I've spent days stuffing my gullet, looking for something that should be relatively easy to find. It's called a puffy taco, and apparently it's delicious, but I can't be sure because you can't purchase puffy tacos here in Dallas -- anywhere.
The puffy taco got its start in San Antonio, at Tex-Mex restaurants that fried flattened balls of masa dough in metal forms. The shells puff up into a pliable, yet crisp shell that's shaped similar to traditional crispy shell tacos only thicker. There's a great picture of one on Robb Walsh's website, here.
In Dallas, I've tried "puff," or "puffy tacos" at three different restaurants and have been unable to find anything that resembles the delicate taco that has become synonymous with San Antonio Tex-Mex. It's odd that it's so easy to find endless renditions of passable lobster rolls that hail all the way from the New England states, yet it it's impossible to find an authentic version of a Tex-Mex delicacy that got its start just four hours away by car.
Authenticity be damned, my favorite version served here in Dallas comes out of the kitchen at Tupinamba, where cooks deep fry pre-made tortillas instead of raw masa, without the metal form. The results puff up like a crispy softball that Tupinamba fills with your choice of ground beef or chicken, lettuce and cheese.
The problem with Tupinamba's version (and the other puff tacos I tried in Dallas) is the structural integrity of the finished product. They're impossible to pick up and eat and quickly crumble apart into what many describe as a taco salad. It's a good taco salad, especially when topped with loads of spicy salsa, but it's not a puffy taco -- at least not by San Antonio standards.
I called Eddie Dominguez, who owns and runs Tupinamba, and asked him how the puff taco ended up on his menu. Dominguez was quick give the puff taco credit to Ben Ojeda, who briefly worked with Dominguez in Tupinamba's kitchen before opening up his iconic Tex-Mex restaurant on Maple Avenue in 1969.
"Ben told me he wanted to work with me, but that he was going to quit after a year," Dominguez said. Ojeda wanted to learn the ins and outs of the restaurant business, which he did before he left Tupinamba with the puff taco that's still on the menu today.
Ben Ojeda is not around to confirm Dominguez's claim (he died in 1989) but if it's true, Tupinamba likely served the first puffy tacos in Dallas. Henry's Puffy Taco's in San Antonio, which claims to be the source of the original puffy taco, didn't open until 1978. If only Ben Ojeda had used wet masa instead of a pre-made tortilla. He might have gone down as the creator of a serious Tex-Mex taco legacy.
Dominguez seemed intrigued by all my questions. When we talked, he reminisced about a taco he ate "years ago" in San Antonio that was served in a thick, bread-like tortilla shell. "That sounds just like what you're talking about," he told me and then asked more about how they're made.
I just emailed him a few articles that detail the shell's fabrication. Who knows, in addition to serving Dallas' first puffy taco, Dominguez might be the first guy to perfect it too.