Illustration by Deborah Cantu

Has Austin Taco’lonialism Finally Peaked?

Words by Ryan Cantu

Edited by Abigail Vela

Ten thousand years after the first tortilla inflated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Eater published an article titled How Austin Became Home of the Crucial Breakfast Taco. The earth shook from San Antonio to Brownsville. What followed was a bizarre online brawl between Austin and San Antonio about which had the best tacos in Texas. The ordeal remains confusing for anybody who grew up on the Texas border, a region that was completely snubbed from the debate. 

 

This was in 2016, around the time when the hunt for Latin “authenticity” was spreading like wildfire: a flood of tourism to Mexico City that makes La Condesa feel like a colony of L.A., Topo Chico easier to find in Portland than Oaxaca, and of course, the ultimate symbol of this craze, the taco, which got its own emoji in 2015. The humble taco soon morphed into a whole new vibe and style, taqueria chic, as shown by a 2017 Wall Street Journal piece, How Tacos Became a Fashion Trend.

 

That era triggered good discourse about the strange phenomenon, including an excellent piece by Yvonne S. Marquez titled Taco Tuesday: Blurring the Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation. In his book “American Tacos,” Texas Monthly’s taco editor Jose Ralát provides a thorough history of the breakfast taco from its origins to the modern Austin-San Antonio Taco War (the Dallas-based writer gives due credit to the Rio Grande Valley as the origin of the Texas breakfast taco as we know it). California-based food scholar Gustavo Arellano echoed similar thoughts. 

 

Surely, these prominent voices would encourage people to look deeper than the hard-shelled crust. But fast forward 8 years, when Austin was named the #1 Taco City in America. More backlash. More endless comment sections arguing that either San Antonio or the RGV were the best taco regions— Y ahi seguimos.  

Torchy’s Tacos on SoCo designed by Chioco Design with steel fabrication and construction by The Salinas Group.

Border Natives Speak Out

I had never fully appreciated the cuisine I grew up with in Laredo until I left, taking for granted the Sunday morning brisket-chorizo aura of Cotulla’s Restaurant or the gorditas con aguacate at El Rincon del Viejo in Nuevo Laredo. This sense of frontera longing is widely shared by fellow border natives living in Texas’ bigger cities. In Austin, Rio Grande Valley native Joseph Gomez started his food truck Contodo, which serves the food he grew up with, including his signature bistec estilo matamoros

 

“Part of Contodo was trying to have a voice over here. We’re not an Austin taqueria; we’re from the Valley, frontera comida casera,” Gomez said. “It wasn’t until I opened it up that I started noticing how many people from the RGV are here. It’s been really cool seeing that.” 

 

Gomez belongs to a new generation of Mexican-American chefs and entrepreneurs cooking their traditions on their terms, including a loose Austin collective known as the Taco Mafia. With very few exceptions, most spots worth visiting are not Austin cuisine per se but cuisines from all over Mexico and South Texas. As Ralát notes in “American Tacos,” the closest you might get to an “Austin breakfast taco” is Valentinas Tex Mex BBQ, but even its owner, Miguel Vidal, is from San Antonio. 

Two Latino men smiling at the camera together. The man on the right is giving a thumbs-up to the camera.
Mando Rayo (left) runs into Brownsville’s Mando Vera of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Austin. Photo courtesy of Mando Rayo.

“Austin is a mecca for media, so people come into Austin to experience their first taste of Texas or tacos, whether it’s barbecue or tacos,” says El Paso native Mando Rayo, author of “The Tacos of Texas.” “All of a sudden, you have this one place, and people are like, ‘These are the best tacos I’ve ever had!’ And I’m like, how many tacos have you had?” 

 

This trend has been fueled by the endless lists and rankings that are an indispensable feature of millennial foodie culture: Yelp and Easter publishing variations of “Authentic off-the-beaten-path street tacos you need to discover RIGHT NOW.” And because the best-of lists favor the most media savvy and Instagrammable, they leave many people who grew up in Mexican households confused at why mediocre versions of food they grew up with are suddenly trending on social media.    

 

“Food is identity,” said Maite Gomez-Rejón, a culinary historian originally from Laredo. “When we get too attached to something, and somebody changes it, we feel such ownership because it’s so directly tied into who we are. It’s like somebody is insulting our identity or claiming ownership. This sense of, ‘No, my grandma invented breakfast tacos! Not San Antonio, not Austin!” 

A person snapping a picture of their plate of tacos but leaving out the working class taquero cook in the background. The woman who created the tacos looks down at all the food she created.
Illustration by Deborah Cantu.

The Toll of Taco’lonialism in Borderlands

In addition to its erasure of borderlands and their culture, Austin’s taco dominance is strongly intertwined with the city’s socio-economic problems like housing affordability and gentrification. The fact that the #1 taco designation came from a real estate company is no small coincidence. Occasionally, when I meet somebody from out-of-state in Austin and reveal that I grew up on the border, the second most common question I get after something about cartel violence is: Where is the ‘best’ taqueria? The most authentic. It’s as if the Holy Grail Taco is an under-the-radar real estate prospect to discover, capture, and monetize before the price shoots up. 

 

“That’s a super simplistic view of food culture,” said Rayo. “That’s what people do to a lot of Mexicanos. They’re based on stereotypes. They want the easy answer.” 

 

“We have people who want to talk about the food, ‘but don’t talk to me about Mexicans,’” adds Rayo. When the price of avocados spiked in recent years, a panicky article in Refinery29 downplayed the impact of millennials and their avocado toast while completely omitting how the crisis is associated mainly with cartel oppression in the state of Michoacan that hurts avocado growers. The article concludes by suggesting that “maybe it’s time we give that New York Times frozen pea guacamole recipe a chance,” which shows how cuisine is perceived as an interchangeable commodity divorced from its people and culture. 

 

“When people think of food, they don’t go deep into understanding the culture,” Rayo said. “That’s ultimately what I’m trying to do. Yes, it’s great to enjoy a good taco, but let’s go deeper into that; what does it mean?” 

Going Deeper than the Taco

There’s nothing wrong with excitement about Mexican or Tejano cuisine. The fact that the taco hype has persisted for over a decade is essentially a testament to the incredible quality and diversity of the cuisine and the ability of talented chefs to keep making such a traditional cuisine pop. But perhaps it’s finally time to stop the futile search for the “best” and “most authentic” food and just honor the working people behind it. In Austin, this can mean skipping Torchy’s and instead supporting the taqueros and taqueras with roots on the border and Mexico, who gave Texas this gift in the first place. 

Taqueros like Joseph Gomez–who has a mission of using his business to elevate migrant farm workers–believes there is still room for improvement in these areas. But something about the most recent taco battle suggests that the narrative might finally change for the better. In response to the #1 Austin list, I haven’t seen any Austin defenders except for one city council member. 

Two cooks working outdoors in a downtown city location making tacos al pastor.
Local taqueros make tacos al pastor for downtown Austin barhoppers. Photo by author.

Even among many Austinites, there seems to be a sense that the Austin Taco Farce has gone too far. The position by Austin-based Texas Monthly was spelled out by Jose Ralát in his article, Why the “Best Taco Cities” List Sucks.

About the list, Mando Rayo said, “If you see this list, okay, judge for yourself, go to some places in Austin like Cuantos Tacos or Santa Barbacha, but also explore Texas, go to San Antonio, go to Laredo, go to the Valley.” 

 

Most importantly, he says, “We need to be the storytellers of our own story.”

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