José R. Ralat is probably one of the most envied people in America. This is because of his job: taco editor for Texas Monthly. Yes, his entire job—for which he receives a paycheck—is to eat tacos and then write about them. You can take a moment now to wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life and maybe shed a few tears and then indulge in a little sour grapes by reflecting that a job is still a job and nothing is ever as much fun when you have to do it and that Ralat probably suffers deeply for his labor. Do you feel better?
All right. Back to this review. You may be surprised to learn that Ralat only began honing his taco palate as an adult. He was born in Puerto Rico, moved to the United States as a kid, and didn’t begin to appreciate the true wonder and glory of tacos until he moved in with his future wife, Jessica, a Texan of Mexican-American heritage. The first morning in their new apartment, she made him breakfast tacos, also Texan of Mexican-American heritage: eggs and chorizo on a warm flour tortilla.
So maybe it’s fitting that Ralat’s new book, American Tacos: A History and Guide (University of Texas Press), also begins with breakfast tacos and then embarks on an odyssey across the United States to taste the American taco in all its manifestations: crispy tacos, puffy tacos, frybread tacos, Korean tacos, pan-Asian tacos, Indian tacos, West Indian tacos, barbecue tacos, Southern tacos, Southern California tacos, Jewish tacos, cheffy tacos. He spends a lot of time in Texas, L.A., and Chicago, as you might expect, but he also discovers some pretty wonderful tacos in such unlikely places as Kansas City; Memphis; St. Louis; Portland, Oregon; and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ralat did some serious homework here identifying the history and philosophy of each of these different kinds of taco. He dug through newspaper archives, he talked to scholars, and most of all, he spent time with chefs in their restaurants and outside their food trucks eating and talking tacos. The most controversial revelation is probably that breakfast tacos originated in San Antonio, not Austin. (This is a huge deal for Texans because Austin takes credit for everything.) The most surprising is the chapter on Jewish tacos, which centers on an art installation in El Paso, Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Truck est. 1492, that explores the history of crypto-Jews who ostensibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition but secretly retained their Jewish traditions even after they came to Mexico. (Ralat skirts a bit around the issue, but it doesn’t sound like any of the kosher tacos he tastes are that good.) And the saddest is the story of the frybread taco, based on the frybread that Native Americans created out of necessity after the U.S. government “resettled” them to the southwestern desert and left them with flour, lard, and sugar for provisions.
There’s one word that every discussion in American Tacos comes back to, and that is “authenticity.” Ralat begins his journey in Mexico City, where he discovers that “the American idea of the taco is narrow. We insist on it being ‘authentically Mexican.’ ‘Novelty’ and ‘gringo’ are often used to describe anything beyond pork, beef, or chicken—and yet in fewer than three days I had encountered a variety greater than any I could imagine finding back home [in the U.S.].” One of the most universally beloved tacos he tries in Mexico City is called “la gringa,” a taco al pastor served on a flour tortilla and covered in white cheese, named after the American college girl who allegedly first asked for it. Nobody quibbles, because it’s delicious and who doesn’t love cheese? “The addition of cheese to the iconic taco al pastor erased the border between Americanized Mexican food and reverently guarded Mexican food,” Ralat reflects after tasting one. “There was no heresy. There was only a taco. An inevitable taco. Here was the comforting synthesis of cherished foods producing something nearly perfect.”
Back in the States, though, things are a bit more complicated. As Ralat writes, “throwing something into a tortilla doesn’t automatically make it definable as a taco.” Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef credited with inventing the Korean taco (and also the gourmet food truck), was inspired by his L.A. childhood eating street tacos and Korean food in his parents’ restaurant, his recognition of the principles that the two cuisines have in common, and his realization of ways they could be blended together, for instance reheating and crisping bulgogi the way Mexicans reheat and crisp carne asada on a plancha, or adding kimchi on top of carne asada for a hit of acid to balance the savoriness of the meat.
Sur-Mex, the still developing fusion of Southern and Mexican flavors, poses more of a problem, maybe because it’s still a cuisine in progress. Minero, a taco restaurant developed by the Anglo chef Sean Brock in Charleston, South Carolina, is Ralat’s primary example of good intentions and “cheffy dreams” crossing the line into cultural appropriation. Minero’s chef de cuisine, Wes Grubbs, tells Ralat that he and Brock spent a summer studying nixtamalization, the process by which corn is refined and ground into tortillas, so they could make their own; he acknowledges that this is an absurdly short amount of time. The more Southern-inspired tacos, like a masa-mixed tempura catfish taco with pickled green tomato tartar, red onions, and Duke’s mayonnaise on a corn tortilla, fare much better than the attempts at straight-up Mexican tacos, like carnitas. Or, as Ralat writes, “problems arise when a chef attempts to exhibit control of Mexican food or claim legitimacy with upmarket renditions of classic tacos.” But the other part is that, as well-intentioned as Brock and Grubbs may have been, they left Mexicans entirely out of the conversation. “What is a taco?” Silvana Salcido Esparza, a Mexican-American chef, asks Ralat in a later chapter. “A taco is anything you want it to be as long as you’re Mexican and serving your cultura.” And Ralat doesn’t disagree.
For everyone else, it’s a question of minding the line between appreciation and appropriation. And Ralat does a lot of the work to show where tacos come from and how they got to be where they are now. “The best modern tacos,” he writes, “straddle the line between boundless creativity and respect for tradition and history. This begins with ridding ourselves of the idea of the tortilla as a blank canvas. It’s not. Rather, the tortilla is the foundation of Mexican culture, and many American tacos are built on that foundation.”
American Taco provides a great service in sharing some of the best places in the country to get a superior taco; there’s also an appendix that helps readers identify a truly outstanding taco joint on their own. (Number one: The place is packed.) One of the great pleasures of this book is the opportunity to taste many of these tacos through Ralat’s descriptions: he has persuaded me that as soon as it’s safe to travel again, I’m going to have to get myself down to San Antonio to gorge myself on puffy tacos, masa dough that’s fried and formed into a U-shape and then stuffed with meat and salsa. They are so beloved that the local minor league baseball team has adopted a puffy taco as its mascot. You can’t get much more American than that.