Tacos! At the magnificent Revolver Taco Lounge, one of the city's many great taquerias. Kevin Marple

Food Fight!

What the Texas Taco Wars Say About the Changing Culture of an Urbanizing State

Dallas' surprising emergence as a mecca for great tacos has everything to do with the changing demographics that have transformed the city's character

The recent history of Texas could be told in the story of the taco.

I’ve been thinking about that in the wake of the minor blunderbuss that went off after we published our September “Taco City” cover, which prompted the good people of San Antonio to have a conniption on Twitter. How dare Dallas declare its taco dominance! San Antonio is the great mecca of Texas Hispanic heritage.

Well, sure. It is. But implicit in Dallas’ taco ascendancy is a hidden story about how urbanization and immigration are profoundly changing the culture and character of the city and the state.

San Antonio—once the capital of the Spanish, and later the Mexican, province of Tejas—is the long-established epicenter of the collision of Texan and Mexican culture. It is the birthplace of the chili parlor and the cultural heart of Tex-Mex cuisine. And even though Dallas has some Hispanic families who can trace their roots back to the waves of immigrants who moved to Texas during the Mexican Revolution, this city had a justified reputation for having long served up gringo-ized Tex-Mex. Dallas’ Mexican food has generally been blander and less adventurous than what you would find in the rest of Texas. Its culinary roots lie with high-end steakhouses and heartier chuckwagon fare like chicken-fried steak.

Historically, Dallas’ Hispanic population could not compare with San Antonio’s. According to a 2016 study by Habitat for Humanity, in 1970, only 7.5 percent of Dallas’ population was Hispanic. Over the past few decades, however, those numbers have changed dramatically. Dallas County has outpaced Bexar County in terms of its annual share of Texas immigration.

Between 2010 and 2014, 70.9 percent of the population increase in the DFW Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has been driven by foreign-born immigrants, the majority of them Hispanic, while only 40 percent of the increase of the San Antonio-New Braunfels MSA has been driven by foreign-born immigrants. From 1970 to 2010, the Hispanic population in Dallas grew from 7.5 to 42 percent of the city’s population. By comparison, in 2010, Hispanics in San Antonio made up 63.2 percent of the population. In other words, Dallas is catching up to the former Spanish presidio.

The character of the growth in Dallas’ Hispanic population plays into the taco conversation in two significant ways. The first has to do with perception. Coming from the land of the puffy taco, the average San Antonian hasn’t ventured into Oak Cliff or East Dallas in pursuit of the perfect al pastor. If the reaction to the September cover is any indication, the perception of Dallas in the rest of the state is still mostly Cowboys Cheerleaders and swashbuckling JRs; a Dallas taco is likely imagined as an under-seasoned scoop of ground beef dripping from a crispy yellow shell.

But that isn’t the city Dallas is today, and those aren’t the tacos we eat. In a relatively short time, Dallas has evolved into a more richly diverse and culturally vibrant city than it has ever been.

The second way the quick growth of Dallas’ Hispanic population plays into the taco debate is outlined in our writer José Ralat’s brilliant September cover story. (You can buy it on newsstands now or wait until next Tuesday when it publishes online.) What makes Dallas taco culture so vibrant and interesting is that it draws liberally from a great variety of regions and styles. There is no “Dallas taco,” and in a certain sense Dallas doesn’t have much of a taco culture that is indigenous to the city. Rather, Dallas is the great beneficiary of being the landing place of so many immigrants from so many different parts of Mexico. The city’s taco scene has a multiplicity of regional styles and ingredients. San Antonians can turn their noses up at Dallas, but until they have sat down and eaten recent Mexico City transplant Rodolfo Jimenez’s tres coleres tacos at Maskaras Mexican Grill, or the Tijuana-inspired pulpo taco at Tacos Mariachi, they have no ground to criticize Dallas’ taco scene. That scene is rich precisely because its local culinary tradition is relatively shallow; its taco roots still stretch back into the dirt of the old country.

But I hope the native Texans will forgive me if I also defend Dallas’ taco cred by making a comparison to New York, where I grew up. A few weeks ago, someone in the office asked me if I thought such-and-such place in Manhattan served the best New York pizza. The question struck me as patently ridiculous, not because the place in question did or didn’t serve good pizza (I had never been there), but because the entire idea of “the best pizza in New York” doesn’t make any sense.

New York is a pizza town—the pizza town. There is a ridiculous amount of great pizza in New York, but no matter where you go in New York, you can always find a good slice of pizza. Everyone has their favorite places. If I’m taking an out-of-towner out for pizza, I’ll probably go to Arturo’s on Houston or John’s on Bleecker. But when I’m back home, I’m just as likely to crave places like Piccolo’s out on Long Island. It’s also what drives me crazy when people talk about the “best bagels in New York.” Give me a break. What’s great about New York is that you can always get a great bagel no matter where you are.

I feel the same way about tacos in Dallas. I moved here in 2002, and as long as I’ve lived in Dallas, I have lived in Oak Cliff. Tacos are a staple of my diet. I eat tacos at least once a week, if not more. Whenever I leave the state, I make sure to eat a few tacos before I get on the plane. When I get back, tacos welcome me home. I have my places. Some of them are on the list of the best tacos in Dallas that we published. Some of them aren’t.

I’ve long been using José Ralat’s blog, his other features, and now his latest piece for D to expand my taco palate. I believe he is one of the great Texas food writers—alongside Robb Walsh and Daniel Vaughn—who are doing important work in documenting and preserving the rich culinary history of the state. But I’m just as likely to crave a taco joint on Ralat’s list as I am to swing by the since-closed Valero station at the corner of I-30 and Sylvan Ave., which served up some pretty solid and reliable no-nonsense street tacos before 7-Eleven bought the property. Were they the best tacos in the world? No. But they were damned good.

And that’s why Dallas is a great taco city. Because the bar for good tacos is high across the board. So high, that I believe Dallas can go toe to toe with any other Texas city. Sure, saying that might prick some local pride and raise some eyebrows. But that’s because Texas is changing — both the tacos and the state.

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Comments

  • topham

    An insightful and interesting post. Thanks.

  • Sam S.

    Good article, I get your point. Having new, imported, different taco cuisine can enliven the Mexican staple so citizens can have choices. Again, good point. Though, there is something to be said about having the same type, small differences, but more or less the same in terms of a certain type of cuisine. And it usually defines the cuisine in that city. It’s called having a history, legacy, tradition. For example, if you go to San Diego, generally speaking, you’re going to get Mexican food that is made a certain way. Same can be said about Los Angeles, El Paso, Austin, etc. Every city has their “style” of Mexican food.

    And to say “Tex-Mex” is gringo-ized because the Mexican food is not made like it’s made in Mexico is a pretty petty, uninformed statement. It’s is one thing if someone opens a Mexican restaurant and makes their food from strictly processed, already made can goods, it’s another if there is a different style, just like you mention about Dallas’ eclectic tacos.

    But don’t dismiss legacy and tradition as boring or passé. If you do, what you’re looking for is a fad. And fads never last.

    Was San Antonio the mecca of Texas Hispanic heritage? I think you’re forgetting El Paso. Juan Onate and the Spanish colonized/established El Paso as the first “town/city”. It’s was established and has been around longer as a town/city before San Antonio. It was considered the “big city” to go to for those living out West during the “Old West” days. It has been mentioned numerous times in western classics, For a Few Dollars More to name one. Residents of El Paso are 3,4+ generation American. And the Mexican food, Tex-Mex, is exceptional across the city. There is a legacy, a tradition of good quality Mexican food in El Paso.

    What constitutes great Mexican food (Tex-Mex) is a good debate. Again good article.

  • Roguewave1

    I’m native Texan gringo and have lived all over the state my 75 years. Tacos are merely something that comes on the plate and is usually gooey from other sauces. Some good, some not so good. Tex/Mex though is what I live for…always have. Enchiladas…cheese enchiladas specifically…are the true test and must be covered with real chili con carne, not the “chili gravy goo” we see in South Texas, where I regrettably find myself now in San Antonio. Having eaten them everywhere in the state, I can attest Dallas has the Mecca of Tex/Mex in Tupinamba Restaurant.

  • Randy Zimmerman

    I’ve lived in Dallas for nearly 50 years. When my family moved here from New York state, we didn’t know what Mexican or Tex-Mex food was. We’ve since learned to love this type of food. This article reminded me of a trip I took to El Paso a few years ago. I was there on business. When lunchtime came around, my business associates were trying to figure out where to eat. Since I was their guest, they asked me if I had ever had Mexican food. I said of course I’ve had Mexican food because I’ve lived in Dallas most of my life. They replied, “Oh, that terrible Tex-Mex food you get in Dallas isn’t the same as the Mexican food served here. We’ll take you to one of the oldest and most authentic Mexican restaurants in El Paso and you will see the difference.” So that’s what we did. The menu looked exactly like every menu I’ve ever seen in DFW and the food was exactly the same. Good but nothing different or special in any way. I think the regional differences in Mexican-style food as found in Texas are mostly imaginary based on food I’ve sampled across the state.