The taco is central to what we do here at Siete. In creating the original almond flour tortillas, Vero sought to recreate the fluffy, yet toothsome texture of the tortillas that filled our dinner table on a nightly basis. Before we went grain-free, tacos weren't an option, they were a lifestyle. The dishes on our table lived a second life in partnership with the tortilla. Her new creation allowed the family to relive these moments.
Similar to this, there is a story that tells the past of every taco. Experimentations, fusions, and traditions making up a web of connections across the state, bringing people together through food. Some of these stories capture the popular imagination. Bobby, for instance, claims that he knows who first started calling breakfast tacos "Mariachis" in Laredo. But these stories are often untold to a wider audience, kept as gossip and lore within a community.
To learn more about the taco, the iconic varieties across Texas, and the stories of the people that make them, we sat down with Mando Rayo. Mando, an El Paso native and a self-proclaimed taco journalist, has spent the past ten years uncovering the best tacos that Austin, and Texas as a whole, has to offer.
This experience culminated in a book, The Tacos of Texas. It is remarkable; not only as an atlas to eat your way through Texas, but also as a rich guide to the stories that color the tacquerias across the state. It illuminates hidden areas in Texas taco history and makes you feel like a local as you learn about cities like Brownsville and Odessa through their tacos.
In the interview below, conducted over enchiladas, queso, and crispy tacos at Cocina de Consuelo, Mando breaks down what he learned from his journey, what makes the Texas tacos unique, and, of course, shares his "holy grail" taco.
For readers who do not know, you've recently completed a massive undertaking in chronicling Texan's favorite food––the taco––in a book The Tacos of Texas. What inspired you to dedicate so much time and energy to this project?
One thing about Texas is that the best tacos are the local tacos. When we were down in Corpus Christi, people from there were telling us that they have the best tacos in Texas. So it’s a fiercly local thing, and from Corpus Christi to Midland-Odessa, there’s tacos everywhere.
So we said lets go to these great cities, and find the tacos that people love. It was a natural thing where people were always telling us “you’ve got to try some piratas in Laredo” or “if you go to Brownsville, you’ve got to get the barbacoa or the street tacos at Ultimo Taco”. So we wanted to experience all of that.
So when we eat tacos, it’s an everyday thing, but it’s also a special thing. I always say “we don’t break bread, we break tortilla”.
One of the coolest thing about your book is that there are personal stories where people don't plug anything, but just talk about their experience with food and tacos. Can you tell us more about that process?
First of all, we interviewed over a hundred people, and, even though we are writers and we call ourselves taco journalists, we don’t want to speak for people. We want them to tell their story. When you think about it, if there are stories about tacos, they’re typically interviewing chefs or foodies, and a lot of them don’t end up being a latino or a Mexican. I wanted to make sure that we were represented very well in this book, and I wanted to ask people “What are the traditions you learned from your parents or grandparents? What are the recipes? And what styles?”, and, specifically, “What is your connection to the taco? What does it mean to you?”.
One of the things that sticks out is that it is part of their lifestyle. When we interviewed people, we kept hearing “I grew up Mexican, I grew up Tejano, or I grew up in Texas, and it was just part of our culture”. It was just a thing that they did, where everyone had a role to play, and that played a part in bringing the family together. So when we eat tacos, it’s an everyday thing, but it’s also a special thing. I always say “we don’t break bread, we break tortilla”.
That is another interesting thing about the book. It is not only representing Latino culture, but it is also making places that may seem opaque to people unfamiliar with Latino culture more approachable.
There are a ton of traditional taco shops here in Austin that don’t have great décor or branding, but have amazing food. So, the personal stories and reviews that you guys provide may bring different cultures together by making these tacquerias more approachable. Do you think that’s true?
What we wanted to do is open those doors for people. Say “it’s okay to go to a small mom and pop shop”. You don’t have to have a big marketing company or a fancy logo to make good tacos. And, whether it’s a family tradition of having a restaurant that carries on from family member to family member, or a retiree who wanted to start a food truck, or a place like Mi Tradición Panaderia that’s a bakery, and where the guy who started it is a baker, but started serving tacos and now they’re known for that, there are great places all around the state.
Tacos have been around for a long time. It’s not a trendy thing to do, so we wanted to bring people out of their bubble and give them the opportunity to try different styles. If you’re only comfortable eating at Tacodeli or Torchy’s, that’s fine! But those are not the only tacos. You can go to a place like La Cocina de Consuelo, where we’re eating now, and have some pretty amazing crispy tacos.
What were you doing before you started writing about Tacos?
Well, I have a day job, but I was working in community organizing for a long time, non-profit stuff. Now I work in marketing. A lot of my marketing is multi-cultural and about food, so it was a natural segue into the tacos. I have never really considered myself “a writer”, I just write the way that I talk.
For people that aren’t from Austin or Texas, what should they know about taco culture here?
The thing is that whether you were born here or you’re a transplant––as we say “you got here as soon as you could”––you’re not going to be able to not eat tacos, so it becomes part of your diet. If you go to a coffee shop, they have tacos; if you go to a gas station, they have tacos; you go to a little mom and pop shop, they have tacos; if you go to BBQ places and Asian places, they have tacos. There are tacos everywhere. Chicago has hot dogs, New York has bagels, in Texas it’s tacos. You just have so many choices that the possibilities are endless. It’s so ingrained into the culture that you adopt it when you live here.
For the longest time Austin was considered a BBQ town, even if most of the good BBQ was in Lockhart at the time, when do you think people began to start putting tacos on the same level, where people from out of town would say “I have to try the tacos”?
One thing, I think, is that taco shops that are more media savvy started to be more responsive to the demand. When we were researching all of these tacos across the state, we found that some of these places are just running their business and don’t care about the limelight. But then new, big places started saying “hey! we’ll set you up, come on in”. Tacos have always been there, but I think these bigger shops made tacos more accessible to the mainstream to a degree.
So I guess if I had to say the time-frame it would be in the 90s. Before the 90s taco trucks and trailers were frowned upon. They were trying to close them down on Riverside. I think one of the pivotal moments was actually when Torchy’s opened their trailer. The owner petitioned city council to lax the rules for food trailers so that people could have an easier pathway to opening their own shops, and I think that also made trucks more acceptable.
It’s funny because there might have been as many tacquerias then as there are now. Shops are always opening and closing. But maybe now there are more mainstream ones that are accessible to media. They’re on social media, they’re tweeting out all kinds of stuff.
And with things like Yelp, they’ve both become a lot easier to find and know that you’re going to a place that other people like. Which I think is kind of the purpose of food blogs. Your blog (taco journalism) started before Yelp, but I think you guys did a great job of uncovering the hidden gems and making people feel comfortable trying different shops.
Yeah, I think that helped a lot, and that was around 2006. In Austin, we’re media savvy. It’s a technology town, there’s a lot of creatives here, and that fuels the food culture here too.
Which also has the effect of driving explorer types to rediscover places that aren’t media savvy, because they’re looking for the little known places that no one else knows about.
Mhm. I took a friend yesterday, to a gas station on Airport Blvd., and inside there’s a new tacqueria, and it’s good. There’s a barbacoa taco there that’s solid. It’s called Tacqueria Huentitan. It’s just these two ladies, and they have a pretty extensive menu for a gas station.
And I just found it randomly. One day I was taking my kids somewhere and I stopped in to get some stuff and—you know how you kind of like get a sense if a place is good? Like when you go into a gas station and you see the food and you’re like “oh, I’m not gonna touch that”? I didn’t get that, I got “I need to go back”.
So I guess we’ll cap off the interview with the ultimate question: what is your holy grail taco? Where is it from and why is it your favorite?
Well my go-to taco is always an al pastor, and there’s two places that I like to go for my al pastor in Austin.
But, there is one taco that beats the al pastor and that’s Valentina’s brisket taco. They have a regular sliced brisket taco and Real Deal Holyfield, which is like brisket, beans, potatoes, and a fried egg. The tortillas are great. My favorite taco there is the Real Deal Holyfield, it’s so good man. When go to a BBQ place it’s usually very traditional BBQ, but at Valentina’s the owner is from San Antonio and he mixes both the Tex and Mex. It has the salsas and the tortillas, but also some damn good brisket!
Yeah, I think it’s great that you picked that because it epitomizes what actual Tex Mex culture is like, which is taking the absolute best of both worlds.
Tex Mex kind of has a reputation of just being queso and crispy tacos, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And the cool thing about it is that like, yes we’re in Texas, but it’s still a true mixing of culture.