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.
See more photos of the brisket tacos of Dallas in the slideshow
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.
And they were right.
I didn't feel bruised for long. The line was moving quickly and I was about to discover that Taco Joint sells one hell of a brisket taco.
"That's, like, straight brisket," Nick, one of my fellow taco dorks, said, staring longingly into his foil-wrapped number. He was describing big chunks of moist and sweet meat. Tossed in a basket with shredded lettuce, some tomatoes and an avocado slice (two if you were lucky), this taco, housed in a double-ply corn tortilla, was noticeably better than Good 2 Go's. The subtle sweetness balanced fatty flavors that clung to the large, stringy chunks of braised meat. While a jalapeño ranch sauce tasted like a gimmick, red salsa and green salsas were simple, bright and worthy condiments.
Joe, our third fellow glutton, had joined us by now, so we made him eat two to catch up. He finished quickly — too quickly, really — and we tossed our baskets in mock triumph and headed for the door.
Taco Republic, 2:07 p.m.
"This looks like a Whataburger," Nick said as we walked (or did we waddle?) into Taco Republic, which hangs on the edge of U.S. 75 in Richardson. He was being generous. The salmon-colored tables and terra cotta tile floors invoked a fast-food joint from the late '60s. The place had a fresh coat of paint and a new sign out front, but inside things were pretty drab.
Ron Guest, the co-founder of Café San Miguel, turned this former La Paloma Taquería into a new-style taco joint. Thankfully he put more thought into his menu than he put into his interior design. He uses traditional techniques for his slow-braised brisket meat, which was juicy, rich and fatty. But then he gets weird, adding crispy fried onions and smoky barbecue sauce to give the delicious and basic filling a distinctly Texan flare.
Taco Republic's smokehouse taco demonstrated that shunning tradition can sometimes lead to some amazing taco innovations. Those innovations are on display all around the city, and they may have started at Mia's Tex Mex, the stroller-friendly fajita factory in Oak Lawn. I'd had their tacos before, but a recent conversation with Lisa Fain, the author of the Homesick Texan cookbook, shined a new light on what has become one of Dallas' most important tacos.
"The use of melted white cheese with meat in a taco wasn't really seen in Texas until the Dallas-style brisket taco," Fain told me, describing the addition of Monterey Jack, sauteed onions and poblano strips, along with a pan gravy, a byproduct of meat braising, that's served on the side.
Fain gives Mia's credit for the Tex-Mex brisket taco, and Mia's menu gives credit for the recipe to Butch Enriquez. He opened the restaurant with his wife in 1981, and those gravy-drenched tacos have been a hit ever since. Many Tex-Mex restaurants now offer a similar taco.
New-style taco restaurants, however, continue to try to put their own spin on things, and Taco Republic's offering is a worthy addition to the brisket tacos of Dallas. A sprinkle of fried cilantro added nothing, but a small plastic cup of pickles livened things up. The acid from the brine was a necessary addition, cutting the rich flavors of that fatty brisket.
Those pickles also brought a hint of roadside Texas barbecue to my mouth. Guest, I realized, had replaced a slice of white bread with a pre-made corn tortilla, and a Texas taco was born anew.
Torchy's Tacos, 2:42 p.m.
My seat-back was nearly horizontal by the time we shoved off from the Republic, but the soft murmuring sounds of discomfort didn't seem to bother Nick, our driver, who proved to be a great fellow taco hunter. As two of us moaned about the meat and masa expanding in our guts — three brisket tacos is a lot more than it sounds like — Nick bolstered morale, greedily diving into each taco and leading the charge to the next stop, all while proclaiming his constant and ravenous hunger. Truth be told, I needed this support. As we pulled up to Torchy's, a shiny gringo taco shop in the heart of shiny gringo land, the enthusiasm I'd basked in at the beginning of our adventure had festered into a dark and seedy taco resentment.
The logo for Torchy's blares like a bad tattoo. The Austin-based chain caters to young people who like to spend big money for big tacos. Apparently Preston Hollow has a lot of these folks — now well into the afternoon, the line at Torchy's stretched to the door.
Four bucks may seem expensive for a single taco, but Torchy's piled loads of irregular cubes of pink, intensely smoky brisket into a sizable flour tortilla. "Is there bacon on this?" someone asked. "No," our champion eater answered. "It's just that smoky." And it was good.
It became apparent that none of these tacos was going to easily outshine the other. While some were executed with more culinary acumen than others, they were all different tacos. Some incorporated elements of authentic Mexican techniques, others leveraged Tex-Mex flavors and some were borne out of Texas' barbecue culture. All of them brought something new to the taco table (but sadly, none of them used handmade tortillas).
Buttery onions, shredded jack cheese, an avocado slice and pickled jalapeños made for heavy eating at Torchy's. It was a true Texas taco: If bigger is better, way bigger is way better. Still, it had its appeal. "I'm kinda into this one," I told my taco compatriots, after wiping the brisket grease from my fingers. My body disagreed.
Rusty Taco, 3:16 p.m.
As we pulled into the small parking lot of Rusty Taco, I experienced a temporary bout of synesthesia. I swore I could see the smell of browning meat that poured over my senses, and I could smell my pending fear. I was so full I thought briefly about purging into one of the paletas carts, lovingly staged out front of a taco shop that now represented my personal hell. I say this only to provide context to the following statement:
Rusty's brisket taco was by far my favorite.
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The finish line in site, we ordered celebratory Pacificos to sip while we waited for the final tacos to be assembled. Rusty keeps the bottles on ice in open coolers up front, something I vowed to remember when summer returns. Cheap beer should always be this cold.
The tacos made use of huge pieces of brisket, their muscle fibers running the length of the folded corn tortilla. I thought this would make for difficult eating, but it was tender enough to manage. Topped with a dusting of cotija, onions, cilantro and a tiny lime wedge that required great effort to liberate of its juices, Rusty's taco made a solid nod to tradition. It was small and cheap ($2), and it tasted of a culinary simplicity I celebrate every time I encounter it.
Maybe I was just happy to be done. Taco Joint served up another taco crawler's favorite because he said "it packed big flavor," but I liked Rusty because it felt like an honest taco. It reminded me most of the street tacos that got the whole thing started, and it rejuvenated my taco enthusiasm — remarkable, considering my condition when I ate it.
Not everyone was this happy, though. Later that night I received a text from Joe, the third taco crawler. He didn't have a favorite taco, he said, but he did have an announcement: He was going vegan.