Texas food typically doesn’t thrive outside Texas—especially not in New York City, the culinary punch line to San Antonio-based Pace Picante Sauce’s old series of television commercials, in which a campfire cook tries to serve salsa made in the Big Apple.
“New York City?” a group of cowboys exclaim in horror.
“Get a rope,” another threatens.
So it’s no surprise that the breakfast taco, that distinctly Tex-Mex assemblage of egg, cheese, potato, beans, and meat tucked inside a flour tortilla, has never been popular up north.
It’s a topic that Lisa Fain, a blogger (a.k.a. the Homesick Texan) and cookbook author who has lived in New York since 1995, has often lamented with fellow expatriates.
“A breakfast taco is such a simple thing, and we couldn’t understand why nobody offered them, especially since regular tacos had become extremely popular,” Fain said.
But in foodie-crazed 2013, New York has Texas-style barbecue (Hill Country New York, BrisketTown), Texas-style kolaches (Brooklyn Kolache Co.), Frito pie, and, now, more than a few breakfast taco establishments. In fact, BrisketTown scrambles its leftover smoked meat with eggs and cheese for tacos every morning, which earned it “best breakfast” honors in New York magazine’s 2013 best-of issue.
The boom, such as it is, remains limited, Fain observed. “The day I can walk into any deli and get a breakfast taco as easily as I can get a bagel or an egg on a roll, there will then be an adequate supply,” she said.
Until then, here are four places to start:
Robert Sietsema, a former Village Voice critic and current Eater columnist, once suggested that people attending South by Southwest in Austin “brought back to New York City a desire to eat breakfast tacos.” Jeff Bailey of Whirlybird brought back a desire to cook them.
As the bass player in Phosphorescent, Bailey discovered breakfast tacos during SXSW 2007, when Phil Waldorf, an Austin resident who heads the band’s label, Dead Oceans, brought home “a big, greasy bag of Tamale House tacos,” said Bailey. “And I ate one, and it was really super-delicious, and I ate another one and another one.”
At this tiny Williamsburg coffee shop, Bailey and an Ecuadoran chef friend, Francisco Paez, came up with their own take, adding a hot red pepper stew and a sprinkling of jalapeño potato chips to the $3 egg, cheese, and potato taco, which is served on corn tortillas.
“I know what a Tex-Mex Austin breakfast taco is,” Bailey said. “I know that it’s always on flour. But I found that I liked the taste and the texture of a corn tortilla better. And the corn tortillas that are made in Brooklyn are better and easier to access than flour tortillas.”
A taco truck inside a restaurant space, Tacombi may be New York’s breakfast taco pioneer, though it is definitely more Mexico than Texas.
“The breakfast taco is one of the most iconic tacos; they’re traditional all over Mexico,” said Aarón Sánchez, an El Paso-born chef and a familiar TV face from Iron Chef and Chopped. “Here in the States, it’s all about potato, chorizo, and egg, whereas in Mexico, you’ll find a lot of cactus, roasted chiles, and a variety of salsas.”
Tacombi’s $4.95 huevos con chorizo and vegetarian huevos a la Mexicana tacos come on flour tortillas (corn is also available), and are served out of a red-and-white Volkswagen van.
A Brooklyn outpost of the beloved South Austin restaurant? No. But Clay Mallow said the sixteen-seat taco joint he started with Wade Hagenbart came by its name, a slang term for “white man,” honestly.
“It was something I was called when I was younger when I was with a lot of Mexican guys,” said Mallow, who grew up in Dallas and has also lived in Austin.
To Mallow, breakfast tacos have always been around, in that “there’s always been an egg scrambled and thrown in a tortilla.” He added, “But breakfast tacos with all your different add-ins, in the flour tortilla, that’s certainly a Texas thing.”
Güero’s makes its own flour tortillas (but also offers corn versions from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens) and serves its $3 breakfast tacos only on weekends. The standout, and possibly the sole taco of its kind in New York City, is the migas taco—fried strips of corn tortilla scrambled with egg, tomato, jalapeño, and cheddar.
What is an Austin rock club owner who has been forced out by the city’s changing commercial real estate market to do? Open another club, on the edge of Greenwich Village, with “Austin-inspired munchies” (chips and queso, brisket tacos) and a tequila cocktail called Pancho and Lefty.
Paul Oveisi—the former owner of Momo’s, who now lives in New York with his girlfriend, the Austin singer and songwriter Suzanna Choffel—has also booked the music for Hill Country Barbecue and developed ZirZamin’s menu in consultation with its chef, Charles Grund Jr.
Egg, cheese, and potato breakfast tacos with pico de gallo and verde sauce (two for $7, bacon or sausage $1 extra) are served “all night.” (The club doesn’t open until 5:30 p.m.)
“It’s the biggest thing I missed, foodwise, about Austin,” said Oveisi, who also plans to open a New York Tex-Mex restaurant. “There’s something magical about tacos. And bacon and eggs are one of the most delicious American staples. Combine elements of both, and you have food sorcery at the highest level.”
Even so, New Yorkers still look at the menu and ask, “Tacos for breakfast?”
“Almost daily,” Oveisi said.