Like most restaurateurs during the pandemic, Arnaldo Richards has had a tough year. He still remembers the “sobering moment” just over a year ago—on March 16, 2020—when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered Houston restaurants to close their dining rooms. “That’s when we realized no one was coming to save us,” he said. The team at Picos, the Mexican restaurant that Richards and his wife, Janice, co-own on Kirby Drive, scrambled to rethink their business model. Within 72 hours, Picos was fully digital and accepting online orders. Still, as was the case across the food industry, sales were sluggish. During the leanest months, Picos’s sales were down more than 50 percent over the same period in 2019. The restaurant staff soldiered on, honing their curbside pickup business and rolling out new specials.
The most stressful moment of all came this month, when Picos was targeted by anti-immigrant harassment. After the restaurant announced that it would continue to require masks, Picos became the target of social-media vitriol. “Some guy mentioned that he was going to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have the government come into the restaurant,” Richards said. “Some people championed [that social-media user], but most people attacked him [for his comments].” Richards refused to engage with the hateful rhetoric. Instead, he decided to take positive action: “We wanted to change the subject while we continue to mandate masks.” That’s why Richards approached Houston mayor Sylvester Turner about the idea of declaring March 31 as the first World Taco Day.
Turner promptly agreed. What better way to change a negative narrative to a positive one than with tacos? Houston will be the first U.S. city to make such a specific declaration. However, chef-owner Richards hopes it won’t be the last. He contacted the consul general of Mexico in Houston, Alicia Kerber-Palma, to encourage the other Mexican consulates across the state (and perhaps across the country) to work with Texas mayors to promote and announce participation in World Taco Day. Kerber-Palma has spread word to her counterparts across the state and believes that next year World Taco Day will be celebrated throughout Texas.
The date and name are no accident. They coincide with Mexico’s own made-up taco day, Dia del Taco, which was started in 2007 by the Mexican TV network Televisa and has been held every March 31 since. This is the date that Richards considers the proper celebration of the taco, not the U.S.’s National Taco Day, observed on October 4. For the Monterrey-raised Richards, World Taco Day is also a symbol of solidarity with his native country and taco lovers everywhere. It reminds Texans how foundational Mexico, its culture, and its cuisines are to our own. Texas wouldn’t exist without Mexico, and the two remain inextricably linked. Tacos are the best representative of Mexican food, not to mention Texan gastronomy.
The mayoral decree reads in part: “This provides our city an opportunity to add another way to unify our diverse demographic, Hispanic community and local businesses who would participate in celebrating World Taco Day through abundant in-restaurant and takeaway menu items and incentives.”
While this might initially seem like just another PR stunt, there’s actually a history here. During our conversation, Richards referenced the largely forgotten National Taco Council, a Texas group that promoted Mexican culture and food. He wants to celebrate tacos “just like they did in San Antonio in the 1960s,” he said. The San Antonio–based council, composed of community and business leaders, held fundraisers and performed antics, such as naming an Anglo sheriff an “honorary Mejicano” and sending President Lyndon B. Johnson a 55-pound taco in 1967. The council also persuaded Texas governor Preston Smith to declare National Taco Week in early May to coincide with Cinco de Mayo in 1969 and 1970. Smith’s 1970 proclamation read in part, “I … urge all Texans to participate by partaking of their favorite food during this period.” The National Taco Council even successfully lobbied Congress to recognize National Taco Week in 1968. The group’s heyday was in the sixties and seventies, but the organization fizzled out by the early eighties with nary anyone noticing. Richards is continuing the council’s dedication to goodwill and humor. When I asked if he plans to ask Texas congressional representatives for a national declaration of March 31 as World Taco Day, Richards responded, “One step at time.”
First, he wants to promote Houston’s World Taco Day. Picos, which has been in operation for 37 years, will kick off a week of special menus and events beginning Wednesday, March 31, and culminating in a Tianguis del Taco on Saturday, April 3. The tianguis (a semi-open-air Mexican pop-up market) will be held in the restaurant’s parking lot and partially covered by a tent. The kitchen plans to offer more than thirty taco varieties, reflecting the diversity of Mexico’s tacos but also including regional specialties from across the U.S. and abroad. Diners will sample Sinaloan-style pork chilorio, grilled tacos al carbon, and chicharrones en salsa verde.
The initiative is already being embraced by several Houston Mexican restaurants, taco trucks, and businesses, including the taco trucks LaMacro and La Esquina, Tatemó tortilleria and culinary pop-up, Henderson & Kane General Store, and Cochinita & Co. All of the businesses are planning specials in celebration of the proclamation. “This is good news all the way around,” says Joey Hudman, owner of La Esquina, who’s working on a sample platter that shows off a taste of everything on his truck’s menu. “Whether you’re on the north side or the south side, or the east, growing up there is no way you didn’t eat tacos,” says Tatemó chef-owner Emmanuel Chavez. “I think it’s huge for our city that we’re giving this dish its due and putting it on its proper pedestal.” Chavez adds he’s planning a special event for March 31, but he wouldn’t divulge details.
Veronica Avila, co-owner of Henderson & Kane, thinks World Taco Day reaffirms Houston’s identity as a taco city. “This is a hardworking town,” she says, though the city’s taqueros and taqueras don’t always get due credit. “I often see us as the underdogs in this game, and I think that’s why people are always surprised that we end up on top so often,” she says.
My hope is that Houston’s proclamation of World Taco Day is embraced nationwide and feted annually for years to come. We don’t need more taco wars. As corny as it might sound, it’s worth remembering that tacos can be a force for good. Buen provecho!