Consider the taco. In much of Texas it’s just an afterthought on the great Tex-Mex menu of life: a poor cousin to the glamour items of the Fajita Age, consigned to out-of-the-way barrio taquerías or to a few perfunctory entries on Mexican bills of fare. Not so in San Antonio, where the taco occupies an honored place in the civic consciousness. People spend time thinking about tacos in San Antonio. They argue about tacos; they swap tips on the latest taco hot spots; they zip through drive-in windows for tacos at odd hours of the day and night; they repair en masse to their favorite taco emporiums for weekend breakfasts.
Self-respecting San Antonians consider decent tacos a birthright and a necessity. “We’re spoiled here,” says art gallery director Stephen Vollmer, who admits to eating tacos four or five times a week and is subject to taco withdrawal when he travels. “I was so hard up in Houston last month that I actually went to the Whataburger and ate a breakfast taco,” he confesses sheepishly. After local éminence grise Maury Maverick steered attorney Tommy Smith to San Antonio’s downtown La Taquería, Smith ate there religiously—twice a day, breakfast and lunch—until it changed hands, a calamity of which he still complains.
Such behavior might strike Texans in less fortunate parts of the state as bizarre or, at the least, unaccountable. But if San Antonians are serious about their tacos, well, that’s because they have a lot to be serious about. Most Texans—the creeping popularity of the flour-tortilla-wrapped breakfast taco aside—equate the taco with its classic, none-too-thrilling Tex-Mex incarnation: a crisp, U-shaped shell (generally mass-produced) filled with a picadillo (ground beef that is often bland or overloaded with comino), dripping grease and sprouting a messy freight of shredded lettuce, tomato, and grated cheese all raring to splatter over your shirt front (just ask Prince Charles, who recently encountered one in Houston). San Antonians, however, gravitate toward tacos of a more elemental and ancient form—tortillas snatched hot off the griddle, folded around a wide range of fillings, and goosed up with chiles or hot salsa—a nice, self-contained little package. The genre is so highly developed that by now a rich and exuberant catalog of ingredients finds its way into San Antonio tacos, from basic carnitas to cactus pads, from esoteric offal like brains to strange New World hybrids like wiener-and-egg. Almost anything goes, including Polish sausage, chilaquiles, dried-shrimp cakes, or—would I pull your leg about something like this?—chopped-beef barbecue. Unseemly as that sounds, it’s squarely in the Mexican taco tradition, which requires only the tortilla as a constant. What you put in that tortilla is a function of what you like, what you’ve got, or what you’ve got left over. Versatility incarnate.
San Antonio has not been immune to the siren song of the Fajita Age, so these days the tortillas cradling your tacos are more apt to be made from flour than from corn; even taquerías deep within the West Side barrios are beginning to use flour tortillas as a matter of course. Hardly anybody bothers to ask if you’d prefer corn anymore, a disquieting development that applies all over the state. Granted, flour tortillas are admirably suited to Northern Mexico-style grilled meats, to cheeses, and to breakfast fillings; and granted, flour tortillas provide “better wet strength,” as San Antonio restaurant critic Ron Bechtol sensibly points out. Yet certain taco fillings seem to cry out for the character and texture of a properly mealy, layery corn tortilla: nopalitos, homey Mexican stews, and carnitas, for instance.
Eventually, I fear, Texans will lose their racial memory of what a well-made corn tortilla tastes like (some would argue that this loss has already occurred). Since there are fewer and fewer respectable corn tortillas around, you might ask whether it isn’t better to have a good flour-tortilla wrapping than a mediocre one made of corn; you could also, if you wanted to be picky, ask whether a flour-tortilla taco isn’t really a burrito. That way lies madness, though. What about flautas, which are nothing more than rolled tacos that have been fried and garnished? Or quesadillas—aren’t they, in their Americanized version, just grilled cheese tacos? Or how about soft tacos with sauce on them, some of them which look suspiciously like enchiladas? When is a taco not a taco, anyways? When you have to eat it with a fork, I say.
After all, in its purest form the taco is a street food, not a sit-down-restaurant food. It has the engagingly off-hand quality common to even the most elaborate of those masa-based Mexican snacks called antojitos. If you want to get historical about it, the taco has a nobler pedigree than that other North American fast food, the hamburger; a time-warp back to pre-Hispanic Mexico and you’d doubtless see Indians toting tortillas stuffed with this, that, and the other. Now, as then, the taco’s beauty as a fast food is its portable size. A perfect bocadita, or little mouthful, it stimulates without sating (and wears infinitely better than a burrito with its platter-size flour tortilla and its lumberjack heft). If one taco fails to do the trick, there’s always the lovely option of ordering a couple more—of different varieties, of course. My gripe against sit-down-restaurant tacos is that they mostly come three of a kin, which decreases my fun by two thirds.
There’s nowhere I have more fun eating tacos than San Antonio, which acre for acre boasts the best and most interesting tacos in the state. In fact, the city functions as the Manhattan of U.S. tacodom, where good—or even great—tacos are always within walking distance. With its size and its 54 percent Hispanic population, San Antonio has spawned a critical mass of taco artistes and taco consumers. The overall quality of Mexican food here has created a demanding local audience that grows up knowing what it wants. Among other things, it passionately wants tacos. Accordingly, the San Antonio phone books list nearly a