Kaitlin Ruiz tweets a lot about her father, Roberto Ruiz. So when she posted on the afternoon of Saturday, March 26, about her father’s obsession with something he calls the “travel taco,” something he claims doesn’t exist, Kaitlin expected the tweet to fade into the internet miasma. It didn’t.
As taco editor, I come across similar tweets and threads almost weekly. (Usually, they’re sarcastic, troll-baiting posts from accounts whose handles contain a series of numerals.) At first, I dismissed the idea of a travel taco as a buzzy name for a walking taco, such as Frito pie served in a bag. But after scrolling through the thread, I saw not only how obviously distinct a walking taco is from the so-called travel taco, but how sincere Kaitlin was in her adoration of her father and his bon mots. This was Twitter at its best.
More than 400,000 likes later, the thread—and its nearly 3,000 replies—is still going. But what is the travel taco? According to visionary Roberto Ruiz, an Emergency Medical Services instructor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and a recently retired captain in the city’s fire department, it’s a filled flour tortilla shaped to minimize spillage while driving or walking. Don’t mistake that definition for a description of an empanada or a burrito, says Ruiz. The travel taco must be crimped shut at one end, similar to an empanada, but open at the other end, similar to a taco.
Internet denizens want to help him too. TikTok user Blair Smith posted a video of her attempt to make a travel taco. YouTuber midigitfiddle uploaded a video titled “Roberto’s Travel Taco,” chronicling his attempt (with the help of his daughter) to realize Ruiz’s dream. The Yale Institute for Network Science’s Twitter account responded with “We could totally make this in our engineering lab. Maybe call it The Indestructible Taco. Suggested tagline: So good you’ll demolish it.” John Overholt, curator of early books and manuscripts at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, also shared his definition of the travel taco and how it differs from a burrito: “I have one vital message for the world this evening and it is that while a burrito could potentially supply similar functionality to a travel taco, it is in fact nothing like a travel taco and it is no substitute.”
I couldn’t help but chime in with a tweet linking to my article arguing burritos are indeed tacos. I stand by my claim that wrapped, tucked, and filled flour tortillas are tacos, as defined by historical records, scholarly evidence, Mexican art, and common sense. In response, Kaitlin asked if I wanted to break the news to her dad. I froze like a teenager caught singing and dancing in his room.
But I decided to speak to Roberto Ruiz, Twitter’s favorite taco dad, to get further insight into how he defines the travel taco, how to manufacture it, and how, according to Roberto, a person who calls a burrito a taco should be physically examined for the mark of the beast.
Texas Monthly: How long have you been thinking about the travel taco?
Roberto Ruiz: It’s been simmering in my psyche for twenty years. I work a lot and eat a lot of stuff on the road. And there are a lot of ideas that pop up into my head. One of them was, “Golly, why can’t they just create a taco that won’t leak everywhere?” It’s the dream that never came true, per se.
TM: There are examples of large tacos that come wrapped in foil and are reasonably easy to eat while driving, such as the tacos from Laredo Taco Company. Have you tried them and why don’t they work?
RR: I have. Look, I’m Chicano, so I know how to set up a taco and manipulate the end of it and fold it a certain way to where I can prevent those mishaps while I’m driving, but is it foolproof? Is a travel taco foolproof? It is essentially in my mind, the way I see it is, it’s a flour tortilla. (And some people have mentioned corn and I get the corn thing. I love corn también.) I think flour would be more appropriate, if there was a way to crimp it during the tortilla-making process, like an empanada.
An empanada is a different animal. It’s sweet. It has more of a brown color to it. It’s more like bread as opposed to a tortilla. And so [my intent was to] somehow duplicate a flour tortilla that takes on some of the functionality of an empanada, with an opening at the top [that can be stuffed] with whatever items you want to put in. I think it might reduce some of the mishaps. It might save a life or two.
TM: Have you tested your idea?
RR: It’s always been a thought, but it’s never been anything that I’ve tried to experiment with. I don’t profess to be some kind of culinary prodigy. I know the basic concept of making tortilla masa and then rolling it out. And if you know anybody who’s ever tried to roll out a tortilla from one of those little masa balls, there’s a talent to it. There really is, and it’s not something I’ve tried.
TM: The shape of your ideal travel taco seems to call for a new type of comal, something more like a glorified waffle iron that has an enamel coating to better distribute heat?
RR: That’s what it comes down to. I’d say the tortilla should be about three to four millimeters in thickness. But really it’s about coming up with a device that invites the shape of the tortilla you want so that it cooks thoroughly, but yet you can crimp it at the same time. [The folding comal] would also have to generate heat [from all sides]. It’s a pretty novel idea. I think it has some legs. It’s just a matter of somebody coming up with a prototype.
TM: What if I told you that the travel taco already exists and it’s a burrito?
RR: [Laughs.] I’d probably check your neck to see if you have the 666 mark of the beast symbol. The burrito and the travel taco are incompatible. They’re just not going to procreate. My vision is the half moon–shaped device. A burrito is essentially like a big cigar. You can try to encapsulate all the fillings, but it doesn’t have the same mystique. I might just have to partner with someone myself to manufacture something. Then I’ll let the public decide whether it’s even feasible or not.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.