What makes a great taco?
The best taco José Ralat ever ate made him cry.
After trying the jardinero — or gardener — taco at Carlos Salgado’s Michelin Star restaurant Taco Maria in Orange County, California, the taco editor for Texas monthly headed home and started writing about it for his book, “American Tacos: A History and Guide.”
“I just lost it. I was bawling, ugly, crying,” he says, “because this taco not only tasted great, but it also told the story of our ancestors, of our grandfathers, of our fathers who broke their backs to give us better lives so that someone like me could write a book about tacos and have the world’s best job.”
Tacos served at a place like Taco Maria aren’t the same ones sold out of trucks in Los Angeles. But the story of any taco sold in the U.S. starts in Mexico, Ralat says.
Tacos de Matamoros, a simple beef taco with cheese on top, is named after the city of Matamoros in Mexico where the dish originates. Matamoros borders Brownsville, Texas. In this cattle country region of southern Texas and northern Mexico, people utilize every part of the cow to make cheese, sweetbreads and more.
“The border is neither here nor there. The border is not the U.S., it’s kinda not Mexico. It’s a little bit of both,” Ralat says. “It’s a third space where basically all bets are off. Things happen there that don’t happen any place else. And that’s part of the magic.”
Ralat knows a thing or two about tacos — and he shared some insight into what makes them excellent.
There’s no right kind of tortilla
Debates over hard or soft, corn or flour get heated. But Ralat believes there’s a right time for every type of tortilla.
Flour tortillas date back more than 400 years to northern Mexico, he says, and the first taco recipes were fried.
“Any discussion about this, I think, really needs to focus on, well, is it fresh? Is it freshly fried? Because if it is, oh my God, it’s amazing,” he says. “Is it freshly rolled out? Is a freshly nixtamalized? That’s what we need to be talking about.”
‘You can’t just throw something into a tortilla and then magically call it a taco’
When selling tacos, one must consider who benefits from the transaction and who gets left behind, Ralat says.
“If the answer is only white people are or only X people, then maybe you shouldn’t be selling that taco. Maybe that’s not what the taco should be,” he says. “There’s a difference between thoughtfully placing ingredients into a tortilla and shrinking a $40 entree into a $4 taco.”
Ralat writes about how the history of tacos — especially the role of Mexican and Indigenous women who created them — and the role of Tex-Mex sometimes get obscured.
The rich history of Tex-Mex is often whitewashed when it should tell the story of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who made better lives for their families. For example, a grandmother in Dallas sent her grandson to Harvard Business School and then opened more restaurants, Ralat says.
“That’s not white people food,” he says. “That’s an American-Mexican triumph.”
And yet, even some Latinos and Tejanos believe Tex-Mex was made by white people, for white people.
“No, that is wrong,” Ralat says. “And it dismisses the opportunities that these Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American families gave their children.”
Get creative with vegetables
“There’s a long tradition of vegetarian and vegan options because meat’s expensive, so don’t be afraid to throw vegetables in there,” Ralat says. “I love asparagus.”
Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.