On Tuesday night, Robert Rodriquez’s El Rey network will air the third episode of United Tacos of America, a new series about tacos and the cultures, people, and regional distinctions behind them. This week’s episode is focused on Austin, one of three Texas cities that producers and hosts Jarod Neece and Mando Rayo have chosen for the show’s initial eight-episode season. Neece and Rayo started their Taco Journalism blog in 2006 and have authored two books together, 2013’s Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day and 2016’s The Tacos of Texas.
Similarly to their online companion video series for The Tacos of Texas, their El Rey show follows the pair on a cross-country road trip, a conceit that works because, as Texas Monthly taco editor Jose Ralat says, “Tacos aren’t just props; they are a doorway to a greater story.” On this week’s National Podcast of Texas, we talk about that greater story—a cross-generational tale of migration—and Texas’s best taco city (hint: it’s not Austin). We also discuss what it means for taco journalism that Texas Monthly has a taco editor, as well as the big, nerdy taco question of our times: Are burritos tacos?
Three takeaways from our conversation:
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1. It was important to Neece and Rayo that their series not just focus on obvious taco destinations like Houston or Los Angeles. The second episode features Lexington, Kentucky.
“Why Kentucky? Because there are Mexicans everywhere,” Rayo says. “Latinos are everywhere, and they’re making do with what they have. And, in the case of Kentucky, the horse parks and the racing that’s brought immigration to the region. And then they started making their own food because that’s what people do. They love to make the food that they miss, whether it’s their family recipes or something that they had from home that’s thousands of miles away. And then they figure out a way to make it.”
2. Neece and Rayo believe Los Angeles is America’s best city for tacos and that Houston is Texas’s best.
“Houston is the most diverse big city in the United States,” Neece says. “There’s the diversity of the people, there’s the diversity in the regions of Mexico they represent, and then there’s an international diversity too. So you can get amazing al pastor and amazing Mexico City-style tacos. And there’s the Asian taco scene, which fuses all those different cultures. Houston’s diversity means there’s always adaptation and innovation in the flavors and the recipes. Its like, ‘Oh, put that in a tortilla? And let’s try that too! Take this.’ It’s a really great taco melting pot.’
3. While immigration and the situation at the border factor heavily into United Tacos of America, Neece and Rayo hope to emphasize the “united” part of the title and celebrate the taco’s ability to bring people together.
“In the political climate we’re in right now, a lot of these people we’re featuring might be considered others,” Neece says. “But when you eat someone’s food, when you like sit down with them, when you go in their restaurants, they become real. They become part of their community. In places like Kentucky, these shops started out, and there weren’t many white people coming around. But then slowly, someone brings a friend. And then another. And it changes people’s perception whenever you sit down and eat their food.”
“When you think about these small mom-and-pop shops, or even entrepreneurs starting off on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, at their back of their truck, or in a taco truck, these people are feeding America,” Rayo says. “And when you think about who’s eating these tacos, it’s blue-collar folks, people that are building our cities. It’s teachers and construction workers. So when you really start to think about the kind of the impact of all these places, they’re really doing a service to this country. And it’s delicious.”