Don’t ask Texas Monthly taco editor José R. Ralat to pick a favorite taco. Or a most authentic taco. Or whose grandmother makes the best taco.
"I get tired 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 featured this week during the Texas Book Festival, Ralat explains what he called the "abuelita principle." "Tacos are only viewed as acceptable when they reflect the traditional cooking of someone’s grandmother," he says. "Anything else is considered inauthentic or a threat."
But this way of thinking puts tacos — a large and vast category of foods — in a box, and it prevents us from enjoying food from other cooks and allowing the entire idea of a taco to evolve along with the many different kinds of people who cook it.
"Nostalgia tastes great, but as writers, we have to be careful about how we romanticize food. This is not theater. We can’t romanticize this," he says.
And besides, grandmothers didn’t ask to be the standard-bearers. "How dare we lay the weight of the whole cuisine on the backs of a bunch of old ladies?" he says, with both reverence and a sense of protection. "Many different people have long carried these food traditions."
One of the biggest misconceptions about tacos is that Mexican tacos are so different from American tacos. Tacos across Mexico are different in the same way that tacos across the U.S. vary according to the particular circumstances of a particular time and place, including Immigration, ingredients, cultural norms, labor laws and, yes, nostalgia.
All of these factors are what help form campechano tacos and al pastor tacos and gobernador tacos south of the border and breakfast tacos and fish tacos and kimchi tacos and Kansas City’s Parmesan-topped tacos north of the border.
The wide variety of regional American (and Mexican) tacos are what Ralat, who was born in Puerto Rico, started exploring seriously while he was living in Brooklyn with his wife, Jessica, a Texas native. They ate a lot of tacos as they explored the city’s boroughs and eventually moved to Texas, settling in Dallas, where they now live with their son, a sixth grader.
Part of what prompted Ralat to start speaking and writing more publicly about tacos was a 2006 list in Texas Monthly that named the picadillo taco from Dallas’ Fuel City as the best taco in the state.
"I thought that was blasphemy. That taco is like shotgunning canola oil," he says. "I started poking at them on Twitter for doing that, but I wouldn’t be writing for Texas Monthly now if it weren’t for that. And if it weren’t for that nod, Dallas wouldn’t be on the taco map."
He got the taco editor job in 2019, and he doesn’t consider himself a taco critic as much as a storyteller. "As food writers, we have to balance readers’ needs with the industry that we’re a part of," he says. "We are part of the hospitality industry, we are not its adversary."
Rather, "it’s our job to champion those who deserve to be championed and to tell stories, whether they are heart-wrenching or historically nerdy," he says. "It’s a dream job."
Long before he got the Texas Monthly job, Ralat knew he wanted to write a book spotlighting the almost unbelievable variety of tacos sold, enjoyed and treasured throughout the U.S.
He spent three years on the book proposal, watching more and more tacos and Tex-Mex books hit the market and adjusting his pitch as the months went by.
"I knew exactly what the chapters were going to be. I knew that I wanted those appendices (about how to identify a good taco truck and the history of taco holders). I wanted this to be a true guide, not just a social history," 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, finding the right questions to ask and figuring out how to ask them in a respectful way. "You don’t have to say much; you just have to ask the right questions to get them talking," he says
When having conversations in Spanish, he follows a different protocol, speaking in formal Spanish and exchanging pleasantries to earn their trust. "And it’s better in person than over the phone, which makes my job real hard right now," he says.
The University of Texas Press published the book in April, but thanks to quick thinking from their staff, distributed it early so the books could be shipped ahead of the coronavirus shutdown. His in-person book tour got canceled, but all year, he’s been virtually popping into cities across the U.S. to chat with friends and fellow taco fans.
"The virtual tour has been a blessing because I can travel to more places than I would have been able to afford," he says. "It’s been hard, but everything has been hard."
He’s missing the big taco festivals that bring those folks together in real life, including the Taco Libre event he helps curate in Dallas each spring.
"The festivals are important, and we can’t have those right now, but tacos are having a moment, just like they did in the 2008 recession," he says.
Business owners are opening new taquerias — three opened in one week in Dallas last month — and Ralat is also seeing barbecue restaurants add tacos, which they can make slightly more money off of at a lower price point for the customer.
The last recession sparked an entirely new genre of tacos: K-Mex, a Korean-Mexican hybrid popularized at Roy Choi’s taco truck, Kogi BBQ, around 2008. Twitter was new, and Choi would tweet out the truck’s location, draw long lines wherever he went. Soon, Korean tacos were being sold in cities across the country, including Austin, where the Peached Tortilla and Chi’Lantro opened around the same time.
"People were already blending those foods, so he didn’t invent K-Mex, but he saw this opportunity and leveraged it, and that makes him the 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 are going to do what they do," he says. "We love to play. Cooks naturally tinker. That manifests within this realm in trading ingredients to the point where a whole new genre becomes codified." Those new genres sometimes take decades to firmly take root while others, such as those bulgogi and kimchi tacos, become widely loved in just a few years.
Ralat didn’t want "American Tacos" to be too focused on individual businesses, which are always opening, closing and moving, but rather an overview of eight types of American tacos.
He starts with breakfast tacos and explores the various online spats over the years about where they were invented or which Texas city "owns" them. He then digs into the history of crispy tacos, from the puffy tacos of San Antonio to the flautas, taquitos and crispy tacos found from coast to coast, and then the barbecue tacos found across Texas and the South.
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 to Alta California-style tacos, those Southern California tacos often served on blue corn tortillas and stuffed with wide-ranging ingredients, from carnitas and guisada to sweet potatoes, clams, mushrooms and grilled fish.
Jewish and kosher tacos have a long, often misunderstood history that Ralat explains well. Going back to the Spanish inquisition, Jewish families found ways to continue to practice their faith while avoiding persecution, and many of these Crypto-Jews found their way to New Spain, which eventually included El Paso and many small cities 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 little more chef-y and formed the foundation 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 uptick in taco journalism in the past 10 years, more customers are appreciating handmade tortillas and well-sourced ingredients, but Ralat says they have to be willing to pay for it. "You can’t have it both ways. You need to value the food the same way you value other food."
And people shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss taco chains, including Taco Bell. "I can recognize that even though a taco might not be good, it can still deserve a mention. I wouldn’t have a job without Taco Bell. As much as I don’t like Taco Bell, it’s historically significant and must be acknowledged as such."
Ralat says he doesn’t think people should be so focused on authenticity and cultural appropriation. Food is always evolving, and it will continue to do so, but "there’s a sense of protectiveness when it comes to Mexican food, and it’s a coping mechanism because Americans have done such awful things to Mexicans and Mexican food."
Instead of criticizing a taco according to its "authenticity," consider how the history and current conditions of immigration, discrimination, oppression, labor conditions, economic choice and labor might have led that taco into creation.
"The whole point of the book is that we shouldn’t make knee-jerk reactions," he says. "Just because something exists outside of our realm of experience, that doesn’t mean it lacks value. We just don’t know about it."
Trying a new taco can open the door to learning about the history of a region and the context in which the taco developed. Kansas City, for instance, has long been home to Mexicans who used to ride to the end of the Santa Fe Trail. When their descendants made food alongside the Italian immigrants, those Parmesan-topped tacos evolved as a regionally important dish.
"A taco that no one has heard about (outside the area) is rooted in 150 years of history," he says. "If you think about it from someone else’s perspective, you might learn something. And it might taste better."