Taco-ing About Southmost
Photographer Chuy Benitez’s larger-than-life depictions of the food traditions in Brownsville, on exhibit at the Texas Folklife Gallery.
Chances are you got that taco you’re eating by getting in your car and driving to an establishment like Torchy’s or Taco Deli, where you’re devouring it in a clean, air-conditioned environment. How convenient—and inauthentic.
Tacos are street food. They’re intended to be enjoyed on the go. The reason the countless places like the two mentioned above even exist in Texas, California, and elsewhere is mostly because of an area of Brownsville called Southmost, located just north of the border wall and defined by a three-mile radius of Southmost Boulevard, known as “Taco Boulevard.”
“Southmost is considered the Texas motherland of taquerias,” said Chuy Benitez, the Houston photographer whose images are featured in the Texas Folklife exhibit “Taquerias of Southmost,” opening on Wednesday. “It was where the taco spot became Americanized. Because what they serve would be considered street tacos in Mexico. The Southmost area is the first place where you actually had brick-and-mortar taqueria spots versus little taco shacks and mobile vending trucks for tacos.”
Around five years ago, Benitez traveled to Southmost with Cristina Ballí, the former executive director of Texas Folklife, an Austin nonprofit that champions the folk arts and varied cultures of the state. Ballí, in tandem with fellow Texas Folklife staffer Michelle Mejia, both Brownsville natives, had been conducting interviews and gathering research material to accompany Benitez’s photos, using funds designated for a statewide survey of food traditions from the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibit debuted in 2012 at the museum of the Brownsville Historical Association, another collaborator on the project.
The latest showing, at Texas Folklife, includes an opening reception with talks by Benitez, an El Paso native who, as an undergraduate photography major at the University of Notre Dame, came to realize that his hometown had been reduced to desert landscapes in the photography world and was largely missing depictions of the millions of people on both sides of the border. “That’s what lit the fire to make my own body of work that was about cultural representation.” Benitez will be joined on Wednesday by Mando Rayo, a blogger for Taco Journalism and co-author, with fellow Austinite Jarod Neece, of The Tacos of Texas, out September 20.
It can be said that Southmost, home to more than twenty locally owned taquerias, helped inspire the nationwide gourmet-ification of tacos over the past decade. But the tacos one will find in Southmost are nothing fancy. They’re fairly small, and a plate of five can go for five bucks. They also adhere to strict recipes.
“They’re garnished with cilantro and fresh chopped onion,” said Charlie Lockwood, the current director of Texas Folklife, citing a blog post written by Ballí. “Only certain types of tacos—bistec, fajitas, and tripas—will include avocado and white crumbled or shredded Mexican cheese. Bottles of green and red salsas are ready at each table. The tacos can also be accompanied by grilled onions and frijoles a la charra, or charro beans, but never rice. It just doesn’t go.”
Southmost has breakfast tacos too, but they’re more like the American version of the burrito. Flour is used instead of the traditional corn as with other tacos. That brings us to the tortilla, perhaps the most important part of the equation for all tacos served in Southmost. Most of the taquerias entrust Alaniz Tortilla Factory. Benitez visited the factory and discovered all the taquerias’ labels on the tortillas. “Each place had its own recipe,” he said. “None of them had generic tortillas. Everyone had a secret formula, and this tortilleria was like the gatekeeper to all that information.”
The taquerias Benitez photographed, including Mejia’s Easy to Go (owned by the family of Michelle Mejia), known for its flautas, and Tacos de Marcelo, which has an excellent tripe, or cow’s stomach, taco, were often tiny places. To capture the fullness of their interiors and make the taqueria like a stage, Benitez took panoramic photographs. He was inspired by Diego Rivera pieces like Detroit Industry and Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central Park. “I wanted to take the format and echo Mexican muralism,” he said, “where you have lots of people, lots of action, in this very long and wide format.”
Using a monopod, Benitez chose a central location in the kitchens and dining rooms of the taquerias and for about ten minutes, snapped photos from the left to the right. He then stitched together seven or eight shots using Photomerge, a function of Photoshop, to make it appear like one single image. The Texas Folklife exhibit includes eleven of these images—paired with twenty stills taken by Ballí and Mejia—measuring around one by two or three feet. Benitez is also bringing one piece to the opening that measures two feet by five or six feet.
If Benitez’s words and images aren’t enough to persuade you to travel to Brownsville, then let the evening’s other presenter, Mando Rayo, open your mind to other taco spots in the state. Rayo, a taco aficionado, details a total of ten Texas cities and their taco cultures in his book. All in all, his crew traveled more than seven thousand miles and interviewed more than one hundred people. According to Rayo, Southmost isn’t the best taco scene in the state. That distinction belongs to the Bayou City.
“In Houston,” Rayo said, “you can start your day with great breakfast tacos at Villa Arcos or barbacoa at Gerardo’s Drive-In, try the mole tacos at La Guadalupana Bakery, explore tacos de chapulines at Hugo’s, top off your happy hour at Estilo Tierra Caliente, and finish off the night at La Marco or Boombox Taco truck, which actually does look like a boombox.”
Texas Folklife, August 10 to September 30, texasfolklife.org
Other Events Across Texas
Two for Texas
The Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, about murder, and the John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy, about bull riding, might seem like wildly different films, but upon closer inspection they share a storyline of a man jilted by a woman. Mostly, though, they are just exceptional movies about Texas, viewable as a double feature on Friday night.
The Texas Theatre, August 5, 7 and 9 p.m., thetexastheatre.com
The Dixie Chicks are together again and playing three dates in Texas. Presumably Natalie Maines is ready to make nice about George W. Bush, but there’s no telling what she might say about Donald Trump.
Various locations, August 5, 6 & 7, dcxtourclub.com
Point of Entry
If you feel as if you’ve lost sight of how outsiders made America great in the first place, you should attend the Galveston Heritage Festival, dedicated to the history of immigration in Texas, with a crowd-sourced pop-up exhibit aiming to showcase fifty objects that speak to Galveston as the “Ellis Island of the West.”
Kempner Park, August 6, 10 a.m., galvestonhistory.org
Go to Bat
Austin gets a lot of credit for being the host with the most Mexican free-tailed bats, but instead of standing on a packed sidewalk on busy Ann Richards Bridge waiting for the bats to emerge, head to Buffalo Bayou and enjoy a similar scene from the water during the Waugh Bat Colony Boat Tour.
Sabine Promenade, August 5, 7:40 p.m., buffalobayou.org
One for the Books
It is generally best to read the book before seeing the movie because the latter can often fall short, but with No Country for Old Men, both are brilliant. If the Coen brothers’ adaptation, winner of the best picture Oscar, is the only one you’ve had the chance to appreciate, then you owe it to yourself to read Cormac McCarthy’s novel, as part of the Briscoe Book Club.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum, August 9, 6:30 p.m., briscoemuseum.org