In 2013, Texas Monthly ignited a culinary revolution — and created national headlines — by hiring Daniel Vaughn as a full-time “barbecue editor.” Now they’re doing something similar again.
José Ralat, the Oak Cliff-based taco writer who’s contributed to the Dallas Observer, D Magazine, Texas Highways, Eater Dallas and Cowboys & Indians, is joining Texas Monthly as its taco editor, a position created for Ralat to explore the history and diversity of Mexican cooking across the state.
I sat down with Ralat to learn more about his new job. Naturally, we chatted over tacos, sopes, gorditas and mole at the brand-new El Oaxaqueño Panadería y Taquería on Clarendon Drive.
“Although the position’s title is taco editor, and I will be covering a lot about tacos, it’s not limited to tacos,” Ralat says. “It’s really about Mexican food in the state, and that everything makes it into a tortilla eventually.”
His territory will also go well beyond the food on the plate.
“It’s a cultural product that moves beyond food, absolutely,” he says. “I think that Mexican food and tacos are inherently political. Food in general, because it is a cultural product, it’s tied to identity, right?
“I have plans to write histories, do interviews,” Ralat says. “There’s a lot of history to mine: restaurants that have been around for 75 years, or restaurants that specialize in one region of Mexico. I plan on talking about ingredients and trends, because believe it or not, for as old as Mexican food is, there are trends.”
He had a chance to write about some of those trends and histories in his forthcoming book, American Tacos: A History and Guide to the Taco Trail North of the Border, which will be published by the University of Texas Press in 2020. But the Texas Monthly gig allows Ralat to expand on those themes on a regular basis.
In addition to reviews and a taco-of-the-week feature, Ralat wants to explore cultural phenomena like apparel companies that sell taco-themed T-shirts, as well as questions of economics, like whether we should expect all restaurants to make their own tortillas. He wants to write about Mexican pizzas, concha burgers and Cajun tacos.
“I hope to bust some myths,” Ralat says. “I think that there’s a lot that is indigenous to Texas and a lot that is developing in Texas to be researched, to be enjoyed. Not to discover, because it’s there. We’re not discovering anything. We are encountering it.”
As we talk, we’re encountering the cooking of Honorio García and his staff, who used to work at the much-loved Mi Lindo Oaxaca on Davis Street. Now they’ve relocated to this small taquería on Clarendon, with a slimmed-down menu that may be a little deceptive. Mole isn’t on the menu — but Ralat requests a little bowl of mole anyway, and gets one. García hints to us that tlayudas and memelitas may be coming soon, but not quite yet.
García also tells us that the Mexican pizzas — El Oaxaqueño claims to serve trompo and grasshopper pizzas — won’t be available for us to try. Then, giggling, he reveals a surprise pizza covered with chapulines. Ralat spots an extra-fat grasshopper, pinches it and asks, “Is this thing pregnant?”
Between bites of pizza, he muses on what he’ll be doing for Texas Monthly.
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“The position’s going to involve lots of travel, lots of eating, but I want to focus on the stories and the diversity found here,” he says. “I think that knowing the story of the people who make the food changes the way you experience the food. It can change the way it tastes to you, because you might understand — well, this meat should be chewy and salty, or this particular ingredient or presentation is going to be slightly greasier because of the way it’s prepared. Whether you like it that way or not is beside the point.”
Ralat gives Vaughn credit for the way his barbecue coverage has paved the way. Back in 2013, many readers assumed Vaughn had a straightforward dream job: eating barbecue and writing about it. But Vaughn’s reporting has gone much deeper, into economics, smoker construction, stories of race and immigration, barbecue history and even travel writing about smoked meats in places as remote as Sweden and Australia.
Ralat says as taco editor, he plans to take a similar approach, exploring every aspect of Mexican culinary culture in Texas.
“I’m looking forward to surprising,” he says.