I reached down to my right, pulled the small plastic lever, pushed back in my seat and moaned. We were puttering down U.S. 75 in a tinny Honda hybrid, three men on a mission.
I felt an intense pressure emanating deep from within, and hoped that reclining my seat would create some much-needed real estate between my quickly expanding midsection and my quickly tightening belt. I was running an internal pressure of somewhere around 55 psi. A Jeep could have successfully substituted my middle for one of its tires and made it to Mexico, but we had two stops to go.
Still, my emotions were high. What had initially started as an amusing outing to determine which restaurant was serving Dallas' best brisket taco had become much more: a taco history lesson, a survey on the endless varieties and interpretations of brisket tacos served around Dallas and a test of wills. Now, nearly three hours into our taco adventure, I had no idea I was about to become a man who would seriously debate desecrating a defenseless paletas cart to relieve my discomfort. Our first stop felt like a distant memory, shrouded in a haze of beef, fat and rising guilt.See more photos of the brisket tacos of Dallas in the slideshow
Good 2 Go Taco, 12:23 p.m.
We arrived at Good 2 Go in the heart of the lunch hour, still draped in the previous evening's excess and fueled only by coffee. There was already a significant line running from the taco counter on one side of the restaurant to the coffee counter on the other, and the smells of browning meat and brewing caffeine battled for olfactory dominance. (Meat won, of course).
We ordered tacos from the build-your-own section of the menu: braised beef (Good 2 Go uses brisket) with cilantro and fresh onions. They arrived soon after, the meat heaped generously into the single flour tortilla. But its quantity couldn't make up for its lifelessness. The meat was bland and dry, over-braised and cooked down to tiny thread-like strands. All of the inter-muscular fat was cooked away into the braising liquid, which the kitchen squeezed from the meat when they built the tacos. Salsa moistened things a bit, but only a bit.
I'm a Northerner, so when I first heard of Texas' brisket tacos, I envisioned a warm, delicate white-corn tortilla loaded with slices of tender, salty and perfectly smoked brisket. This fantasy taco was topped with a crunchy, bright slaw and a drizzle of heady hot sauce — a sort of pitmaster's Tex-Mex. But while similar tacos exist, my dream taco doesn't align with Dallas' understanding of the brisket taco — which could be one of this city's most significant offerings to the culinary world.
Certainly the roots of Fritos and the frozen margarita are widely known. There is no doubt these foods were invented in Dallas; the stories of their provenance are not debated. Arguing about the genesis of brisket tacos, however, is like debating who invented bread. There are no patented machines or registered trademarks that link them to one restaurant or another.
Of course, Texans weren't the first people to drop some braised meat in a tortilla and call it dinner. Taquerías on both sides of the border offer suadero and barbacoa and have since the beginning of taco time. These tacos typically feature gently braised cuts — including brisket, face and belly — cooked down into mystery meat and dressed with cilantro and diced onions.
But if Texas can do anything, it's bastardize Mexican food, and the brisket taco is no exception. Endless interpretations have spawned over the years, as cheese, gravy, jalapeños and other ingredients and cooking techniques came into the fold. Along the way the tacos got bigger and louder and more Texas.
Good 2 Go's brisket meat resembled old-school Mexican barbacoa. Big slivers of pungent yellow onion, fresh cilantro and smoky chili-laden salsa were all fresh and made for a fine enough taco, but something was lacking and it centered on that over-braised beef. This wasn't what we were looking for. Luckily we had a lot of taco to go.
Taco Joint, 1:38 p.m.
Taco Joint caters to the hungover on weekend mornings and afternoons, and bed-headed college kids were still everywhere when we arrived, looking like they'd spent the night at the Quarter Bar. Two of them heard us plotting our route.
"Are you going on some sort of ... taco crawl?" one asked. She looked half-intrigued, like she wanted to come along, and half concerned for our health. Her inquiry inspired a brief but detailed fantasy that started with good-2-go coeds joining our taco adventure and ended in ranchero-sauced romance. They must think we're taco warriors, I guessed, and then, through the awkward silence that followed her inquiry, I realized there was a more likely explanation for their curiosity: They thought we were taco dorks.