Cultural Fold: The Austin Breakfast Taco

By Les McGehee
Photography by Malanie Grizzel

Hola, Joe’s Bakery, with your politeness, your cleanliness, your respect for the traditions that make our Austin lives rich. Inside, patrons greet one another with “Hello, sir!” and “You tell George I know he’ll feel better soon.” Someone shakes a hand; someone hugs a waitress like a sister. This place is part heavenly taqueria and part community hub, papered wall-to-wall with museum-worthy photos of old Austin.

And at each booth, diners roll and scoop tortillas into their breakfast plates—a visual hint at the evolution of what has become the holy grail of Central Texan handheld foods. It’s just the right atmosphere to sit down with taco-culture guru Mando Rayo about the new book he’s coauthored with Jarod Neece entitled Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day.

In the book, Rayo and Neece tell how the great Hispanic restaurant families of Austin took a dash of Texas and a dollop of entrepreneurial perseverance, steeped them in the traditions of their abuelas, and created the glorious breakfast-taco scene that is as near to an Austinite’s heart as live music and Barton Springs. Rayo places his order with the waitress: “Puro tacos para mi. Uno es de huevo, frijole y tocino, and el otro me da uno bean and cheese”—a perfect illustration of the blend of traditions we’re about to enjoy. Then he proceeds to expound on the cultural, regional and economic ramifications of the breakfast taco, and the many reasons he calls Austin “the Breakfast Taco Capital of the World.” 

Edible Austin: Flour or corn?

Mando Rayo: It depends on what I’m having, but my preference is corn. My taste is more traditionalI like the earthy tones. I’m originally from El Paso, so I grew up with fresh flour tortillas every day, made by my mom, my abuela or my tiasit was awesome.

EA: Whence did the breakfast taco come? Did it migrate north like mesquite?

MR: There are a lot of theories. If you’re of Mexican heritage, you used your tortilla as a utensil, right? So you use it, you scoop it, you tear it and it becomes your own version of a taco. That was the natural thing to do with a tortilla, and it sure tastes better than a spoon. Especially if you’re eating a runny egg! Growing up, we’d eat tacos for breakfastbut not with eggs. We’d had lots of tacos that street vendors made on their discos, which are like Mexican woks. In El Paso, we had breakfast burritos, but the breakfast taco is definitely sort of an Austin/San Antonio thing. It wasn’t until I came to Austin in 1995 that I found out this whole thing about the breakfast taco.

[While Rayo is talking, a gentleman walks up. They shake hands vigorously and quickly recap where they’ve been eating breakfast lately. Overlapping bilingual conversation speeds by: Hola! How you doin’? You been away from la familia traveling? Where you been? What day you back? Andale! Let’s get together. It turns out that the gentleman is none other than Virgil Limon, of the Limon family that Rayo includes in the book—a huge old-Austin family that owns several local businesses and includes multiple generations of musicians. Could this be anywhere else but Austin?]

EA: So, Austin versus San Antonio. Breakfast tacos. Who wins?

MR: Well, if you want great traditional tacos, you’ll find a lot of them in San Antonio. But if you want to find great breakfast tacos that kind of go in a new way, you want to go to Austin. Austin owns the breakfast taco. San Antonio will say they have the best tortillas, or the best puffy tacos and regular tacos, but in Austin, we are passionate about our breakfast tacos.

EA: In your book, you pay respect to the families that created our oldest taquerias. You also focus on some great trailer breakfast tacos. The families went through trials and tribulations to keep the family businesses going, yet the businesses are increasingly surrounded by food trailers. Do you think the trailers threaten our long-standing businesses, since it costs so much more to operate a taqueria than a trailer?

MR: It’s great to start out incrementally. As a matter of fact, Joe’s started next door over there (he points) where that little burger-joint building is, before they moved into this building. So while it wasn’t a trailer, they started very small so it was incremental growth. El Tacorrido, which started in a little shack in North Austin, now has multiple locations. They started small and grew. So, I think it’s good. The cafés have a chance to have a lot of character and environment—you don’t really get that out of a trailer. The trailers impact communities in different ways. For instance, a great time to sell tacos is as the bars close. In the ’90s, mainly in the East Riverside Drive area, there was a movement to shut the taquerias down. [The City] said they were open too late and were rowdy. So they created stricter ordinances for taquerias. Then, more mainstream entrepreneurs said, Hey, we could do this. Torchy’s Tacos, for instance, started off in a trailer, yet was more established, and it seemed to kind of make the taco trailer scene more acceptable.

EA:  What about those American breakfast tacos? Fried chicken, ranch, sausage wraps? 

MR: It’s a complimentyou have to take it like a compliment. It’ll stay rooted in the Mexican culture, but if they can do something cool and new with it, that’s awesome. It’s that evolution of the tacoall the Korean tacos, barbecue tacosall of it.

EA: You’re a Latino engagement strategist by day. That part of your world seems to have a lot in common with your philosophy of cultural evolution and the taco.

MR: Yeahfor me, culture is the one thing in my world that really makes a connection. For instance, at the end of the day, you’re not just eating tacos, you’re eating culture, tradition, history. The tortilla and where it came from, and the chile, and where it all came from. Whether you’re born and raised Texan Anglo or Latino, you’re Texan, and we share a lot of culture. The best part about explaining it through tacos is, you eat it! Instead of breaking bread, we’re breaking tortilla!

EA:  Are the majority of our good breakfast tacos in South Austin?

MR: No. There’s a strip on North Lamar near Rundberg with some awesome tacos. It’s like going back in time. Like transferring yourself to Mexico. The original El Tacorrido feels like that. There are pockets of immigrant communities Southeast, Riverside, North Lamar, et cetera. They all have great, high-quality traditional tacos.

EA:  OKyou’re opening a breakfast taco trailer tomorrow. You will only have great tortillas and five ingredients. What are they?

MR: First of all, we need to bring my grandmother back to life, or at least one of my tias, to make the tortillas. I want to have tortillas from my family tradition, not the evolutionary Austin tortillas. I’d like to make them with my childhood El Paso water, too. Beanstotally important. You can prep them in different styles. If you have good beans and salsa, you know you’re off to a good start. We’ll use a thin layer of creamy beans on our taco…it’s the Mexican mayo! Heat, spice or salsa—whether jalapeño or chile de arbol. For me, I like a jalapeño-based creamy sauce. The jalapeños can be really hot, or medium, but never, ever mild. Eggswe have a chicken at home. Farm-fresh eggs make all the difference in the world—they’re buttery without butter. So, we’ll have a small chicken coop behind the trailer. Meat—something that stands out. I might go with a machacado [spiced, dried, shredded beef]. Or a variation on that, with barbecue leftovers and bring in both worlds! I’m a huge fan of bacon, but machacado beats bacon. For the final ingredient: onion. Sautéed and glazed onion. That’s how I’ll make the taco. Like I make it at home!

EA:  How’s the book doing? 

MR: Locally, we’re number one in the food sections at BookPeople [and] Barnes and Noble. Also doing great in San Antonio, Houston, L.A. People get it. Our Austin breakfast taco is becoming like the Chicago hot dog or New York pizza—something a city is known for. 

EA:  Are you hiding any badass breakfast taco places from us to keep them to yourself?

MR: Nono. For me, my whole reason for existence is to tell people about these kinds of places. They already know about the Tacodelis, the Torchy’s and the Güero’s. I want them to know about the taco trailers on Montopolis, East Riverside, North Lamar, ’cause we need to support what we’re doing here. It only takes a few minutes to drive east, or north, or south—but probably not west! I guess there’s one west-side taco trailer in the book, WhaTaTaco on Bee Cave Road.

EA:  Are you changing the view of Austin and Mexican-American culture with this book, as much as you’re talking about the cuisine?

MR: Yeah, I want to share the pride with which people maintain these traditions, even as they create new things. I want to show the roots of Mexican immigrant culture in modern Austin. 

EA:  What’s the breakfast taco future? 

MR: The future is in the salsa! As the influence of Mexican culture grows across the U.S., the different generations will still carry traditions forward. A lot of that is in the food. The more that we can talk about the real stories behind the food, the more authentic we can keep the cuisine, even as it evolves.

AustinBreakfastTacoBookCoverExcerpt from Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece (Copyright ©2013 by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece), published by American Palate, a division of The History Press, Charleston, SC 29403

It all started with Old Mexican town—what is now Republic Square Park at Guadalupe and Fifth Streets. That’s where the first Mexicans lived—right in downtown Austin. Before condos and the east side, families who emigrated from Mexico settled in Austin in the 1870s. A handful of immigrants came here for a better life and worked as soda jerks, ranch hands and workers in tortilla and chili factories. Those were the early days of Mexican life in Austin.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the development of Mexican-owned businesses—a meat market (Ben Garza), a doctor’s office (Alberto Garcia), the first tortilla factory (Crescenciano Segovia; Austin Tortilla Manufacturing Company, 1922) in Austin and the predecessor to the taco trailers—sprouted up in the form of tamale and chili stands. In an Austin American-Statesman article from the 1950s, writer Hamilton Wright professed, “Back in 1893 on the courthouse square one had no trouble finding a Mexican vendor.” And so began the influence of Mexican culture into what we now know of taco trailers, Mexican and Tex-Mex food and cuisine.

During the Depression and into the 1930s and ’40s, Austin experienced the emergence of Mexican restaurants by the Carlin family (Jose Trujillo Carlin and Elvira Hernandez), including El Charro Restaurant (Red River and Ninth Street) and El Charro #2 (on Speedway by the University of Texas) and La Tapatia. During a time when the Mexican community was establishing itself, the 1928 City Plan for Austin relocated Mexicans to the east side of town to segregate minority communities. Mexicans and Latinos have a culture of being entrepreneurial, and soon more restaurants were established, including El Mat, “home of the crispy taco” (1947); El Matamoros Restaurant (1957); and Matt’s El Rancho (1952). Local east side favorites like Joe’s Bakery (1962), El Azteca (1963) and Cisco’s Restaurant Bakery (1959) settled in East Austin and are still open today.

The basic formula of these restaurants was to serve their customers food just like they would make at home, but there was still no sign of breakfast tacos like we have today.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the United States experienced exponential growth in immigration. Austin was no exception. With increased community members from Mexico and Central and South America, and mixed with multigenerational Tejanos, Austin’s food scene started to boom. It was in the early 1980s when the commercialization of breakfast tacos began with the Tamale House on Airport Road, Las Manitas on Congress and other established restaurants. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Austin experienced a growth of small Latino-owned businesses in the form of taco trucks and trailers. Soon thereafter, chefs and other entrepreneurs followed suit, and today Austin is a mecca for food trailers. In sharing the history of the breakfast taco, I interviewed people I call Los Elders, restaurateurs and Austinites who have longer histories than what’s in libraries and articles. These are some of their stories. 

Excerpt from Joe's Bakery & Coffee Shop:

What is your most popular breakfast taco and why? What makes it stand out?

Our most popular breakfast taco item is our bacon. People tend to think our bacon is deep-fried, but it’s not. Our bacon is battered in an all-purpose flour before it is put on our grill. Once it is grilled, the bacon takes on a nice brown color and crispy taste.

BaconEggTaco

Why do you think Austinites love breakfast tacos so much?

The breakfast taco is a staple in Austin because there are so many variations to choose from. Originally, the taco was for the working-class person who couldn’t afford to buy their lunch, and their wife or mother would make them breakfast and send a taco: a hot one for the morning and cold one for lunch. However, over the years, the taco has gained popularity because of the smaller portion sizes and the ability to create your own taco. The taco allows people the freedom to pick and choose their favorite items and create the best combination for their taste buds.

For more information, visit Mando Rayo’s blog at tacojournalism.blogspot.com and find his book, Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, at local booksellers.

Click here for Bacon & Egg Taco recipe.