Last Thursday, I logged onto D Magazine’s Instagram account at 4:30 p.m. just as I’ve been doing for the last three consecutive weeks. Like my fellow D editors, I appear before y’all—frazzled hair and all— to provide some virtual company for half an hour. One week, Las Palmas bar manager Ian Smith walked us through a cocktail recipe in an enviable fedora (words I’ve never written before).
Most recently, José R. Ralat, Texas Monthly’s first-ever taco editor and author of American Tacos: A History and Guide (released on April 15), joined me on Instagram Live. We both enjoyed tacos—at home, I had Taco y Vino, which has a six tacos and a bottle of wine deal for $30; Ralat grabbed grub from Taqueria Taxco—and a taco-centric Q&A. While Ralat noted that Dallas doesn’t have a specifically local taco style (the way puffy tacos are to San Antonio), the man has established that Dallas is, indeed, a taco city. He said as much in D Magazine back in 2018.
Below is a condensed version of our Instagram Live conversation which has been edited for length and clarity. See you this Thursday, April 30th, same time, same place.
Rosin Saez: Back in 2018, you wrote, for D Magazine: “If you’ve ever wanted to look into the face of God, eat a taco. Indeed, the taco is composed of a holy trinity—a tortilla, a filling, and a salsa—that, when combined, can move the soul into communion with a higher power.” How does one go from merely an appreciator of tacos to a researcher, an expert?
José Ralat: I still call myself a student because it’s a big country with lots of culinary traditions, but, to answer your question directly: a lot of reading and a lot of listening. Not as much eating as I would like. In 2015, when I was working on Texas Monthly‘s taco issue. A friend and I went to El Paso and ate at 15 places in one day. And El Paso is spread out with one highway, so there’s a lot of traffic. And it was a long day, but a very good day. Here, that’s easy because you can hit like 60 taquerias within like two miles of downtown.
In your book you start off with the idea that you never thought about writing about tacos as a career, let alone traveling for research to write about tacos. And that leads us into your book, American Tacos, which covers the different regions of types of tacos. So why did you want to take on that subject in such a deeply reported way?
I’m a nerd. So the book came about because, honestly, no one else had done it. And I wanted to add to the literature. It took me three years to polish the book, the book proposal, and another three years to write the book. But I saw the fact that there was a niche and I jumped at the opportunity to fill that niche. And I figured why not? I was already traveling.
Do you feel like the taco is misunderstood in America?
Oh, yeah. When people think about taco in this country, they think hardshell tacos. The kind that you get at Taco Bell and fast food chains, right? Well, those didn’t come out of nowhere. Those came from Mexico. they were just adapted to our tastes. And there were misconceptions about that, even within this country, we have regional variations on a fried tacos: In Kansas City we have ground beef tacos, fried, then topped with parmesan which reflects the two largest ethnic populations from that city. More locally, you have the puffy taco in San Antonio. Dallas really only has one taqueria with puffy tacos … Resident Taqueria.
You get into this in your book as well: A lot of people have strong opinions on what is authentic and what is inauthentic.
It’s all BS. “Authenticity” is interesting because, as I like to tell Anglo friends, your grandmother’s recipe for cookies, whatever they may be, is different from your friend’s grandmother’s recipe for the same cookie, right? That doesn’t mean either isn’t validated. They’re both great and they’re both chocolate chip cookies. Why can’t that apply to tacos? And the reason is, you know, misconception at best [and] racism at worst. And then you fall into a trap, which I call the “Abuelita Principal”: Everyone’s Mexican grandmother was the only person who made true Mexican food.
And that’s true for like so many countries too. Like, my Puerto Rican grandmother or my friend’s Filipino mom [to us, make] the best versions and nothing can ever compare.
But you know what? My Puerto Rican grandmother was a terrible cook.
But there’s something about a tradition. When you adhere to the tradition, no matter if it’s the best tasting version of what it can be, it’s tradition over everything. But then you lose out on evolving and exploring—you miss out on being able to build upon the traditional foundation. That’s why we have Korean-Mex, and you have bulgogi tacos.
So, I tend to use examples of more traditional tacos. When I talk about Dallas or more modern Mexican styles, for example barbacoa—which in Texas is mostly beef, mostly beef cheeks—is not the actual ingredient. It’s the preparation itself. So you can barbacoa anything as long as it doesn’t disintegrate. But like you mentioned Korean tacos. That gets back to the idea that tacos are also regional, which I call a reflection of their time and place. So in the ’90s, emigration out of Korea increased and then you had Koreans living next to lots of Mexicans. And what happens when two different groups live side by side? They trade ingredients and…
I imagine you are really connected to that community here. What have you kind of been hearing and what can we do better to support taquerias out there?
Well, if you’re worried about person to person contact, order delivery. That being said, however safely you can do it, they need your help. I’ve been hearing some pretty awful things lately, and I want none of those to actually come true. But I think that the taqueria as a whole will survive.
You can find José R. Ralat’s book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, online at bookshop.org. And for more taco resources, you can head to our D Magazine Dining Directory to peruse our Taco Joints listing. Also, Four Corners Brewing created a great taco map so you can find taquerias near you to support.