When I was a kid, a visit to San Antonio’s North Star Mall meant one thing, and it wasn’t shopping. Sure, there were the obligatory hours I spent trailing my mom and my aunt through its cool halls, wholly enchanted by the splashing fountains, less so by the dress department at Joske’s. But that was a mostly tolerable prelude to lunchtime, when we’d load up in the Suburban and lumber two tenths of a mile down San Pedro to Teka Molino. Some thirty years later, I can easily call up details of the modest little restaurant (still going strong) where I had my first puffy taco: the rock walls, the stained-glass window, the scent of masa being molded into tacos and guacamole cups and bean rolls and . . .
Teka is one of a select group of puffy purveyors in the Alamo City, which claims unequivocal dominion over this Texas treasure. There’s no agreement as to who served it first, and it must be noted that Mexico has no lack of chubby-tortilla delicacies (see: salbutes, gorditas, et cetera). But it is safe to say that a San Antonio puffy taco is a work of art, the quick-fried tortilla a consummate expression of fresh masa, its crackly-chewy sapidity enhanced by a very narrow window for optimal consumption. Or, as the ever-contemplative Guy Fieri puts it, “It’s fluffy, puffy, and you can’t get enough-y.”
Note: A puffy taco is distinguished by its tortilla: a round of uncooked masa bobs in hot oil until the moisture evaporates and air pockets form. As for fillings, you’re a Texan—you don’t need to be told what to put in a taco.
Unless you have mad masa skillz and plan to nixtamalize your own corn, buy fresh masa from a tortilleria. Masa harina is fine, but you won’t get that great corny flavor and texture.
Take a chunk of masa and roll it into a golf ball–size ball. Line the bottom of a tortilla press with some thin, slicky plastic (swipe a few pieces from a package of store-bought flour tortillas or cut some circles from a grocery bag), then place the ball on top, a little off center toward the hinges. Cover with another piece of plastic and press out the tortilla. Remove the top sheet, then turn the tortilla over on your palm and peel off the bottom sheet.
There’s a fine line between puffy and grease-sodden; the temperature of the oil is important (use a thermometer). Heat about 3 inches of canola oil in a cast-iron pot to 375 degrees. Place the tortilla in the oil; when it rises to the surface and starts to bubble up, use a spatula to press down in the middle of it, forming a gentle U-shaped crease. Let it fry for about 45 seconds more, then remove the tortilla, fill it up, and serve immediately.