By Helen Rosner
Twenty-two years ago, Texas Monthly, the venerable “national magazine of Texas,” published a ranking of the state’s fifty best barbecue joints. The magazine had named the state’s best barbecue before, but the Top Fifty was an extraordinary feat of carnivorousness—a massive inventory of smoked meat, involving hundreds of meals and uncountable thousands of miles—and it became a phenomenon, on and off the newsstand. Regularly revised and updated in the years since, the list drives tourism both to and within the state, names and shapes trends, makes kings of newcomers, and topples long-established empires. So tremendous is Texans’ desire to read about barbecue, so essential is the food to the very notion of Texan-ness, that in 2013 Texas Monthly appointed the food writer and meat savant Daniel Vaughn to the freshly created role of barbecue editor.
This week, the magazine announced the creation of a new position to stand alongside its barbecue editor: beginning September 18th, José R. Ralat will become the magazine’s and the nation’s first taco editor. Ralat—who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City, and now lives in Dallas—has been something of a professional taco-eater for more than a decade, first writing taco reviews for the New York Press, and then, after decamping from Brooklyn to Texas, ten years ago, launching a weekly taco column with the Dallas Observer. He’s the author of the blog Taco Trail and, until the end of this week, the food and drink editor at the Dallas-based magazine Cowboys & Indians. His new role sounds like an office drone’s daydream: a full-time salary, plus benefits, just to wander around Texas and eat tacos? Sure thing, kid, dream on. But, as with its editorial commitment to barbecue, Texas Monthly considers this job to be not only serious business but essential Texas journalism: in a state where more than forty per cent of the population is Hispanic, including Mexican and Mexican-American residents, tacos are part of daily life, and key to Texan culinary identity.
I recently spoke with Ralat by phone about his new gig; in our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also explored how to categorize burritos, why tacos are essentially Texan, and Ralat’s mission to correct the record on breakfast tacos.
Do you already have an itinerary mapped out for your first few months on the road?
I have a rough idea that was part of my initial conversation with Texas Monthly—I sent them a list of, like, twenty ideas, thirty ideas. And it just keeps getting longer! It’s a big state, you know? It’s a huge state! And I have some friends who want to travel with me who are up for the drive. I’ll need them, because I don’t drive at all.
That seems like an obstacle for this kind of job.
You’d think so, but it hasn’t stopped me yet. I’m from New York, and I have epilepsy, so at first I just never learned to drive, and then I couldn’t drive—I probably never will. But there are a lot of buses, and there are my friends. Daniel [Vaughn, the magazine’s barbecue editor] lives in Dallas, too, and he and I could conceivably team up on things so we can hit the road together, tacos and barbecue at once. I do plan on doing a taco of the week and a taco of the month, but Mexican food in Texas is evolving quickly, and so I’ll be covering Mexican pizza, and Mexican burgers, paletas, burritos—I’m a little scared of those, to be honest. I don’t know what that’s gonna be like. But I consider burritos to be tacos.
You say that like it’s a controversial opinion.
It’s not, though! There are a couple of books out of Mexico that detail the history of the burrito—an older book, called “Los Tacos de México,” and a more recent one, called “La Tacopedia,” by Alejandro Escalante. They explain that, yes, burritos are large, folded tortillas, but they are still tacos. It’s not a new argument, it’s just not really discussed a lot. I don’t understand why you would want to eat something that big in one sitting. That doesn’t make sense to me. But it does make sense to me that they count as tacos.
Do Mexican burgers and Mexican pizzas count as tacos, too?
I want to cover traditional Mexican dishes, new Mexican dishes, Mexican-American and Tex-Mex dishes. I want to talk to restaurateurs and restaurant owners who have been running the same restaurants for fifteen, twenty, thirty-five years. Taco Deli [a famous taco stand in Austin] is celebrating twenty years this year. They helped make breakfast tacos a national thing, so I’d love to talk to them about why they started, and what they think their impact has been.
If you’re covering the full breadth of Mexican food in Texas, why call the job “taco editor”?
With Mexican cooking, everything eventually makes it into a tortilla. It’s how you eat almost everything: put it inside a tortilla, and then that’s a taco. Tortillas are generally served with meals, at the table. Plus, “taco editor” is real dang catchy, isn’t it?
I would worry about running into an ontological brick wall—if everything is a taco, then the idea of a taco, as a distinct food, maybe becomes kind of meaningless?
No, for several reasons. For one, in general, when we talk about tacos, we’re really talking about tortillas, particularly corn tortillas. Corn is the foundation of Mexican identity, Mexican culture. Also, the taco is a quick, easy, perfect food—we don’t think about them that much because here in Texas we eat them multiple times a week. You buy tortillas nearby—or maybe you make your own, but that’s rare these days. When you go out to eat, they’re everywhere. Do we take them for granted? It’s a good question. I hope we don’t. I certainly don’t.
Barbecue, especially smoked brisket, is a quintessential Texas food. Tacos, on the other hand, are everywhere—and it seems like Californians sometimes pretend to have a monopoly on them.
A lot of people like to argue about which barbecue is better: Carolina barbecue, Texas barbecue, whatever. I don’t think that sort of thing helps tacos. I think that, for those of us who live along the border, tacos are part of our DNA—and, if the rest of America doesn’t know that, then, hopefully, I can help. A lot of reporting comes out of California. And, frankly, a lot of outside reporting about Texas tacos is due to reporters visiting Austin for South by Southwest. To think that that’s what outsiders think of as “Texas tacos” makes me cringe! Austin is a small city that gets a lot of attention, but it can only really be credited with one taco, and that’s the migas taco, which is their signature: crispy tortilla strips mixed with eggs and cheese, mixed with salsa that can be as simple as a pico de gallo.
Credit: The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com