José Ralat’s job at Texas Monthly magazine is so unique that when he got it last year, it made national news. One headline read: “The Job You Wish You Had: Taco Editor.” Yes, taco editor. And this fall the magazine is releasing its special Taco Issue, which only comes out once every five years. José has traveled more than 10,000 miles around the state eating tacos in preparation for it. In this week’s podcast, we tag along as he hits the road in search of the best that Texas has to offer. Plus he explains why Tex-Mex deserves more respect, and why America’s regional tacos are just as legit as Mexico’s. Buckle up!
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Dance Hall" by Hans Erickson
- "Like Fire" by Jacob Gossel
- "Gust of Wind" by Max Greenhalgh
- "Limon Coke" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Rollin Train" by Steve Pierson
- "Moor Rhumba Por Favor" by Justin Asher
Photo Courtesy of Robert Strickland.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We're on the road to San Antonio, and I am painfully full. And I didn't finish anything. But this is important to understand, it is Sunday in Texas. We eat barbacoa. So as soon as we get our hands on some, we're going to eat it.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. That guy you just heard is José Ralat. He’s the first Taco Editor in the history of Texas Monthly magazine. They’ve had a barbecue editor since 2013, but José just started last year. The announcement of his hiring made national news, summed up by the headline at NPR, "The Job You Wish You Had: Taco Editor". José’s assignment, travel around Texas, eat tacos, write about them. And while a lot of us might dream of landing this gig, few of us would be as qualified as José. He had already been blogging about tacos in Texas for year, not only covering places to eat but also doing extensive research on taco history. And as he made clear as soon as we started chatting, he’s not afraid to drop hot takes, as he did in an interview with The New Yorker.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): Everyone knows burritos are tacos. I caused a shit storm, but when I said that. I just said in passing, "You know burritos are tacos," because there are hundreds of years of scholarly history that backs me up. Unfortunately, not everyone read’s that.
Dan Pashman: Now this month José is bringing together his knowledge and his opinions, for the Texas Monthly Taco Issue. It only comes out once every five years, and it's the first time they’re doing it with him as taco editor. Later in the show, we’ll ride shotgun with José as he criss-crosses Texas on one of his taco finding expeditions. But before that, I wanted to learn more about how he got here. How do you end up with one of the most coveted jobs in America?
Dan Pashman: Even before you started writing about food, you knew you wanted to be a writer. You studied poetry in college, you were always drawn to the written word. Why?
José Ralat: I thought that it would be easier to communicate because of my speech impediment. I thought I didn't have to talk to people. And boy, was I wrong. I talk to people now more than ever. I was never not a talker. I was in poetry slams. I was doing all these crazy things that I probably shouldn't be doing because of my speech impediment.
Dan Pashman: José has had a stutter since he was a kid, related to the fact that he has epilepsy. I should say, to be transparent, this interview has been edited. We’ve trimmed some of the longer pauses between words. José lived most of his life in New York, his family’s from Puerto Rico and tacos were not a huge deal for him growing up. But his wife is Mexican-American from Texas. And when they started dating, they bonded over the tacos in their neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
José Ralat: There was this little old lady that set up this wooden shack right up against a bodega, I think on 44th street. And she would pop open the awning with a piece of wood and sell $2 lamb barbacoa tacos.
Dan Pashman: José was beginning to discover the world of tacos. But when he started traveling to Texas with his wife, he was blown away.
José Ralat: I had no base of knowledge other than the fact that my wife is Mexican-American and that she introduced me to the foods that she had grown up with. All the previous experience did not prepare me for the depth of diversity and the tweaks and regionalities to dishes.
Dan Pashman: José and his wife moved to Dallas in 2009, and he began writing a blog called The Taco Trail. The idea was to eat tacos all around Dallas, exploring the city by public transit. Because of his epilepsy, José doesn’t drive but he is by nature a completist. Dallas was not enough. He began expanding his reach, and expanding it some more. In the end, he spent ten years eating and writing about tacos all over Texas and Mexico. And in this past April, he published a book, American Tacos: A History and Guide. In it he argues that America’s regional tacos deserve just as much attention as Mexico’s. And that Tex-Mex needs to be understood and respected, just the same way Mexican food is. That's and idea I was curious to discuss.
Dan Pashman: Me, personally, and I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to what is Tex-Mex, what is Mexican, I always, in my head, had this idea that Tex-Mex is sort of the bastardization. And Mexican is the "real or authentic". And so when in doubt, if it's a food that I encounter in Texas, I'd usually call it Tex-Mex because I'm worried that I will be offensive to Mexican food and culture by saying that it's Mexican. But I know that you have a different approach. So can you kind of explain that to me?
José Ralat: Sure. So Tex-Mex is Mexican food that is a regional variation of the foundational cuisine of this part of the world. You'll often hear tejanos and Mexicans say things like the other side. The border doesn't exist for them. And what we know is Tex-Mex comes from the border area. So the food is the same on both sides of the river.
Dan Pashman: It's like the old saying, "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us."
José Ralat: Right.
Dan Pashman: The tacos didn't cross the border to the border. The border crossed the tacos.
José Ralat: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: As you may know, until the mid-1800s, Texas was part of Mexico. In 1846, after years of American Presidents trying to buy Texas from Mexico, the U.S. declared war on Mexico. Two years later, the war ended and Mexico accepted the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries. José says this new border had a big impact on food in Texas.
José Ralat: That cut off the market and the commerce from Mexico. After that, you get the advent of processed foods and Mexican food is regional. You use what the market has available.
Dan Pashman: The food along the border came to be known as Tex-Mex, but not everyone accepted it as its own cuisine. In 1972, the British food writer, Diana Kennedy, who is considered an English-language authority on Mexican food, called Tex-Mex blasphemy.
José Ralat: And then you have Diana Kennedy, bless her heart. She's a great example of an expert not being open to new possibilities. What she did, caused near irreparable harm to the cuisine.
Dan Pashman: Why was that so harmful for her to call Tex-Mex blasphemy? I understand why you may disagree that it's wrong. Why was it harmful?
José Ralat: It degraded a people's food and people's identity. Texans and Mexican-Americans would eat the same stuff. And Mexican immigrants would often move upward in class by opening up Tex-Mex restaurants and adding little Mexican touches here and there. So to say that this food, which was a gateway to prosperity and to identity was just wrong, was harmful to a lot of people.
Dan Pashman: As José sees it, yes, Mexican food and culture influence tacos in the U.S., but it’s not a one-way street. Tex-Mex isn’t a bastardization. The cuisines on both sides of the border have been in conversation with each other for generations. One example? A taco called, La Gringa.
José Ralat: That's a very Mexican taco. And one would not think so by looking at it. So the story goes that this American college student lived above a taqueria in Mexico City. And every morning she would walk down and request al pastor with cheese on a flour tortilla
Dan Pashman: Which is not a typical taco al pastor.
José Ralat: No. No, that was not on the menu.
Dan Pashman: Right.
José Ralat: That was the customized order.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. It’s typically a corn tortilla, no cheese.
José Ralat: Right. They acquiesced it. Sure. Here's a pretty American woman—I don't know if she was pretty. This is a myth. This whole thing isn't verifiable.
Dan Pashman: Right. But they did name the taco, La Gringa.
José Ralat: Right.
Dan Pashman: Which means, the white girl.
José Ralt: Yes. People caught on, liked this idea and the taqueria Fogoncito, which exist to this day, put it on the menu. And it is one of the most popular Mexico City tacos there are. Cheese is everywhere down there and I think we shouldn't shy away from it.
Dan Pashman: And you write in your book, "The addition of cheese to the iconic Taco Al Pastor erased the border between Americanized Mexican food and reverently guarded Mexican food."
José Ralat: Yeah, probably a purist would be horrified. But I thought, "Oh, my God, this is amazing. This changes everything."
Dan Pashman: In his ongoing debate with the purists, José has coined a term, the abuelita principle.
José Ralat: A lot of people will tell me that's not a taco. My grandmother, my abuela, made real tacos. She made real Mexican food and everything else is not Mexican food. Well, what if your grandmother is a bad cook? But put it simply, it is us trying to control this living cuisine and it undermines our understanding and enjoyment of this diverse food. Because to this day, Mexican food is innovating. And so you can't tell me that your grandmother made the definitive lengua, beef tongue, when there are centuries of different recipes and we have centuries to go.
Dan Pashman: As I said, José’s family is Puerto Rican. He grew up in New York. So he’s neither Mexican-American, nor Texan. He says he thinks that’s a positive, that it allows him to be more objective in these debates about authenticity. He doesn’t have a Mexican abuela or a hometown Texas taco to defend.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting, José, because...look. Generally speaking, I tend to agree with you that authenticity like, you know, you could find two people who live across the street from each other in the same town and make a dish very differently from each other. So which one is the authentic one? So I hear that. I am curious to unpack, why is it that people tend to get defensive about changes to their cuisine. And I wonder if it has something to do with like the more secure you feel in your place in the world, the more that you feel that your identity and culture are accepted, the easier maybe it is to play around and let other people play around and feel like it's not going to destroy the the the root of of all of it.
José Ralat: Americans have done a lot of harm to Mexican food. We can talk about Glen Bell jacking his recipe from this little joint across the street and then creating the brand Taco Bell, with this recipe that he stole. A lot of people considered these harmful acts. Identity in food are so intertwined in so many cultures, including Mexican culture. And so at some point, it becomes a coping mechanism to say that's not real. It's because...
Dan Pashman: Or that's not authentic.
José Ralat: Yeah. But because we need to protect what's left.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we explore some of the regional tacos of Texas when José takes us on a road trip.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): I would put up that barbacoa taco against any other analogous taco across the state.
Dan Pashman: Barbacoa, by the way, is meat cooked low and slow, outdoors. It’s thought to be the origin for the word "barbecue” in English. So before we head out: did you get to use the bathroom? Is your seatbelt on? Did you have a snack? Don't leave hungry because if you're not already craving tacos, you will be. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. I know it’s hard to believe but we’re getting to the time of year for our annual tradition. I want your New Year’s food resolutions. What are you gonna eat next year? How do you think the pandemic will affect your eating as we head into 2021? Is there something you’ve been looking forward to cooking? Or do you wish you never had to cook again? How can we make food a comfort next year and not a burden? I want to hear from you. Record a voice memo on your cell phone. Tell me your name and where you’re from. Then answer this question, "What food do you resolve to eat more of in the new, and why?" Send the voice memo to us at email@example.com and you might hear yourself in our New Year’s episode. Thanks. OK, back to José Ralat, Taco Editor at Texas Monthly magazine. As I said, when José got the job, it made national news. And at times, the gig leaves José himself incredulous.
José Ralat: As I told the editor in chief once, "Who the hell hires a taco editor?"
Dan Pashman: Well, they already had a barbecue editor. From that perspective like this felt overdue.
José Ralat: It did. Because we eat tacos more than barbecue.
Dan Pashman: Right. How could you have a barbecue editor for so long, a Texas Monthly and not have a taco editor?
José Ralat: So I pitched this job for four years before they said, OK. That's how much I fight for things. It is an immense amount of work. You roll into a town and I'm not going to speak badly of my colleague and friend, Daniel Vaught...
Dan Pashman: Who is the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly.
José Ralat: Yes, but when Daniel rolls into a town, there might be two or three barbecue joints. When I roll into town, there are 100 Mexican restaurants. And because I'm ambitious and competitive by nature, I'm going to try to hit all of them in one day.
Dan Pashman: When we first started talking about doing this show, my plan was to fly to Texas and tag along with José on one of his trips. I mean, he’s not the only person here who landed his dream gig. OK? If I wrote up my own job description, it would definitely include the line, “Must be willing to fly halfway across the country for tacos.” But, you know....COVID. So, José agreed to record some audio for us while he was on the road. And look, this is not just fun and games. The stakes are high! Remember, José is putting together Texas Monthly’s Taco Issue for the first time as their Taco Editor. And this issue only comes out once every five years. His mission is to sum up the state of tacos in Texas, which is basically the size of France. It’s a huge task.
Dan Pashman: By mid-September, José had already logged over 9,000 miles and eaten over 1,300 tacos for this issue. But he still had a few more stops to make. So he left his home in Dallas and travelled three hours south to Austin for a week-long trip. He set up base camp at a hotel there, then took day trips to Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, College Station, and the Hill Country. This weeklong odyssey would be his last big trip for the Taco Issue. He was joined by his longtime friend John Daniel, who did the driving because of José’s epilepsy.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): Off we go. John, I'm so relieved to be on the road. I'm excited. I've got tons of spreadsheets, Post-it notes and sticky tabs and evaluation sheets. Watch out, object on road ahead.
Dan Pashman: On day one, José and John visit Cuantos Tacos, a little taco truck in Austin.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We’re at Cuantos and they were they were closed yesterday, which was lengua Wednesday. So they're offering it tonight, as was their brownsville matamoros style tacos with the juicy bisteck, a wedge of avocado, beautifully diced onion and cilantro and a healthy sprinkle of queso fresco.
Dan Pashman: Brownsville is one of the southern-most cities in Texas. It's right on the border, just three miles north of the Mexican city of Matamoros. It’s the heart of cattle country in South Texas and Northern Mexico. And the Brownsville-Matamoros taco reflects that proximity to cows.
José Ralat: It's a perfect example of this greasy, beefy, cheesy meal. This taco is relatively new, from the 80s, and is a rarity outside of the border area.
Dan Pashman: As you heard, another specialty at Cuantos Tacos is the lengua.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): And the lengua tears like lengua and and most importantly, looks lengua. It looks like the cows tongue. And it's just utterly delightful. I could eat a million of these. I think that one of the benefits is the way you slice it. That amount of surface area and the way it crisps, the way it bites, all that's part of the experience.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): Really, the best one I've had in so long and just made with with such care. I'm sorry, I'm talking with my mouth full but I have another bite.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): No, you speak with your mouth full. This is the only time that I'm gonna let you do that.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): Let me?
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): You have cheese all over your face.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): Oh, that's good.
Dan Pashman: Cuantos Tacos is one of ten stops around Austin that day for José and John. On other days, they travel 80 miles south to hit spots in San Antonio. 165 miles east to scout out Houston joints. And they devote more days to the Austin area, where there’s a wide variety of taco styles, like at a bakery that makes tacos filled with rice.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We are at Mi Tradicion, a panaderia that does Tacos de guisados. So it is organic blue corn, yellow rice that are battered and fried cheese filled poblano and it is wonderful.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): It is wonderful.
Dan Pashman: José plans his trips very carefully. He spends weeks researching for a 3-day excursion. But once he’s on the road, he’s on the lookout for places that his research might have missed. He looks for signs that will tell him whether or not it’s worth stopping. Is there a crowd? Is there a regional dish on the menu? Are the tortillas handmade? He has a rule: Always take the long route. Better to find overlooked places that way. So a trip from San Antonio to Dallas, that normally takes 4 hours, it once took José 12. And sometimes, being on the lookout for those out of the way places pays off big. Like the time, back in March, right before COVID, when he stumbled on Manuel’s Crispy Tacos in Odessa, Texas.
José Ralat: As we drove by, I said, "Pull in! Pull in! Pull in!" And I made my family wait. Because my wife's vegetarian and my son's real picky. So this place wasn't on the itinerary. It's got barely any internet presence. What I saw was a crumbling facade with rusty signage that might have been broken.
Dan Pashman: So the place looked like it had seen better days. And it had been open since 1947, but José hadn’t heard of it. For a taco joint to be around that long and never make it onto José’s radar, not a great sign.
José Ralat: It was 1:45, and they closed at 2:00. I said, "I'll be right back." I thought that there were gonna turn me away. I was one of only two people being served. There were like these little mini taco salad shells that you could wrap four forefingers around the outside and just eat it like a cup.
Dan Pashman: So the tortilla was was fried into the shape of a small bowl. I'm imagining it like halfway between between the size of a taco salad bowl and a scoop chip.
José Ralat: Yes, that's exactly.
Dan Pashman: OK. I'm with you. I got it. Alright.
José Ralat: The lettuce wasn't cold. It wasn't watery. It was crispy. The tomatoes weren't drippy. The cheese was warm. Everything was at the right temperature and everything was at the optimal texture. I thought it was amazing. I was blown away. It was just ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and this preformed fried shell.
Dan Pashman: Outside of the shape of the taco being more of a bowl, it sounds like this is just a really good version of the kind of taco that sort of became a staple of middle America. You know, sometime in the last century, that you would have on taco night, buying the hard shells at the supermarket. The kind of thing that a lot of people are familiar with.
José Ralat: Yes, crispy tacos are the true American taco.
Dan Pashman: You wrote in your book, "The history of the crispy taco is the history of the taco in America."
José Ralat: It was the entry point for everybody from Taco Bell to what used to be called cocktail tacos ,that you would get from the freezer case. And the oldest printed recipes for tacos that we have in the U.S. all require frying. So crispy tacos are actually the oldest taco that we know of within the states. And I love that.
Dan Pashman: Back on the road with John, José stops for tacos that you could say are on the opposite end of the spectrum from crispy tacos. These are fancy tacos.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): So we’re at Resident, its owned by Andrew Savoy, who is a classically trained chef. Worked at Jean George.
José Ralat: What distinguishes Resident Taqueria owner from other anglo chefs trying to do tacos is that he did his homework. He respects the traditions and the flavor profiles, but understand theres a lot of room to play.
Dan Pashman: That means cauliflower and kale tacos, slow cooked mushroom tacos, and one ingredient that José is less than thrilled about.
CLIP (SERVER): Have you guys had the ratatouille?
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): No.
CLIP (SERVER): The fried eggplant is really good.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): I hate eggplant.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): I love it.
CLIP (SERVER): It's one of my favorite tacos, right now.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): So, let’s get one of those.
CLIP (SERVER): Alright.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): I’ll try it.
Dan Pashman: Now, I know what you're thinking. How much does this guy eat? Well, he does have a system for pacing himself. José says he never eats more than a few bites of each taco. And in order to combat palate fatigue, he hits Mexican ice cream shops. The fruit flavors help him reset his taste buds. Midway through this week long trip, they drive 100 miles west to Kerville, in Texas Hill Country, a part of the state famous for barbecue and barbacoa.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): I would put up that barbacoa taco against any other analogous taco across the State.
CLIP (SIRI): Go straight. Only twenty minutes to 13th Street.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): Thank you, Siri.
Dan Pashman: From there, they drive half an hour south, to cowboy country
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We just drove over the Guadalupe River. And we’re on to a town called Bandera, the cowboy capital of Texas.
Dan Pashman: But things there don’t go as planned.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): We just had what I think is our first incident of walking in and then walking straight out of a restaurant. Not a damn person was wearing a mask. And you know what? I was really looking forward to a fresh puffy taco. But they're not getting the business.
Dan Pashman: For José no tour of Texas tacos would be complete without a stop at Valentina’s Tex Mex Barbecue, a beloved food trailer in Austin. They kinda have the holy trinity: Tex Mex, barbecue, and tacos. José says that at Valentina’s, that combination comes naturally.
José Ralat: The co-owner founder, Miguel Vidal, is from San Antonio. And when he opened this place, he didn't think he was doing anything abnormal. He said, "I was just cooking the way my family cooked when I was growing up. This is how we barbecued. We had the brisket. We had barbacoa. We had all of these elements. Plus, we had tortillas and salsa and queso fresco. That's just how you do it in South Texas." They have what I consider to be one of the quintessential Texas tacos. And it's the real deal, Holyfield. It is a flour tortilla and then you have brisket. You have a fried egg, refried beans. You have cheese. You have salsa.
Dan Pashman: Oh, mercy.
José Ralat: It's huge.
Dan Pashman: After picking up the food at Valentina’s, José and John return to their hotel to eat.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): I like the Real Deal Holyfield a lot. I forgot that you can get it chopped. I think it would be better.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): More surface area.
CLIP (JOHN DANIEL): Yeah. It's really good though. Smoke rings great. Bark is great. It's rendered well.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): And the beans are doing what the beans should be doing, keeping everything together.
Dan Pashman: From the Real Deal Holyfield, José turns his attention to Valentina’s breakfast tacos. By the way, José says the breakfast taco originated in Mexico, took hold and developed in the Rio Grande Valley, then moved north to San Antonio. It’s not from Austin. Sorry, Austin. There’s no such thing as an Austin style breakfast taco. He says that idea comes from coastal elites. Even though Valentina’s is in Austin, the owner, as you heard, is from San Antonio. Anyway, time to eat.
CLIP (JOSÉ RALAT): The litmus test breakfast taco, the potato, egg, and cheese. It might be a little too salty, but it's it's still stellar. The potatoes are fluffy. The cheese is not dry or rubbery. It's almost a little juicy. Yeah, it's fantastic.
Dan Pashman: By the end of José’s trip, he had traveled over a thousand miles, visited about 50 restaurants, and sampled 150 tacos. Not bad for a week’s work. In case you're keeping score, that means he tried an average of 21 tacos each day. A couple weeks later, he turned in his story for the big Texas Monthly Taco issue.
Dan Pashman: What do you hope people will take from it? Big picture? Besides just which restaurants have good tacos? What do you hope that people will take away from this about tacos as a whole?
José Ralat: I'm not trying to blow their minds with any new information. I'm trying to show them what Texas tacos are like right here and right now. After this, hopefully, they will understand the breadth, the range of Texas tacos.
Dan Pashman: And I gather that also part of what you want people to take away is to appreciate tacos as any other rich and varied food, that is worthy of thoughtful food criticism.
José Ralat: Yes. And I think they do. They just need to be reminded of it. That's part of my job, is to remind people of why it's important, and how it's important, and how it should be valued. And to remind people of their ultimate provenance. We just happen to live in a part of the world that was once Mexico. We are lucky.
Dan Pashman: That’s José Ralat. His book, American Tacos, is out now. And the 2020 Taco issue of Texas Monthly will be online November 18th. It hits newsstands in December. Next week, we’ll talk with another Texas writer, Bryan Washington, whose writing centers around his native Houston. He uses food to help trace the story arcs of many of his characters. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: In the mean time, send me your new year’s food resolutions. Record a voice memo on your cell phone. Tell me your name, where you’re from, and tell me what food you resolve to eat more of in the new year and why. Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be sure you’re following our podcast in Spotify. If you’re listening in Spotify just hit that follow button, right now. It's so easy. In Apple Podcasts, it’s subscribe. In Stitcher, hit favorite. Thanks.