My Dear San Antonio,
I have loved you from the moment I had my first tacos on your historic West Side. I regularly half-joke that Austin, in taco terms, is best thought of as a San Antonio suburb. So, as 2024 begins, I humbly suggest a New Year’s resolution for the Alamo City.
It’s time you overcome your obsession with Austin’s tacos—or, more precisely, with the inordinate attention Austin’s tacos receive, especially from East Coast food writers and influencers who think of the capital city as the only hip place in the state, and know little about Dallas or Houston, much less San Antonio. It’s time to stop asking celebrities whether Austin’s tacos or San Antonio’s tacos are better. That’s an outdated framing of a tired topic, and it only makes you seem like you have an inferiority complex and are desperate for approval.
The online taco wars began in 2016, when Eater published an article that christened Austin the home of the breakfast taco. The blowback was immediate. Some of it was humorous, such as an online petition to ban the writer from Texas. Most reactions, however, were of the insulting, threatening sort, especially from San Antonians. Austin mayor Steve Adler made it worse at a rally, when he told a bad joke about declaring war on San Antonio and exclaiming there would be a march on the Alamo City. At that point, San Antonians were ready to greet Austinites with flaming boulders of refried beans and shredded cheese fired from trebuchets. The conflict was intensifying, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
But soon enough, San Antonio’s grudge and insecurity grew to encompass all tacos. A similar situation occurred in August 2018, when my feature was published on the cover of D Magazine. (At that time, I was working as a freelance writer.) Splashed across the cover were words declaring Dallas a taco city. The rest of Texas had a fit. Even San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted a dismissive “LOL.” Nothing in my article disparaged San Antonio. In response, I invited the mayor to Dallas so I could lead him on a taco tour. He didn’t reply.
The following year, the San Antonio Current accused Food & Wine of trying to revive the taco war with the magazine’s article about the best breakfasts in every state. What ire was there quickly fizzled.
In a 2021 article about the inaugural Taco Rumble, a cooking competition among Austin and San Antonio taquerias hosted by the San Antonio Food & Wine Alliance, MySA.com writer Camille Sauers led with, “Who has the better tacos—San Antonio or Austin? It’s an age-old debate between the two (dare I say warring) cities. San Antonio, ever the underdog, is generally confident that we deserve the title, despite national media often highlighting our neighbors to the north.” Their worries were unfounded. San Antonio taquerias won the first Taco Rumble as well as the 2022 event.
On the red carpet ahead of a SXSW 2022 screening of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, star Pedro Pascal was asked which city’s tacos are better: San Antonio’s or Austin’s? After a long pause, he answered: San Antonio. San Antonio media and citizens thumped their chests with pride. One of their own had thrown down the gauntlet—never mind that Chilean-born Pascal only lived in San Antonio between the ages of six and eleven.
Then a real estate company entered the fray. In coverage of a study finding Austin to be the “best taco city” in the country, Shepard Price of the Express-News wrote, “Are you mad yet? You’re about to be.” The city’s daily was baiting its readers, but why? San Antonio has long been acknowledged as the historic culinary and cultural capital of Texas.
In February 2023, Timothy Fanning of the Express-News wrote, “Since 2016, there’s been a full-fledged war between Austin and San Antonio—a breakfast taco war. Hoping to settle it once and for all, we asked ChatGPT to settle the issue.” The AI bot botched the job. It claimed, for example, that Austin had more breakfast taco options than San Antonio, that Austin’s breakfast tacos are generally more diverse, and that San Antonio’s breakfast tacos are simplistic compared to Austin’s. This silly exercise was one that several media outlets, including this magazine, tinkered with last year, which provided another excuse for San Antonio to revisit the taco fight.
It’s fine to get a little defensive when someone in front of a microphone or a keyboard or across the table mentions how much they love “Austin” tacos. It’s frustrating to see folks who experienced a life-changing gastronomic epiphany in the capital city open their very own taco joints across the country. Nano Wheedan, owner of Taco Heart in Philadelphia, defines his taqueria as an homage to Austin. Native Austinite Liz Solomon Dwyer refers to her New York restaurant King David Tacos‘s wares as “Austin breakfast tacos.” When she first opened a cart in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza seven years ago, passersby asked her to explain breakfast tacos. They had never heard of such a thing. “It was an intentional reference that helped in the beginning,” she says of mentioning Austin. Thankfully, the public’s taco literacy has increased immensely since then.
“It’s a collective chip on our shoulder about how other cities are cited for their food but ours isn’t,” says San Antonio poet Eddie Vega. “Or really, that’s our perception because those who do know (and write) know the truth. We know we’re the seventh-largest city in America, but no one else seems to,” Vega continues. “The Spurs are an amazing franchise, but no one seems to mention them anymore. Tex-Mex was invented here, but the New York Times only cares about Austin.”
In our conversation, Vega also mentioned the reluctance of many in San Antonio to embrace innovation in tacos. Brenda Sarmiento, owner of Mexico City–style taco joint El Pastor Es Mi Señor and Mexican sushi spot Yellowfish, echoes Vega’s remarks. “Our problem is that there’s not really much room for innovation or, dare I say, improvement,” says the San Antonio–raised business owner. “We don’t like outsiders coming in to change our landscape and palate so we . . . lob insults over ‘authenticity.’ ”
San Antonio, you deserve recognition and respect for your dusty, thick flour tortillas. The taco options at most restaurants are unrivaled. As for tacos in general, San Antonio is home to two of the best nixtamal tortillerias in Texas, Sanitary Tortilla Company and San Antonio Colonial. The best taquerias in Austin purchase corn tortillas from Colonial. I think you should get more credit than you do from coastal influencers. But picking at that scab isn’t going to fix anything.
A novel course of action is required.
More San Antonians should embrace the new wave of taquerias as well as their old favorites. “San Antonio is not seen as hip or trendy,” Sarmiento says. “At one time San Antonio was seen as the Mecca of Tex-Mex. It is now seen as ‘your grandpa’s Tex-Mex.’ ”
Sarmiento told me her restaurants struggle to engage local customers, and Gaby Hinojosa and Charlie Gonzalez, the owners of San Taco—a joint specializing in the original breakfast tacos, guisados—and Panfila Cantina, have also expressed frustration with the difficulty of getting a foothold.
If San Antonio refuses to move past old-school Tex-Mex to embrace the diversity of the taco, it risks getting left behind in Texas’s taco scene. As Vega puts it, “If we don’t change our attitude about innovation—modifying a classic while maintaining its foundational integrity—we’ll fall into complacency and stagnancy.”
San Antonio, it’s time to change the narrative, take hold of your destiny, and stop worrying about Austin.