One Tex-Mex dish is so beloved in San Antonio, it has its own mascot.
Strangely enough, the food in question is not something readily available in most Tex-Mex joints in North Texas. It's not enchiladas, burritos, or fajitas, but rather the puffy taco, which these days can be most easily found in such old-school joints such as El Fenix or Esparzas in Grapevine.
In San Antonio, however, puffed tacos are all the rage and have been for generations, so much so that in 1989, the Missions minor league baseball team created Henry the Puffy Taco, whose main job, like that of his cohort Ballapeno (you guessed it, a walking jalapeno) is to keep the fans entertained.
On the Web site www.texascooking.com, writer Randy Lankford describes Henry's antics in this manner:
"Henry's main role is to run around the bases with a youngster from the crowd. The young fan has to beat Henry to home plate to win a free dinner for the family. Henry always manages to lose, but it's not always easy. He's been known to take a dive. 'I don't remember exactly how it happened, but one night the kid stumbled, and took Henry's legs out,' explains Mickey Holt, director of public relations for the Missions. 'Ever since then it's become a tradition to tackle him between third base and home plate. He takes a lot of abuse but everybody loves it. He's a huge hit.'"
Henry was the brainchild of Jamie Lopez, who is one of four siblings who run Henry's Puffy Tacos, perhaps San Antonio's most famous shrine for the dish. In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, author Robb Walsh quotes Jamie's brother Ray on the family's role in the creation of the puffed taco.
"My uncle, Ray Lopez, opened Ray's Drive-In in the early 1950s. It was Uncle Ray who trademarked the 'puffy tacos' name...In 1978, my Dad opened the first Henry's Puffy Tacos at Bandera and Woodlawn. Now every place says they make puffy tacos. But we sell the most. People eat between seven hundred and fourteen hundred puffy tacos a day here. We make a hundred pounds of fresh masa every morning."
How do puffy tacos earn their distinctive shape, somewhat like a Taco Salad tortilla bowl, only smaller? Walsh recalls an interesting description from the 1940s: "When you ordered the (puffy) taco, a tortilla was formed in a tortilla press, but instead of cooking the tortilla on a comal as usual, the cook dropped the tortilla into hot oil or lard. Depending on how it was handled, the tortilla ballooned into various shapes. Some cooks made puffy tacos U shaped like regular tacos, but more often, a puffy taco would simply be pressed in the middle so it formed a shallow V."
Puffed tacos are not as prevalent in North Texas as they are in the Mission City, but some places still serve them. In fact, at Mattito's in Frisco, they are very popular, according to Roger, my genial waiter there. Mattitos serves two Puffed Tacos, chicken or beef, on a plate with rice and beans, and they are quite tasty, particularly when topped with Mattitos' spicy red or medium green sauce. Don't forget to order a cup of Bob Armstrong Dip and you'll be set. No need to drive to San Antonio or Austin (for the Bob dip), unless you just want to run the bases with Henry.