Tortilla chips brushed with a thick mole verde were crammed into a thin, browned-in-spots flour tortilla, where they were joined by dark strips of jalapeños with curling edges and scrambled eggs held together with a flurry of cream and cheese and topped with chopped raw onions. The chilaquil taco, from Granny’s Tacos in Austin, is inspired by the Mexican chilaquiles breakfast dish (which I think is superior to the dish that it’s often confused with, Tex-Mex-style migas). It was a fine example of how almost everything ends up in a tortilla. It was also an ideal way to begin my day on October 4, otherwise known as National Taco Day—especially because I didn’t plan to start my day in Austin.
In the run-up to this year’s big day, I knew I wanted to do something that would test my limits as the newly minted taco editor, so I decided to drive from San Antonio to Dallas over the course of the day, making taco stops along the way. I didn’t choose San Antonio because its citizens believe the city to be Texas’s taco capital; I chose it because it is the birthplace of the National Taco Council. Established in the early sixties, the booster organization, led by Roberto L. Gomez, rallied support for the city’s restaurants and Mexican food. It also celebrated National Taco Week in the days ahead of Cinco de Mayo, as an event officially sanctioned in 1967 by San Antonio Mayor Walter W. McAllister. Texas Governor Preston Smith would go on to encourage “all Texans to participate by partaking of their favorite food during this period.” During this time, as reported by the Arizona Republic in 1970, the “National TACO Council…will meet in San Antonio, conceded to be the birthplace of Mexican food known in the United States.”
Known as much for its civic-mindedness as it was for its popular antics, the National Taco Council sent President Kennedy the “World’s Largest Tamale,” which was reported to have weighed about 175 pounds, and it enlisted a San Antonio chef to prepare the world’s largest edible taco as a gift to President Nixon, but the 95-pound tortilla-wrapped present was declined. Restaurants and food manufacturers jumped on the taco wagon in support of National Taco Week, but a decade later, the National Taco Council stopped making headlines—it quietly dissolved after Gomez’s death in the early 1980s.
I also wanted to begin National Taco Day 2019 in San Antonio because of Taco Cabana. It was the Alamo City-founded Mexican food chain that cemented October 4, as National Taco Day in the wake of attempts by other fast food corporations, including Austin-based Chuy’s Tex-Mex, which in 2000 made a push for June 12 to be recognized as National Taco Day.
But as fate would have it—due to a rescheduled appearance on Good Day Austin on Fox 7 Austin—I began my National Taco Day north of my originally planned starting point. Which is how I ended up munching on the taco that a migas taco hopes to be when it grows up. (And that’s not a coincidence. After all, the owners of Granny’s Tacos, Armando Vazquez and Maria Rios, are the parents of sisters Reyna and Maritza Vasquez of Veracruz All Natural, which is known for its delicious migas taco.)
With the chilaquil taco consumed and the TV spot completed, I rushed to San Antonio to get back on track. My first stop: Maria’s Café. Open for more than thirty years, it specializes in comforting super tacos advertised on the poster board, paper, and chalkboard decorating the interior of the small restaurant. One of the offerings is the puff-chilada, which reminded me of the gimmicky but delicious enchilaco at Raul’s Enchilacos. Served in a puffy taco that lacks any inflation identifying it as a San Antonio-style puffy taco, the filling is a red corn tamale with an offset blanket of chile con carne. It made for a slightly greasy but comforting snack.
Carnitas Lonja is where I have some of my best meals each year. Chef-owner Alex Paredes, a native of Michoacán—the Mexican state that is the birthplace of carnitas—has a fine-dining background and wanted to open a small high-end Mexican restaurant after leaving his post at the now-shuttered Luke. Instead, after time spent learning the ways of carnitas in Michoacán, he decided to go old-school with traditional carnitas—cuts of pork braised in its own seasoned lard—served luscious and sweet by the pound, or as tacos, tortas, or quesadillas. You can find Carnitas Lonja on an industrial stretch of Roosevelt. The main kitchen/ordering space is on the left behind a door accented by glass block. Between that building and the separate, enclosed dining room is a patio perfect for al fresco dining on a cool morning as it turns to midday, the ideal time to eat carnitas.
In the barbecue capital of Lockhart, the Mario’s Tacos truck serves a solid, quickly prepared migas taco with good crunch. I prefer the migas over the machacado with potatoes taco, which replaces what looks like diced steak with the dried salt beef that is the real-deal machacado. Whatever your choice, make sure to request the thin, cracking fresh flour tortillas.
Further north in Taylor, Rojas Tacos has been going strong for almost twenty years. Cori Rojas took over after her father passed away about two years ago, in what is now the eatery’s third space. “First, we were next door,” Rojas told me. “But they let the building go and it was torn down. Then my father opened up across the street. That closed and then my dad died, and I was asked to take over in this space.” The All American, an off-menu grand slam of breakfast meats with eggs and cheese in a flour tortilla, is a filling order ideal for breakfast or lunch. The pork and beans taco was another delight. It mixed chopped pork with smears of refried beans whose rich, palate-coating flavor lingered long after I left for my next stop.
Tio Nacho Taqueria in Georgetown should be a required stop when passing through the Red Poppy Capital of Texas. The taco joint is mere yards off the interstate. Its tacos of carnitas with tattered crunchy ends are sweet, and its softer suadero is served on house-made corn tortillas. I equally enjoyed the Spanish-language taco sayings on the walls. Some of my favorites include, translated into English, “There are days when I think more about tacos than I do about you,” “I gave you my last taco and still you doubt my love for you,” and “My favorite taco is the taco de ojo (literally “eye taco” but better translated as “beautiful lady”) I have when I’m with you.”
Because Buc-ee’s now advertises its tacos on highway billboards, I stopped into the gas station and Texas-themed bazaar. It might serve the best gas station coffee in America, but I cannot say the same about its tacos. The fish was frigid, and the beef fajita was a foil-wrapped mess filled with overcooked meat.
In Waco, I stopped at La Fiesta, a Tex-Mex joint opened in 1963 by the Castillo family, who are also behind Casa de Castillo and the bygone Italian Village restaurant, which was opened from 1952 to 1986. Vestiges of the Italian restaurant’s menu continue to be served at La Fiesta. I was there for the taco pizza. The menu describes it as a “twelve-inch pizza layered with a refried bean sauce, taco beef, chorizo and cheeses; topped with crispy lettuce, tomatoes and seasoned tortilla chips.” Unfortunately, I can only go by the menu, because when I tried to order it, the server told me the restaurant was out of some of the ingredients. So, no taco pizza for me.
Although El Conquistador’s original location is in Waco, I opted to visit its Hillsboro branch, where the scent of Fabuloso cleaner greeted me in the waiting room and lingered in the dining room. My two traveling companions and I chose the enchilada combo platters, one of which included a fine example of a crispy Tex-Mex taco with finely ground beef cooked just enough so that the filling was juicy enough to form a shape inside the shell without being greasy or disintegrating into pebbles after my first enthusiastic bite. We were then ready for the final push toward home in Dallas.
I finished National Taco Day by celebrating my wife’s birthday at modern Mexican restaurant José in Dallas. I expanded beyond tacos again—but this time with squid-ink tostadas topped with fish in a sweet sauce, and fried chicken-topped with a mole faro risotto. But there were tacos! We made sure to order the ever-changing Tacos de Tacha specials. Friday’s options were a birria de res made from beef short rib marinated in dark chiles and served on a guajillo-infused corn tortilla; a taco de carnitas, sprinkled with queso enchilada and radish on a cilantro tortilla; and a firm rectangle of tempura-fried butternut squash with a bramble of Brussels sprouts slaw and pomegranate seeds on a sesame tortilla. The flavors ran from a cool fire to sweet and salty to nutty, all of it pleasantly so. It was a wonderful dinner, but it was just missing one thing: an ice cream taco for dessert. But a taco editor can dream.