Texas Monthly's Taco Editor on the Past, Present, & Future of the American Taco
Q&A with José R. Ralat, the man with one of the most envied titles in town
By Lina Fisher,
1:34PM, Wed. Apr. 22, 2020
José R. Ralat has maybe one of the most enviable jobs in Texas – Taco Editor of Texas Monthly. Further bolstering his credentials as the foremost expert on our lovely state’s most quintessential cuisine, he’s just come out with a new book, American Tacos: A History and a Guide, that chronicles the cultural and political history of the taco.
We chatted with him via phone to discuss, among other things, his career trajectory, pastrami tacos, a book launch in the time of coronavirus, nixtamalization, and the future of cross-cultural tacos.
Austin Chronicle: Right now a book launch is kind of weird; usually you'd go on a tour. How is it different and how have you been coping with that change?
José R. Ralat: So at first I was angry. Putting together a book tour is hard work, and I thought I had all my ducks in a row; then this came. After I got over feeling bad for myself, I looked at the situation and said, well I'll just video the damn thing. I've done it twice … it's been fun. It's definitely been educational. But it actually opens up a lot more opportunities, because I can talk to people in Detroit face to face when I wasn't planning on going to Detroit.
AC: It sort of adds more stops.
JR: … without leaving my office. It's not ideal, but I can definitely work with it, and I have been working with it and I've been learning. Luckily I have the resources of Texas Monthly that can help me out, and with the virtual book touring, I can connect my professional and personal networks in ways that I wouldn't have otherwise. So, it's fascinating that way, and it's forced me to look at this differently, which is part of what the book's supposed to do. It's supposed to make you look at this one subject, that for example Texans take for granted as part of our DNA, and look at it in new ways and look at it in nonjudgmental ways, and by that I mean ultimately don't let your preconceptions prevent you from trying something. Because the whole point is, if it's delicious, fuckin' eat it!
AC: You often defend things as tacos that you wouldn't normally think of as tacos, like flautas, burritos, etc. Can you talk a little bit about the definition of a taco and why you think it should be broader than it’s usually thought of?
JR: There are two definitions of a taco; one is physical, one is not. The physical is a tortilla, filling, and a salsa. The tortilla can be corn or flour. The other definition is a reflection and representation of its time and place. Tacos are regional. We know that as Texans. It seems that a lot of people inherently know that, but they regard it as stopping at the river. But tacos are different all over Mexico. Wherever there are tacos, there are going to be differences; we just need to be reminded of that. So the size of the tortilla doesn't matter, neither does the preparation of that tortilla. The earliest published recipes we have of the taco call for frying, and you could roll it or you could fold it.
AC: When was the first recipe you're talking about?
JR: Turn of the 19th century into the 20th. The taco isn't as new as we think it is. While Mexicans have folded things into tortillas for millennia, the name taco is a relatively new term that, according to some theories, goes back as far as the 18th century. Other theories … there's no way for us to know because we can't time travel. Which is part of the exciting thing, we can look at it from these different angles and we can all be right, we can all debate and hopefully we debate professionally enough and we don't take things personally. Texans have a hard time not taking things personally when it comes to the taco.
AC: You were saying people were putting things in tortillas for millennia, so what's the difference between that and a taco, is it just a naming thing, or is anything in a tortilla a taco?
JR: At this point almost anything in a tortilla is a taco. Where that line is, I don't know. It's a matter of discretion. I had one friend that was telling me it's like the differences between sandwiches. But a taco is not a sandwich [laughs]. At one point the name stuck, and that's how we've, pardon the expression, rolled with it, from that point forward. A lot of people understand that regionality is a critical part of the food, so they have integrated elements to create these new categories and these developing styles. In the chapters I have sidebars for these subcategories because there isn't a lot on them now that I could dig up. Maybe someone else can, and maybe a couple years down the road there will be a chapter's worth of information on it. That would be really exciting.
AC: Subcategories – are you at liberty to say what they are?
JR: Like Indo-Mex, which is subcontinental Indian integrated with Mexican, there's quite a bit of that in Austin. More of it in Houston. There's a Cajun taco, which also comes out of Houston, and Louisiana of course. That is largely African American. Those are the two big ones that I would single out. Those are for me very exciting because there's a lot of room for development. They both currently fall under the intersection of Southern and Mexican cuisine because they just happen to be geographically in the American South.
AC: Right. Are there any Northern American and Mexican fusion tacos? Like is there a lobster roll taco in Maine or something?
JR: In New York you'll get smoked pastrami tacos. Delicious. I haven't found one yet on a rye tortilla which I've nagged people about. I'm like, why are you serving this to me on a corn tortilla? I want a rye tortilla [laughs]. It's like they're only doing half the job! But the Midwestern crunchy taco is a lot different than the ones we have down here.
AC: Is it like a puffy taco?
JR: No, it's a cooked corn tortilla that's fried, almost like the kind you would get at a fast food place, but more along the lines of Jack in the Box. So what usually happens is they'll fill the corn tortilla, fold it and fry it. I've had some where they'll put in a slice of Kraft American singles. And I've had some where they put down lettuce and grated Parmesan cheese. That comes out of Kansas City, and that developed out of the proximity of Mexican and Italian laborers exchanging ingredients and using what they had. And it is amazing. Not only does it taste good, but intellectually it is so fascinating! Because it is exactly what a taco should be – a representation of its time and place. So I love it.
AC: Did you go to all 50 states, and were there any that were surprising to you in their version of the taco?
JR: I did not go to all 50 states – I want to. But for example it's really expensive to fly to Charleston. And I was only gonna be there for 24 hours so the cost/benefit wasn't gonna work out for me. I knew Chicago was always gonna be a great experience, because it is one of the country's taco capitals, I just hadn't been there yet, and I was blown away by it. Memphis is amazing. Thank goodness Memphis is really close to Dallas, where I live. It's only an eight-hour drive.
AC: What's their version like?
JR: So Memphis lost almost 90% of its Anglo population and a lot of that was replaced by Latin American immigrants and laborers, and now what we have coming out of Memphis is what we see coming out of Atlanta; that is, the integration of Southern American and Mexican ingredients. We're talking about the two greatest corn cultures finally coming together – it took long enough, right? In Memphis, my favorite example is El Mero Taco which started as a truck but is now a shuttered restaurant, like everything else. El Mero, it translates to "the best." And it's really great! The couple who own it, he is from Memphis but she is from Oaxaca. They met in Austin and moved to Memphis once the city began to permit food trucks. They wanted to open up their own food truck that offered their take on Mexican and Southern foods. So they have a really great fried chicken taco with buttermilk salsa, and they have collard greens with albóndigas, meatballs in a chipotle salsa, using tortillas that are sourced locally – and that is the physical manifestation of everything the book is about. It's delicious too. It doesn't always have to be! This isn't just a "best of" that I wrote, it's a history.
AC: So it's called a history and guide; the guide is sort of self-explanatory. But the history … how did you decide where to go, and then did you chart the history from your favorite places? I'm curious about your methodology.
JR: There were some that were obvious places I wanted to visit; I wanted to go to Chicago, I wanted to go to Los Angeles. I wanted to hit every corner of Texas where I live, because for example, tacos in Brownsville are completely different from tacos in McAllen and they're 40 minutes apart. But my methodology was about three weeks' worth of research ahead of a trip, from which I created a spreadsheet of places that I was gonna visit, all of their details, what I was gonna eat there and whatever notes I had, and a lot of newspaper clippings. Luckily there are an incredible amount of newspaper issues available digitally. I also had access to university databases, which are hard to get. And that allowed me to dig deeper, because I had access to more knowledge. I would fall down these rabbit holes – I love researching – I spent eight hours going through the patent office's online database. It was a wonderful day. It was just lovely.
AC: Speaking of research – your trajectory from the blog, The Taco Trail, to becoming the taco editor at Texas Monthly, to this book – what sparked your curiosity about the taco and when did you start the blog, and is there research in the book that came out of the blog?
JR: So there is research that came out of the blog. I've always kept a running list of places that I wanted to visit in relation to the blog. I came to tacos through my wife, who's a native Tejana. She introduced me to the breakfast taco, and it blew my mind that such a thing existed. Then she made me eat lengua and I was further blown away. And I developed a taste for it, but then when we moved to Dallas, the editor of the Dallas Observer called me up one day and asked if I liked tacos, and I said, "Who doesn't like tacos?" And he replied, "Great, pitch me something on Monday." I pitched this online weekly series that became The Taco Trail, and I was only there for a year or so. When I left I took the name with me and continued the research independently through freelance work, and I did a lot of freelance work. Eventually I got a full-time gig as the food editor at Cowboys & Indians magazine. That allowed me a lot of resources that I didn't have previously, so I could convince them that they should send me to Brownsville [laughs] so that I could eat 99 barbacoa tacos.
AC: You must have an iron stomach.
JR: You know, the only time I've gotten sick was in Canada. In Vancouver. Maybe it's because of the pure water, I don't know [laughs]. I do know that Mexican kitchens are the cleanest kitchens. A lot of that has to do with prejudice and stereotypes that they're fighting. But while I was at C&I, I co-edited Texas Monthly's 2015 Taco Issue, and at that point I pitched this job. Because they already had Daniel [Vaughn] as the barbecue editor, and what I told the editor-in-chief at the time was, more people eat Mexican food more of the time than they do barbecue, we both know this, why don't you just hire me? [laughs] So we started to talk about it, and there were several turnovers of leadership and ownership, and with this last one it just worked. I was unrelenting. And eventually they said yes. It's been a lot of hard work, it's been exciting and nerve-racking, because nothing like this has ever really been done before on this scale. I feel like I have a lot to prove and a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time.
AC: Yeah, and how has that changed now that you're kind of on lockdown? Not only with the book but with your whole job. How is it different?
JR: Well, I can go a little ways. I don't drive because I have epilepsy, which makes my job even more incredible, the fact that I can do it. But there are ways. I don't like the word no, I will find a way. My wife drives, so if we need to go to, for example, get alcohol for the weekend, I'll say hey, why don't we drive like five extra miles and we can leave Dallas city limits and try these tacos? We can eat them in the car. And that helps. But I also spend a lot of time eating at places that remain open via curbside pickup and delivery, selling the same foods that I've eaten, so I can continue to cover those restaurants for the Taco of the Week series. But I've started to work on stories about how these restaurants are dealing with the pandemic, and I think that's important right now.
AC: The goal of the job has sort of changed for the moment.
JR: I've had to pivot just as restaurants have. And that's a good opportunity to stretch muscles I haven't stretched in a long time, you know, news reporting is something that I don't usually get to do because I'm writing profiles or featured reviews, or trend pieces. Now I have to talk about, well, you can't sit people down, how do you make money? Well, you close. And I think that the taqueria and the Mexican restaurant are beautifully situated to ride this out. Because they are predominantly small, family-owned businesses that can adapt quickly, and adaptation is key. Adaptation is why the taco continues to become more popular. And it will be more popular once we get through this current lockdown. And once we get through following lockdowns. Because there will be more lockdowns until there's a vaccine, or until there's some sort of herd immunity. There's so much we don't know about COVID-19 and how it presents itself in so many different ways. There are three major symptoms but I know of people who have presented with different symptoms who both tested positive for the virus. I’ve been reading a lot about this because it affects my job. So taquerias will survive and they will thrive. Tacos are doing great.
AC: Looking beyond COVID-19, what is the future of the American taco? Like I'm thinking about nixtamalization, you're really passionate about tortillas, and I'm curious if you think that's going to catch on. Also I've been hearing people have been making their own homemade tortillas because of all the extra time; do you think there's gonna be a wave of attention paid to the tortilla after this?
JR: So it's really interesting that this pandemic came at a time where we were finally – and by we I mean the small group of journalists who cover Mexican food in the U.S. – were finally convincing the dining public that it was okay to pay five or $12 for a taco, because the ingredients used require it, and the labor requires it. So it's just as legitimate a cuisine as French food. There are a lot of great nixtamalized corn tortillas, but they are extremely expensive and they are laborious. They’re difficult to make well. You can kinda do it at home, but it's even less easy at home than it is at a restaurant or at a tortilleria because they have the infrastructure, they have the space. I think the tortillas we see being made at home are being made from dehydrated corn flour, which is fine if that's what people want, they should have it. That being said, there's nothing like a freshly made nixtamalized corn tortilla. You're getting a piece of the Earth, you're getting a piece of a culture, it's something sacred. I don't want people to begrudge or look down upon any taqueria that doesn't nixtamalize their own corn, because maybe they can't afford it. If you want your $2 taco, do not expect freshly handmade tortillas. And there's nothing wrong with it! Because people have expectations and they only have a certain amount of money, and not everyone has the time to pat out a corn tortilla. It's OK! [laughs]
But I think the more people make tortillas at home the more appreciation there will be for the hard work that tortilleras do and that other cooks do, and that only helps the taco. The taco will continue to change as we change, as populations shift, as markets open. Now you can get almost anything you want from anywhere in the world overnight, but the key word is almost. The markets will continue to open and people will want access to ingredients that they didn’t previously have access to. I think people might have a hard time paying for more expensive tacos, but that's where capitalism comes in. You know, I'm not a big fan, as the book probably lays out [laughs]. But the more purveyors of corn that work directly with small family farms in Mexico, the better. Because that lowers the prices of these nixtamalized corn tortillas. There's more availability, therefore more competition, and the price is lowered. And that benefits the consumer. It might not benefit the farmer. But hopefully yes. So we're gonna need more purveyors than the three or four that there are now. It's fascinating to me that most of the corn Mexicans eat comes from the U.S., but Americans are obsessed with artisanal Mexican corn [laughs].
AC: So I'm obligated to ask: You've said that Austin tacos are overrated, but is there a particular one that fits the bill for you?
JR: I absolutely love Vaquero Taquero, Valentina's, Comedor. I also love Trill Taqueria – unfortunately it's closed right now. But that guy, Nick Belloni, was making the quintessential Austin taco. He was sourcing everything from nearby. And he had rigged up his own corn mill, so that he could grind corn that he had nixtamalized. Locally sourced corn. Everything was local and well done. Delicious, wonderful, creative, the epitome of what the Austin taco should be. Unfortunately it's closed right now. The guy’s a family man, he has kids, and he decided that this was a good opportunity to spend more time with his family and I can't begrudge him that. I just hope he opens back up because Texas and Austin will be lacking something great. And it's worth the price point. I spent a lot of money there. Especially the first time when I said I'll have one of everything please. I paid for that with my own money. That was pre-Texas Monthly, that was just me going oh, yep, one of all of them. I say that quite a bit, not as much as I used to but it surprises a lot of people. They're like really? You want one [each] of 12 tacos we have on the menu? I say, yes please. Are you sure? Yep.
AC: That's why they call you the expert. Somebody's gotta do it. Anything else you’d want our readers to know?
JR: I really hope people walk away from this book with an open mind, or with a mind that is more open to the possibilities and less judgment. I want people to, in concert with this pandemic, to hopefully value the people behind it all. Just because they're people. I think that none of this matters if we don't consider the people, and they're just as important if not more important. So, an open mind is what people should take from the book.
AC: Thank you so much, and have a good rest of your quarantine. You've definitely opened my mind, I've never thought about a taco this much.
JR: You too! [laughs] It's all I think about.