If you moved to Austin from the East Coast in the early nineties, there was not a slice of a New York–style pizza to be found that wasn’t disappointing. Your only options: catch a flight back home or make the scarcely less convenient trip to Reale’s in Cedar Park. And so it was until 2005, when Home Slice Pizza opened on South Congress Avenue.
Until ten years ago, if you moved to just about anywhere outside of Texas, there was not a breakfast taco to be found, disappointing or otherwise. Your only option was to make your own flour tortillas and fillings, perhaps with the assistance of Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan blog.
But now, Texpats in cities from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., can find them. HomeState in Los Angeles, where most of the breakfast tacos are named for Texas rivers, is now an eight-location empire. And New York City has had several breakfast taco options come and go, with South Texas–inspired restaurant Yellow Rose and grab-and-go specialists King David Tacos currently thriving.
Philadelphians have their beacon of breakfast taco hope in Taco Heart, which celebrated its first birthday in September. Owner Nano Wheedan, who was one of Home Slice’s very first employees, is doing for breakfast tacos in Philadelphia what his former employer did for pizza in Austin. Just as Home Slice was built on the platonic pizza ideal and the New York memories of co-owner Jen Scoville Strickland, Taco Heart is Wheedan’s homage to his time in Austin.
During the years he lived in Austin, Wheedan would go home to Philadelphia and think there needed to be breakfast tacos there, for everyone from the University of Texas Exes who gather at a cheesesteak place to watch Longhorns football to South Philly families. “People are either living up there missing this, or they need to taste this amazing thing,” Wheedan says. “It’s sort of like good pizza. You can’t not fall in love with it in some way.” He thinks about it in terms of nostalgia even if it’s not something you are actually nostalgic for. Once you’ve had your first breakfast taco, you can’t remember a time you didn’t have a memory of breakfast tacos.
Taco Heart is a love letter to the freshly made flour tortilla, upon which you’ll find traditional three-ingredient options (chorizo, egg, and cheese; potato, egg, and cheese), a migas taco inspired by Veracruz All Natural (“my breakfast three days a week for ten years,” Wheedan says) and a few wild cards, including Nano’s Fave (egg, bacon, broccoli, cheddar, and avocado) and the vegan Bouldin Creek (vegetarian refried black beans, sweet potato, broccoli, vegan cheese, and avocado). Because all cooking is storytelling, Taco Heart is the autobiography of Nano Wheedan: breakfast taco lover, Philadelphia-to-Austin transplant, and now, Philly Texpat.
A native of Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy neighborhood, Nathaniel Whitman came to Austin via Harvard University, joining his college roommate and future filmmaker David Modigliani, who’d been admitted to the Michener Center for Writers MFA program at UT, in 2004. “Nano” is a childhood nickname, while “Whitman” became “Wheedan” in 2019, when he married North Richland Hills native Carinne Deeds (their wedding guests selected the portmanteau from several choices).
As the saying goes, everybody’s favorite period of Austin is when they got there, and for Whitman in 2004, the city still felt cheap and chill. On his first weekend in town, he remembers being blown away by random friendly conversations in a coffee shop, the fact that people said “hi” to you on the street, and that it was obviously a place that put art and culture on a pedestal. He’d already been writing songs and playing in bands around Boston, so the Live Music Capital of the World was a natural place to pursue his rock star dreams. As both a solo artist and a frontman, Whitman played around Austin at such venues as the Cactus Cafe, the Parish, and the Saxon Pub, as well as SXSW and the inevitable daytime gigs at farmers’ markets and Central Market.
But it was a Sunday jam session at the old Maria’s Taco Xpress on South Lamar that changed his life. About nine months into living in Austin, Wheedan had his first breakfast taco. “Just so sad,” he says. “I want that nine months back.”
In addition to Maria’s and Veracruz, Wheedan also loved the community feel of the original Tacodeli and Texas’s favorite grocery store.
“Honestly, the H-E-B tortilla is my inspiration,” he says, remembering that first experience of seeing the tortillas made on-site, and picking up a still-warm bag. “That’s the one that I had and fell in love with first.”
By 2014, as Home Slice had expanded and he’d become a minority partner (he still has a small piece of the North Loop location), Wheedan started to mess around with making his own tortillas at home. He and Carinne left Austin in 2019, first going to Baltimore, where Wheedan’s father is a cardiac surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins, and then to Philadelphia.
At the start of the pandemic, Wheedan sold breakfast tacos to the nurses at Johns Hopkins. Once he got to Philly, he started giving them away for free from his front stoop. He was also helping his longtime Home Slice coworker Philip Korshak open a bagel shop. Korshak Bagels and Poetry opened in May 2021 and inspired Franklin-like lines, as well as praise from Bon Appétit and the New York Times. (It closed unexpectedly this past September.)
There were also lines around the block for what was then called Nano’s Tortillas, in part because Korshak and other Philly chefs would spread the word on Instagram. By then, Wheedan was taking orders online for pick-up at a local park; when he finally had his first official pop-up, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a full feature on him.
“It’s an Austin thing, like SXSW, BBQ, and LBJ,” the newspaper’s dining critic, Michael Klein, explained. “The breakfast taco. . . . They’re sold everywhere in town, much like the baconeggncheese sandwiches we enjoy here.”
Nearly every place in Philly that has written about Taco Heart uses the phrase “Austin-style breakfast tacos,” and the restaurant’s own description—“a breakfast taco joint inspired by the soul-feeding breakfast tacos of Austin, Texas”—does nothing to discourage that. For some, the term would be a red flag, but Wheedan doesn’t call them Austin-style breakfast tacos because he thinks the city invented the breakfast taco, or—God forbid—has the definitive breakfast taco.
Rather, he is saying this food comes from the part of him that was shaped by Austin. Just as Home Slice was devoted to what its owners knew and loved about pizza in New York, Taco Heart is devoted to what Wheedan found in Texas.
“I don’t want to have anything on my menu that you wouldn’t find in an Austin shop,” he says. “I want somebody to be able to walk in from Texas, and be like, ‘I get it.’ ” There are a few exceptions, including a vegan tortilla option (made, after extensive testing, with coconut oil) and breakfast bowls (though those, as well as the use of broccoli, can be found at Austin’s Granny’s Tacos, among others). And instead of freshly fried totopos with queso or guacamole, there are “puffy chips,” something Wheedan first encountered in Miami but also considers to be a riff on San Antonio’s puffy tacos.
At Home Slice, Wheedan saw how pizza pushed the button of people’s memories and also created new ones. When he first started working there, he didn’t understand it. “Coming from Philly, I was like, ‘How can people be this crazy about pizza?’ ” Then one day a little kid walked into Home Slice with his family. “He threw his arms up and goes, ‘PIZZA!’ And I was like, ‘It’s YOU! You’re living in every single one of these people who is so excited about pizza.’ ”
Now he wants that at Taco Heart, where kids watch the tortillas puff up on the electric comals (they are freshly made but machine-pressed) and have their first bean-and-cheese taco: a food as simple, elemental, cheap, and childlike as a slice. And then he wants them to keep coming with their family and friends until they leave town for college, just like he did. And just as importantly, since he’s now a Philadelphian again, he’s excited that there’s somewhere to get breakfast tacos.