by Alejandro Escalante. They explain that, yes, burritos are large, folded tortillas, but they are still tacos. It’s not a new argument, it’s just not really discussed a lot. I don’t understand why you would want to eat something that big in one sitting. That doesn’t make sense to me. But it does make sense to me that they count as tacos.
Do Mexican burgers and Mexican pizzas count as tacos, too?
I want to cover traditional Mexican dishes, new Mexican dishes, Mexican-American and Tex-Mex dishes. I want to talk to restaurateurs and restaurant owners who have been running the same restaurants for fifteen, twenty, thirty-five years. Taco Deli [a famous taco stand in Austin] is celebrating twenty years this year. They helped make breakfast tacos a national thing, so I’d love to talk to them about why they started, and what they think their impact has been.
If you’re covering the full breadth of Mexican food in Texas, why call the job “taco editor”?
With Mexican cooking, everything eventually makes it into a tortilla. It’s how you eat almost everything: put it inside a tortilla, and then that’s a taco. Tortillas are generally served with meals, at the table. Plus, “taco editor” is real dang catchy, isn’t it?
I would worry about running into an ontological brick wall—if everything is a taco, then the idea of a taco, as a distinct food, maybe becomes kind of meaningless?
No, for several reasons. For one, in general, when we talk about tacos, we’re really talking about tortillas, particularly corn tortillas. Corn is the foundation of Mexican identity, Mexican culture. Also, the taco is a quick, easy, perfect food—we don’t think about them that much because here in Texas we eat them multiple times a week. You buy tortillas nearby—or maybe you make your own, but that’s rare these days. When you go out to eat, they’re everywhere. Do we take them for granted? It’s a good question. I hope we don’t. I certainly don’t.
Barbecue, especially smoked brisket, is a quintessential Texas food. Tacos, on the other hand, are everywhere—and it seems like Californians sometimes pretend to have a monopoly on them.
A lot of people like to argue about which barbecue is better: Carolina barbecue, Texas barbecue, whatever. I don’t think that sort of thing helps tacos. I think that, for those of us who live along the border, tacos are part of our DNA—and, if the rest of America doesn’t know that, then, hopefully, I can help. A lot of reporting comes out of California. And, frankly, a lot of outside reporting about Texas tacos is due to reporters visiting Austin for South by Southwest. To think that that’s what outsiders think of as “Texas tacos” makes me cringe! Austin is a small city that gets a lot of attention, but it can only really be credited with one taco, and that’s the migas taco, which is their signature: crispy tortilla strips mixed with eggs and cheese, mixed with salsa that can be as simple as a pico de gallo.
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Austin gets a lot of credit for breakfast tacos, too.
I hope that I’ll be able to finally correct this: there’s no such thing as an Austin-style breakfast taco! It doesn’t exist. Austin has great breakfast tacos, but for some reason the rest of the country’s breakfast tacos have always been described as Austin-style. They’re no different along the border, where they came from the Rio Grande Valley, which includes northern Mexico. They can be small or large, like the big ones served in thin, almost translucent flour tortillas in Brownsville, or the smaller, thicker, flour-tortilla-based tacos served in cities like San Antonio. To a lot of people who were born or live in Texas anywhere outside of Austin, the idea of calling a breakfast taco “Austin-style” is offensive. It’s not offensive to me—it just bothers me because it’s incorrect. It’s misinformation, and part of my job is to clear that up.
Can you say more about tacos as part of Texans’ DNA?
Tacos are Mexico’s gift to the world. In Texas, we’re lucky enough to live in a place that used to be Mexico, and that helps make them part of our DNA. My wife is Mexican-American, and she’s largely responsible for getting me into this mess. She made me breakfast tacos for the first time, she made me lengua [beef tongue] tacos for the very first time. For me, those were rapturous moments. I’ve joked that I fell in love with her because of breakfast tacos.
I’ve only lived in Texas for ten years, and I’m still not calling myself a Texan, but I’ve been entrenched in this little world for a while now, and I’ve been fortunate enough to tell these stories—not just the stories of the tacos but of the people who make them. I do this job at their pleasure, and I feel welcomed as one of them. I can see how important tacos are to every Texan. We argue about them so much, and for no reason whatsoever.
What are some common taco arguments?
Corn tortillas or flour, that’s intense—the answer depends on where you live and what you eat. People argue about two ways of making tortillas: maseca, a brand of dehydrated corn flour that is combined with flour to make corn tortillas, versus nixtamal, or nixtamalization, which is the ancient, time-consuming process of soaking and cooking corn to separate the hull from the interior of the kernel and imbue nutrients into corn, which is then ground and made into tortillas. That’s a really big question that involves economics, labor, and all kinds of other things. Sure, keeping ancient traditions alive is important, but you also can’t blame a place for using commodity tortillas when it’s expected that they sell two-dollar tacos. Oh, now, there’s an argument right there! Should tacos be cheap, or should they be expensive?
Alex Stupak, the chef of New York’s Empellón restaurants, has talked a lot over the years about how frustrating it is that if he were to offer a dish of, say, two beautifully seared scallops dressed with gorgeous sauce, diners would be happy to pay twenty or thirty dollars for it, whereas, as soon as he puts a tortilla underneath the scallops, people freak out and refuse to pay more than five bucks, because it’s a taco now.
It’s ridiculous! Just like any other food, you get what you pay for. If you want a beautifully made, hand-crafted item—something made from scratch, using ancient methods, with sauces that take days to make—you’re gonna pay five, ten, twelve dollars. I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and I spent twelve dollars on a taco, didn’t even think about it. Because it was handmade, well-made, and delicious.
Barbecue, by contrast, isn’t always a cheap meal—it’s not fancy, but it can sometimes be awfully expensive, and yet people don’t seem to complain about those prices.
It’s true. But I think that tacos are more accessible than barbecue. You can have three Mexican-food businesses in one strip mall, but you could never do that with barbecue. People make barbecue a destination event; tacos are what we eat every day. If you’re running late for work in Texas, you bring breakfast tacos as a mea culpa. But they are, sometimes, getting to be almost as expensive as barbecue, depending on where you go. I blew four hundred dollars at a modern Mexican restaurant, and it was amazing! It was worth it! I don’t expect everyone to do that, or be able to do that, but the point is that, although tacos are more accessible, they can be just as expensive as barbecue, if not more.
Right now, with so much national attention on the border, and the President egging on such intense anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment, does it seem important for you that tacos are being placed up there with barbecue on the highest level of Texan identity?
It really is. Since you brought that up, when the shooting happened in El Paso last month, it brought things into focus for my family. My wife’s parents are from El Paso, and we have family there, we have friends there. Since that weekend, my wife says that she’s worried about me when I’m working. It’s a legitimate concern. I don’t know what to say other than, well, I’m still gonna do my job.
Is this a case of, every Texan loves tacos, but not every Texan loves the people who make the tacos?
You know, chili is the official dish of Texas. And it’s designated as such because it is the culmination of all of the foodways that have given this state its culinary identity: it has European influence, American influence, Mexican influence. Tacos and barbecue come out of that same tradition. It’s a shame that people outside of Texas think of barbecue first as a Texas food, but before there was barbecue there was barbacoa—that’s where we get the name from. I like to joke with Daniel Vaughn that barbecue isn’t perfect until it’s in a tortilla.
Now there’s this thing called Tex-Mex barbecue, and that’s really curious to me. It’s a style that includes dishes like brisket tacos topped with serrano-tomatillo salsa on flour tortillas, pork sausage stuffed with queso Oaxaca and serrano chilies, beef-chorizo sausage, smoked-brisket tamales. It’s considered new, but barbecue has always been Mexican and Tex-Mex. Barbacoa, specifically South Texas beef-head barbacoa, is a major influence on contemporary Texas barbecue. Tortillas have long been served with Texas-barbecue elements in Mexican-American households. But it’s only in the past year that this idea of Tex-Mex barbecue has received attention from the mainstream press, and the term has become a buzzword. Is it a case of barbecue co-opting tacos? I think we need to be careful when approaching this kind of topic. It can look an awful lot like Columbusing.
You’ve talked before about how you don’t like to see the word “authentic” applied to food. Why is that?
It’s very confining; it doesn’t allow for a dynamic, evolving system. Authenticity exists, if it exists at all, only on paper—in the kitchen, everyone’s recipe for rice and beans is different. There’s no truly authentic rice and beans.
What do you think people who use the word are actually trying to say?
I think they have a lot of good intentions. But what they’re trying to say is that they know something about that item, that product, that dish. That they have some sort of ownership over it. And we don’t own anything. Even different towns have variations on the same dish. One example is birria, which is a stew—it can be made with goat, it can be made with beef, it can be made with lamb. You can’t really say that one is more authentic than the other. Barbacoa can be made with anything. It’s a process, a method—not an item. Everyone adds something a little differently.
How long do you think a person can write about tacos before running out of things to say?
There’s no telling. There’s enough to learn to last me a lifetime. I’m excited about chile-rellenos tacos, which are becoming more popular, and about tacos de trompo, which are a regional cousin to tacos al pastor. They’re seasoned differently, and they’re only found where there are large Monterreyan immigrant populations, like in Dallas and Houston. I wish I could have some sort of “Star Trek” transporter directly to San Antonio, because the pork-chop tacos there, wow. Whole pork chops, bone in, served on flour tortillas—they’re amazing. I hope I’ll write about tacos forever.
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