Any lover of good food who is forced by a pandemic to self-isolate for a month will, eventually, start to fantasize about tacos.
The timing may be fortunate or calamitous, but this week marks the official release of the perfect quarantine food reading: American Tacos: A History and Guide, by Dallas resident José Ralat. The book documents Ralat’s travels and research, and it’s also full of vivid portraiture of both tacos and the people who make them.
American Tacos is many things at once: an encyclopedic study of the varieties of the American taco; a travelogue of life and food in places such as Brownsville, Tucson and Memphis; a resounding reply to the stereotype of tacos as “humble,” cash-only snacks for the working classes; and an argument for the taco as being not just a Mexican American institution, but an American one in general.
That’s a lot for one book to be, but Ralat handles the twists and turns with ease, structuring each section as an interview-filled miniature history of a specific taco style, complete with tasting notes of the latest and greatest (or, sometimes, the not-so-great). He also adds entertaining sidebars of information that don’t fit in the main narrative, including notes on the evolution of the Indian American naan taco and a history of the taco holder.
In addition to conducting archival research on old newspaper advertisements and articles, Ralat toured the United States, interviewing taqueros about their businesses and backgrounds. In some cities, such as San Antonio, whole family trees unfold over decades of heritage, while a chapter on Korean fusion charts one of the newest tortilla-wrapped trends.
Ralat is a combative, highly opinionated narrator, which occasionally becomes a weakness but mostly is a strength. When he tries a celebrated taquería only to discover it disappoints, his sadness can manifest in searing, vivid descriptions. He writes that “the tortillas, crusty and curled at the edges, didn’t help” a meal he had at Mexikosher, which featured “desiccated duck carnitas.”
At other times, Ralat presents both sides of an argument while leaving the conclusion open-ended. There is a passage in which he calls the cauliflower taco an overused cliché, but then praises specific, better-tasting examples. He also accuses Southern chef Sean Brock, who opened a taco shop in Charleston because he didn’t think the city had any good ones, of “corporate cultural appropriation,” then pivots to a sympathetic interview with the white head chef Brock hired.
As it turns out, Ralat enjoys the Charleston restaurant’s more creative tacos, including a delicious-sounding catfish number, but finds that more traditional styles are poorly prepared. The lesson from this, and from the cauliflower tale, is simple, but must be read between the lines: Make better, more original food.
Similarly, there’s a brief discussion of whether or not Rick Bayless is a force for good in Mexican food, before Ralat says he’ll leave the argument to other writers. I’ve read up on that debate, but readers who haven’t would have benefited from a note with recommended reading. (Ralat does supply an exquisite shot taken at Bayless’ “great job of messing up preparations like pork in a tomatillo salsa, which carries an aftertaste of turned milk.”)
On the other hand, Ralat is at his fiery best while dismantling two of the biggest myths in taco lore: the dueling stereotypes of “authentic street tacos” and “white people tacos.” His extraordinary cataloging of the many varieties of Mexican and Mexican American taco experience is more than mouthwatering — it proves just how diverse and exciting this food is, well beyond the “authentic” stereotype of a tortilla, a meat, some white onions and cilantro.
There certainly are places to go for the traditional fillings Ralat calls “PBC” for pork-beef-chicken (might I suggest El Come Taco). But anyone restricting their search to pastor, bistec and chorizo, or policing authenticity by punishing creativity, should open American Tacos and marvel at the range of what’s possible.
Much of that includes the so-called “white people tacos” sold by Mexican American chefs who are criticized for showing their creativity and dedication to quality. Miguel Vidal, the genius in charge at Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, tells Ralat about his early days slinging $5 tacos to Mexican construction workers who were outraged at the prices.
“I said, ‘Look, just take them. And you tell me it’s not worth it,’” Vidal recalls in the book. “Then they started coming back.”
Both stereotypes, the street taco and the white people taco, are attempts to pigeonhole the taco, to assign it a class status and a price point. Ralat proves, joyously, that the taco can’t be pinned down.
By far the best part of American Tacos is its seemingly endless knowledge of different, delicious taco varieties. I learned about a whole new (to me) genre of tacos from the American Deep South. I’ve also acquired an intense — and, in quarantined Dallas, difficult to sate — desire to try kosher pastrami tacos on which pickled mustard seeds might pop between my teeth.
Nearly every corner of the United States is covered in this book; keep a Google Maps tab open for unexpected desires to fly to places like Philadelphia and Salt Lake City. If American Tacos has a moral, a theme, it’s this: Tacos are essential in the United States, and they're as diverse as its residents.
As a quintessential American food, tacos deserve more respect than they usually get. An academic press publishing a study should help confer that respect, and Ralat’s work to illuminate the varieties of taco experience is heroic.
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Ultimately, there’s a second moral to the story, too: the hard work that goes into a food many people want for under $1.50. That moral is best summarized by a remark a chef from Raleigh, Oscar Díaz, makes in the final chapter.
“One thing I always want to tell people is how difficult it is to actually make tacos,” Díaz says. “I feel like tacos should be served like sushi.”
Now there’s an idea.
American Tacos: A History and Guide, by José R. Ralat. University of Texas Press
Dallas tacos mentioned in the book: chicken tikka tacos from Halal Mother Truckers (food truck), cauliflower and puffy tacos from Resident Taqueria, creative specials from Revolver Taco Lounge, breakfast tacos from Tacodeli, Kansas City-style tacos from Tacos and Art (pop-up)