Mapping the True Texas Hold'Em

If you want to read a book about Neapolitan pizza, Chinese dumplings or American hamburgers, you have many choices. But where’s the book that maps and makes sense of the societal, cultural and familial tradiciones behind the various tacos of Texas? It’s true, attempting to reconcile the taco begats of our great state would be a daunting task—you’d need full access to the anthro-tacological and historical trans-Hispanic-Mexican-Tejano-Latino records, as well as a culinary compadre-circuit compass and probably a Nuevo Americano GPS to figure it all out.

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about any of that because self-appointed Texas Taco Professors Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece have done all the work for us with their new book, “The Tacos of Texas.” In the process, they have even established their own official Texas Taco Council—an information-sharing organization that currently includes members from 10 Texas cities. Now, readers have a fighting chance at fully understanding the lay of the taco land in our behemoth state that has not one but FIVE distinct taco regions—each with its own unique influences, history, flavors and magic. 

This is a pleasantly unusual book—more of an interview-cum-travel guide with recipes, really—peppered with the back stories and voices of those who’ve dedicated much of their lives and energies to tacos, but also with answers to more than a few burning taco mysteries. Need to know who to call to get your taquería blessed, where to get a taco bigger than your head or how to find the mythical La Calle del Tacos? Rayo and Neece have you covered.

We caught up with the professors recently at Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop, where they sat at a table pretending to read the menu. Joe’s was packed, as usual, and the scene felt like a family reunion, with people circulating and greeting one another. Rayo and Neece were so comfortable here that they may as well have been at their own kitchen tables.

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After publishing your first book, “Austin Breakfast Tacos,” what was it like to pitch “The Tacos of Texas” book?

Neece: UT Press approached us! Yeah…we didn’t have to pitch it. We were really excited to work with them, and then we thought: This is more than a book! We just committed to touring 10 taco cities! 

Your book is so much more than a list of top taco places; it’s about the people and the taco stories of multiple regions. How did you identify the regions and the iconic tacos involved? And how did you find the people who told you these stories?

Neece: Mando was always telling me about the tacos in El Paso; our friend is always talking about the tacos in the Valley. I grew up dipping tortillas in queso in East Texas. I’d visit my friend’s abuela in Fort Worth who made the BEST chorizo—we were always comparing tacos and where they came from.

Rayo: A lot of it had to do with the Texas Taco Council. We would ask the members who we should talk to in a city. Then those people would take us somewhere for a unique taco—maybe a café, maybe a kitchen, maybe a backyard! And then those people would introduce us to another taco and another—we left no taco untouched!

How did you choose between writing about legendary Mexican food restaurants or new or trending taqueros (taco slingers)?

Neece: It wasn’t about the cafés or the chefs, usually. It was more about the people and the tacos. And because of what we’re interested in, people treated us like family. They welcomed us into their homes and told us their personal stories of those tacos…their childhoods and traditions. 

Rayo: You know, it’s about the tacos that have been in that family for generations. People were excited and passionate about telling the story of their family tacos. In many cases, as little kids, they were embarrassed and ashamed that they had bean tacos at school because their family couldn’t afford the white bread and bologna. Now, tacos are everywhere and sometimes even “hipster.” But in their own families, tacos were there when they gathered, and taught from abuelitas to children—in backyards and kitchens and cafés—and it keeps going. Tacos are part of the story of Texas.

Did geography, city council rule or history do more to shape the taco regions?

Rayo: All of those things, yes: what part of Mexico a family has their roots in…when they became Americanos…the size of the state and if the area was kinda isolated, like El Paso and deep in the Valley. And climate! You know, in El Paso you’d butcher a pig in the winter and keep it cut up or in your little casita or something so it would last as long as possible, so we had amazing carnitas. In the Valley, they have cattle ranches and amazing barbacoa. And city rules affect how the taco businesses operate and where they locate, yet the way it works is that some taquero is going to decide to set up and make tacos—maybe even that same day—and they’re gonna do it one way or the other. They WILL be making tacos. And yeah, industry affects it like the [taco] trucks going to job sites in Houston or all the white work trucks going through the drive-thrus in West Texas. 

How secure is our taco future?

Rayo: Look, taqueros are out to show you how THEIR tacos should be, right off their grill in the backyard…the way their family did it or at a puesto [taco stand] or WHEREVER. And in the cafés…you know how Texans are! A Tejano will go back and get his favorite same taco plate over and over again forever! That’ll NEVER change.

And with that, Taco Professors Rayo and Neece flagged down the waiter at Joe’s and ordered what they always do.

By Les McGehee

Editor’s note: Join us for an evening with Mando and Jarod to talk more about their book at BookPeople on Thursday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.