If you asked Texans about their favorite foods, barbecue and tacos would probably be at the top of the list (sorry, chili). As the Barbecue Editor, I’ve been covering the barbecue explosion in Texas for more than six years, and I’m happy to welcome another food specialist to the Texas Monthly team. I’ve often described José R. Ralat as my counterpart in the world of tacos, so it’s fitting that he’s joining the staff as our Taco Editor—he’s one of five new staffers we announced on Tuesday.
José has written about tacos extensively since he began his Taco Trail column for the Dallas Observer in 2010. His forthcoming book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, will be released in April. I’ve used his work as a guide for my own eating, and we’ve become friends; our kids are actually in the same grade at the same school in Dallas. (Maybe that’s why the school fundraiser is at a taco place tonight?)
In 2015 we published a list of the 120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die. It wouldn’t have been the same without José’s guidance. He recently bought me lunch at La Salsa Verde, a spot on the list that’s inside a Chevron station and ironically famous for its habanero peanut salsa. We talked about his history with tacos and how he approaches ordering them. After moving on to La Nueva Puntada, a newer taqueria a block away, we got into the definition of a taco and his goals as taco editor that go beyond the tortilla.
At La Salsa Verde, we sat at two of the four stools overlooking the kitchen. A plate of barbacoa and suadero tacos arrived. I had trouble choosing between the three squeeze bottles of salsa, one each of red, green, and orange.
José Ralat: [The orange] is probably the peanut, which is gonna be the hottest. This is probably arbol [points to the red]. This is some sort of verde, but you can never really tell with the green sauces. I will test them out right here.
Daniel Vaughn: So, kinda like with barbecue sauce, before you commit, you need to try a little on the side?
JR: Yeah. It’s important to note that some tacos get specific salsas. I once tried to shoot this peanut salsa like someone would shoot vodka. It did not go well for me.
DV: How do you approach ordering when you walk into a place?
JR: There are signs that I look for, like do they make their own tortillas?
DV: No need to try the store-bought flour if they’re making their own corn tortillas?
JR: Right. I will look for any kind of regional specialization or a specialization in a particular style. So steamed head meat, while it’s popular across all of Mexico, is a particularly Mexico City style of tacos for a couple of reasons. First, suadero is from Mexico City, and chuleta con queso is very popular in Mexico City. It’s also what I order when I go to El Tizoncito [in Mexico City and Oak Cliff]. Those are signs that this is a Mexico City place. They have al pastor tacos, but they don’t have a trompo [a vertical rotisserie], so I’m not going to order it.
DV: That’s the taco snob in you coming out, but I guess there are two dozen tacos to choose from here. To help you narrow it down, how much can you learn from the menu or just name of the place? How do you find those clues?
JR: It’s tricky because there are a lot of places called Jalisco something. That’s because Jalisco is considered the soul of Mexico.
DV: It’s like finding Texas Smokehouse Barbecue in Rhode Island.
JR: Right. A lot of places will advertise the things that they’re proud of on their façade. Those items are usually hand-painted, and those are what I go for when I walk in. A lot of these places have mascots.
DV: If you don’t see those clues, is that a question you might ask at the counter? What is your specialty or where is the owner from?
JR: Yes, but Dallas is peculiar. Here I’ve been walked out of places backward. I’ve been thrown out of places for bringing out a phone or asking the wrong question. That has never happened to me in Texas outside of Dallas.
After polishing off a squash blossom quesadilla, we left in search of another taqueria.
JR: I wanted to go get vegan tacos at Nuno’s Tacos, but they’re closed today.
DV: Why are all the vegan places closed on Monday? I thought that’s when Meatless Monday was.
JR: I think it’s funny, as an analogy, that when I first started doing this, I would find a lot of tortillerias and taquerias closed on Tuesdays.
We wound up at La Nueva Puntada and ordered rajas con queso tacos and chiles rellenos. When they hit the table, we began discussing the similarities in our particular fields of study.
JR: Barbecue and tacos are not that different in that they reflect a time and place based on market availability, demand, population shifts. Would you say that it works similarly for barbecue, or that it used to?
DV: I’d say that barbecue is ahead of tacos in some of those areas, not always in a good way. The other way in which barbecue is ahead of tacos is that we’re seeing many people accept the fact that really great barbecue is simply going to cost more.
JR: It’s so expensive.
DV: It is, but that’s a discussion happening in the world of tacos as well. Some people still think all tacos should be cheap, and they believe particularly that the cheapness makes it more authentic.
JR: I hope we can ban that word from Texas Monthly’s taco coverage. As hackneyed as it sounds, you really do get what you pay for. If you get a cheap taco, you’re going to get cheap meat, cheap tortillas, cheap everything, and it probably won’t be good. If you want high-quality hand-made ingredients, that’s going to cost you. One of the factors is tortillas. You probably noticed at the place we were just at, Salsa Verde, that the tortillas didn’t really taste like anything. Those came out of a bag. Now smell your fingers. All you probably smell is grease, not corn. A corn tortilla made using nixtamalization smells like corn, tastes like corn, and is unavoidably corn. It is terrific, it is beautiful, and the smell lingers on your fingers for hours.
DV: You’re saying a tortilla isn’t meant to be a neutral vessel.
JR: No! It’s a vessel, sure, but the tortilla is the foundation and the most important part. Physically, tacos are made of three things: the tortilla, the filling, and the salsa. A taco must have all three things. Sometimes the filling comes in its own salsa, like many guisados do.
DV: I’m guessing you have to deal with plenty of people who want to tell you what a taco is not.
JR: It’s hard to refute people head on, but I want to show them the diversity of Mexican food in Texas so that maybe they start to understand. If it comes in a tortilla; if there’s integrity to it so it doesn’t fall apart; and if the flavors work and it’s delicious, who cares? Eventually everything finds its way into a tortilla.
DV: There are so many to choose from, but do you have a favorite taco?
JR: Chile relleno tacos are my favorite style, hands down. I’m a sucker for them.
DV: What do you like them stuffed with?
JR: Just cheese. Very simple. Maybe some hard-boiled egg.
DV: Where are you from?
JR: Puerto Rico. I was born there, and I was raised on the mainland. The place that I lived the longest is New York City. I became who I am there. It’s where I learned how the world works the hard way.
DV: Does Puerto Rico have any specific taco culture?
JR: They have a taco chain. I forget the name. My mother said that one of the first solid foods I ever ate was a picadillo crispy taco that she made in a pan. That’s just what she had on hand.
DV: Do you remember eating tacos growing up?
JR: We went to Taco Bell just like any other family in Middle America, but I never got the tacos. I got the Mexican pizza. The tacos are crap.
DV: In New York there weren’t many tacos to investigate at that time.
JR: My wife, Jess, and I lived in Sunset Park. The neighborhood was Puerto Rican and Mexican—the best of both worlds. She’s third generation Mexican-American. There was a little Chinese/fast-food/Tex-Mex place that would make flour tortillas. We would just order those, and they got so upset with us, just ordering those, that they yelled at me one day. You had to order the food along with the tortillas, so I never went back.
DV: When did you move to Texas?
JR: Ten years ago this last May because our son was born. We realized we couldn’t give him the life we wanted to give him, and we needed a bigger support network. The intention was that we were going to move to Austin because we were coming from Brooklyn, and Austin is the place. There were no jobs in Austin, at least not for a journalist, so we moved to Dallas. We lived with Jess’s mom in Arlington for eighteen months.
DV: Do you remember a grand taco awakening? Was there a moment you fell in love with them?
JR: I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have health insurance. I wrote a little for the Dallas Observer. Mark Donald with the Observer called me up one day and asked if I like tacos. I said, “Who doesn’t like tacos?” He said, “Great. Let’s make it an online weekly column.” I did, and that became Taco Trail.
His first official stop on the Taco Trail was at Taco King in Dallas, where he sought the advice of Yelp on what to order.
JR: I did it because I needed the money. I did not know what I was getting myself into. I knew that my wife made me lengua once, and it was soft and subtle, grassy, beautiful. That’s a particularly vivid moment for me. There’s a morning she made me breakfast tacos for the very first time. I had no idea that these were a thing, and they were amazing. Getting into the idea of visiting one taqueria a week without knowing what I was doing was rough, but I just loved the flavors, and I was lucky enough to have friends who would send me books, history books, encyclopedias, cookbooks, anything. It was so I could get that knowledge and understand that tacos aren’t one thing. A lot of what I have ended up doing is busting myths about tacos, and that’s only because of these books, and traveling, and seeing that you can put pretty much anything in a tortilla, like they do in Mexico.
DV: Do you give Mexico ownership of the taco in such a way that if they do it in Mexico, it’s okay to do anywhere?
JR: Yeah, or you can just do it. People cook at home differently. I put tater tots in my tacos in the morning sometimes. If you have leftover tater tots, mix them with eggs and they’re beautiful in a flour tortilla.
DV: Now I want tater tots in all my breakfast tacos—but make them fresh, hot, crispy tater tots.
JR: I think because Texas was part of Mexico and because tacos developed on this side of the border at the same time they did on the other side of the river, Texas can rightfully claim tacos as their own. It’s certainly part of our DNA here. But tacos are Mexico’s gift to the world. We’re just lucky enough to live in a part of the world that was once Mexico.
DV: You want to cover more than just tacos for Texas Monthly, right?
JR: I want to cover Texas’s Mexican food, which is rapidly changing. It’s a dynamic thing. Concha burgers, concha ice cream sandwiches, burritos with pho in them.
DV: Tex-Mex barbecue?
JR: I think a lot about that because there’s a fine line between throwing something in a tortilla and calling that a specific taco and just putting things inside corn flatbread. Why is it Tex-Mex barbecue? Can it not just be barbecue? Because barbecue is quintessentially Texan.
DV: What has changed the most about tacos in the last several years?
JR: Availability. There are a lot more taco places now, so you have a lot more options. I want to taste the quality of the ingredients from the tortilla up to the salsa. History, context, taste—these all have to be considered across all the places, not just individually. I want someone to go to a gas station taqueria and have the same quality experience as they would at a modern Mexican restaurant.
DV: Finally, and I’m speaking from experience here, are you prepared to constantly be told that you have the best job in the world?
JR: Yeah. People for years, when they ask what I write about, and I say food, they think that’s an amazing job. A job is a job, but I love my job. Being a taco editor is a dream job. Do I have the best job in the world? Probably.