Tacos are worth fighting over. What city can rightfully claim what taco? You can go to town on that one. Cheese or no cheese? Depends. Corn or flour? That’s up to you. Rolled or folded? Both. Yes, both—and I don’t mean burritos.
I mean flautas: the long, rolled, deep-fried corn tortillas packed with any number of fillings. The ones that resemble a flute (hence the name) are sometimes called taquitos and are part of the traditional category of fried tacos called tacos dorados (“golden tacos”). In 2015, this magazine made a stand by including chicken taquitos from San Antonio’s Los Robertos Taco Shop and flautas ahogadas (“drowned” fried tacos) from El Paso’s Tacoholics in our “120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die” cover story. But not everyone agrees. On Twitter, you can find misguided people referring to flautas as “taco cousins” and “taco-like objects.”
The argument is not exclusive to the web. In their 2016 book The Tacos of Texas, Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece write, “You roll a flauta, burrito, and enchilada; you fold a taco.” They then confused matters by appending this parenthetical: “(except for taquitos of course).”
Confused? You should be. So let’s unravel these rolled tacos once and for all.
In the Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana—a mammoth encyclopedia that is as authoritative a text as there is on Mexican food—Mexico City chef and food writer Ricardo Muñoz Zurita describes tacos as “a snack prepared with a corn or wheat tortilla, stuffed with food and folded or rolled” (emphasis added). The entry on tacos dorados says nothing about their shape, but the accompanying photo is of a platter of fried tacos that have been rolled, not folded.
The rolled taco has even been the subject of fine art. It appears in Diego Rivera’s 1932 lithograph El Niño del Taco (The Taco Boy), in which a child is holding a rolled taco to his mouth as if it were a savory pacifier. However, in Rivera’s lithograph, the taco doesn’t appear to be fried. The taco is simply rolled in an effort to contain its filling.
All of this gets wrapped up in the theory that food historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher put forth in Planet Taco, his worldwide survey of Mexican food: that the taco gained its name from the rolled-up paper dynamite plugs, “tacos,” that Mexican miners used to clear rock. “In retrospect,” Pilcher writes, “it’s easy to see the similarity between a chicken taquito with hot sauce and a stick of dynamite.” And—pow!—we have reason to believe that rolled tacos have been around as long as their folded cousins.
They’ve certainly long been welcome in the sister border cities of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, where they’re known as tacos tapatíos (tapatío is Spanish for “a resident of Guadalajara,” where folded or rolled tacos dorados topped with salsa and a loose shot of cabbage are a popular snack). These tacos tapatíos are served topped with a shock of crema, cabbage, and tomatoes, with salsa and sometimes guacamole on the side. Driving on and off U.S. 277 between Del Rio and San Angelo, one encounters enough walk-up taquerias, restaurants, and shacks serving these taquitos that the road should be renamed Tapatío Highway. In Sonora, there’s Taco Grill, a family-run joint, where chicken or beef tacos tapatíos come six to an order under a tattered blanket of cabbage. In San Angelo, they’re cooked up at Nacho’s Restaurant Cantina & Grill, Franco’s Cafe, and the three Hidalgo’s Restaurants.
The most famous place in Texas to get fried rolled tacos, though, is El Paso. And the most famous purveyor in El Paso is the Chico’s Tacos minichain, whose signature dish is a basket of rolled and fried tacos (and yes, they are listed on the menu as tacos) soaked in tomato water. For years they were sprinkled with cheese that resembled shredded orange packing peanuts in both appearance and taste, a fact that didn’t seem to discourage the countless locals who wandered into Chico’s well after midnight, looking for something to quench their post-clubbing hunger. The chain has changed little since opening, in 1953, but last year the hallmark bland cheese was discontinued by the manufacturer. The replacement product is, reportedly, “cheesier.”
If you’re willing to push back against the popular choice, though, there are other, better options in the borderplex. Ke’Flauta—a small counter-service shop decorated with customers’ napkin sketches—tops its traditional specialty with guacamole, crema, and queso fresco. But the best place to get taquitos in El Paso is Tacoholics, which opened as a food truck in 2010 before transitioning to a brick-and-mortar operation last year (a second location is in the works). Their bright flautas ahogadas are a direct response to Chico’s signature dish. “The idea was to freshen up the flauta,” says owner Jessie Peña. “I wanted to make it real, with real cheese, real sauce, just real.”
In other words, he wanted to create something that was appealing even when you’re not glassy-eyed drunk. Tacoholics’ flautas can be filled with steak, pork, chicken, or even tofu before getting a pour of tomatillo salsa. The finished order is a treat of crunchy tortillas that soften as you eat them but never disintegrate. Queso fresco and queso asadero add a salty spike cushioned with Oaxacan crema. They’re tacos worth fighting over. They’re tacos that Diego Rivera would have recognized and, I like to imagine, enjoyed, regardless of what they’re called.
Dallas writer José R. Ralat is the proprietor of thetacotrail.com.