The Real Texas Breakfast Taco History Involves Cannibalism, Ted Cruz, and War
Sure, breakfast tacos are an important cultural icon, but there’s so much more at stake. Their roles have played into state politics, international conflict, and cattle drives.
Editor's Note: Welcome back to our column Tacology, in which taco sage José R. Ralat explores the development of tacos and taco culture from Mexico to the world. He'll tackle taco memes and myths. He'll take us to nascent taco operations across Europe and Asia. He'll get fancy pants and old school. In this installment, Ralat introduces us to the tortilla factory owner who provides Dallas' best taquerias with the best tortillas in the city.
The breakfast taco is worthy of taking up pitchforks and torches for. It's the celebrity of the taco world. You might have heard about a spat over breakfast tacos. It was over an article by New York-based writer Matthew Sedacca, who claimed that Austin was the true home of breakfast tacos—not San Antonio, Corpus Christi, or the Rio Grande Valley. People freaked out. Most of the flame war, however, was tongue-in-cheek outrage. Take the petition to exile the author of the article that sparked the intra-state conflict, for example: "The subject of tacos, especially in reference to their origin and quality, has long been a sensitive issue and constant source of inter-regional strife within Texas."
Without fail, sophomoric claims of taco-superiority have been issued from Austin-based brunch experts on a nearly annual basis, threatening the harmony between the city of Austin and the cities with populations of Native Texans greater than ten percent." The petition called for "surrender of the offender into custody of the City of San Antonio for mandatory reeducation and rehabilitation, and the establishment of an observed 'San Antonio Day', sponsored annually by the City of Austin." The hostilities made the newswires. And there was Gustavo Arellano, Southern California-based OC Weekly editor and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, who dug into the archives and posted the date of the earliest newspaper print mention of "breakfast tacos": July 23, 1975, in the Phoenix-based Arizona Republic referring to a food tour of San Antonio. (But as we'll see later, breakfast tacos had been noted in print nearly 20 years earlier.)
Wasting no time, Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, declared war on San Antonio. A treaty summit with San Antonio mayor Ivy Taylor to end The Great Breakfast Taco War of 2016 was held. Peace was accorded. Breakfast tacos had united disparate parties. It wasn't the first time breakfast tacos have been used to bring politicians together. In 2013, in an effort to unify a fractured Texas congressional delegation—one that for decades found common ground in representing their home state until redistricting drew a proverbial line in the sand—two Lone Star State representatives, Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) and Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands), called a breakfast taco powwow. "This is beyond being bipartisan. This is about being Texan," Brady told the San Antonio Express-News. Even Ted Cruz showed up.
Breakfast tacos belong to all Texans. While the attention showered on San Antonio and Austin—and Texas in general thanks to this sibling rivalry—comes with benefits. For non-Texans, the status quo remains. "Man, I just got back from South by," says someone from New York, Philadelphia, or San Francisco. "Have you had an Austin breakfast taco yet? They're legit!" Sure, breakfast tacos are an important cultural icon, but there's so much more at stake. Their roles have played into state politics, international conflict, and cattle drives. But first, we need to address the contentious breakfast tacos, their history, and where to find them.
The breakfast tacos of Austin and San Antonio are but a small sampling of breakfast taco styles available across the state. At Ms. G's Tacos N' More in McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, the rich Tex-Mex beef stew known as carne guisada sizzles with earthy spices and spills out from a small flour tortilla. It's a little dusty, strong, and gives a good chew. An hour away in Brownsville, diaphanous flour tortillas—go ahead hold them up to the light—measuring 12 inches or more in diameter are folded around shimmering barbacoa (pit-cooked cow's head meat) or machacado con huevo (pulverized, rehydrated dried salt beef mixed with scrambled eggs). When I ordered two tacos at a diner on Southmost Boulevard, the waitress told me she would only bring me one at a time. "If you're still hungry after that, I'll be more than happy to bring you another." I was stuffed after one. These are the breakfast tacos of working-class people, immigrants, and Mexican-Americans—a.k.a. the citizens of South Texas.
In Corpus Christi, flour tortillas are thicker, like an actually comfortable futon, but vary in width. It is here where you can find super tacos stuffed with a ridiculous number of items. An extreme example is the namesake Chacho's Tacos: 14 inches of squishy flour tortilla trying to restrain its motley innards, which consists of everything else on the menu.It's a gloriously intimidating wonder for college-buddy dares and hangover cures. The flour tortilla conceals such historical fillings as eggs and weenies. The mixture was commonly employed to create a quick snack, but was associated with Mexican Americans below the poverty line in the early to mid-20th century. At Chacho's, the weenies and eggs combo is a salty, snappy filling that perks you up for the super taco.
In A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854, James G. Bell writes that while in New Mexico, he had no regular supper but consumed a "piece of bacon and a flour tortilla made by the Mexicans." Sounds like a progenitor of the breakfast taco, doesn't it? Maybe. Some mentions include descriptions of folding tortillas. Some don't. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that breakfast tacos—that is, tacos served for breakfast—were served by grandmothers and mothers in South Texas, San Antonio, and later, the Hill Country, decades before Austinites got hooked. Then there's the fact that for most of taco history, breakfast tacos—or tacos consumed at any time of day or in any preparation—were just called "tacos." The earliest stateside citation is in the May 24, 1959, San Antonio Express and News, in which, a journalist reported on one Joe Acosta, who opened a small "taco hut," on a West Side st. [sic] some time ago." Due to poor sales, Acosta, it was reported, "did the next best thing by loading his little Chevy with tasty flour tortillas and headed "for the downtown area." Business boomed. "[I]f you see a citizen munching on a bean or egg taco at the corner of St. Mary's and Travis about noon-time, you can just about rest assured, Joe Acosta made the sale.'"
Breakfast tacos were culturally significant enough in the Valley shortly thereafter that a politician saw a point to eating them on a campaign stop—as Don Yarborough, a gubernatorial candidate, "took his campaign to the Lower Rio Grande Valley yesterday," it was reported in the May 28, 1962, El Paso Herald-Post. "He had tacos for breakfast and was greeted by a mariachi band from Matamoros."
Further up the border in Del Rio, Guajardo's Taco House advertised "barbecue tacos, chorizo and bean tacos, egg and bean tacos, guisado tacos, potato and egg tacos and pork skin and bean tacos," all of which in contemporary parlance are categorized as breakfast tacos, but when the 1973 advertisement—one of many placed in the Del Rio News Herald—ran, they were simply tacos.
In December of 1979, the Associated Press reported on the Jimmy Carter Taco, a peanut and egg combo invented by San Antonio restaurant owner Osvaldo Rodriguez after the legume-farming President's election. "One customer has grown a liking for them and comes in every morning asking for four peanut and egg tacos," Rodriguez was quoted in the article.
From the 1960s on, breakfast tacos as we know them increased in popularity and moved north from the border into a ring around Austin in towns as far apart as Kerrville in the Hill Country and Seguin in Central Texas. They were usually listed as school menu breakfast items alongside contemporaneous anecdotal evidence that tacos filled with the likes of weenie and eggs were a morning staple at home and work for many Tejanos and Mexican immigrants across South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Breakfast tacos were home tacos, not a cause for a culture war.
Before breakfast tacos began appearing on menus and in advertisements across South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, breakfast burritos were the morning meal of choice. The supplanting of the advertisement and popularity of breakfast burritos to that of breakfast tacos began in the 1970s and was completed in the 1980s. This transition could be a matter of semantics, according to some taco experts and scholars, that burritos are tacos. If it's a matter of being folded or rolled, it should be noted that tacos can be eaten rolled, as we see in Diego Rivera's lithograph, The Boy with a Taco. In some cases, large folded or rolled tacos are called burritos by restaurants or customers. Such is the case at Dallas Tex-Mex institution Gonzalez Restaurant, where breakfast burritos are just Corpus Christi-style breakfast tacos. The chicharrón is particularly good—with a spice that smarts as much as walking into a clean sliding glass door. The comforting kiss from mom coming in the form of the thick, three-ounce flour tortilla envelope.
It wasn't until June 5, 1904, that the taco was first referenced in Texas, and then it was on a menu. This was just six years after the first print mention of "taco" in the United States in the Los Angeles Times.
Tacos quickly moved from advertised menus to the crime beat. The El Paso Daily Times in March 27, 1906, reported on the case of "Candelario Oropeza of Mexico City, a semi-cannibal of the most savage type" who cut off his wife's ears and stewed them in a chile sauce before offering the dish to her. It was also said that he rolled the stew into a taco for his own consumption. Oropeza had a prepared a taco de guisado—a taco filled with a home-style stew or stir fry popular as breakfast taco across Mexico. In February 1915, an article published in the Spanish-language El Paso Morning News about Isidora Duncan's theories of child development described macaroni sandwiches, an unfamiliar food to its readership, as being something akin to "tacos." Whether any of these tacos were crispy or crunchy according to previously printed recipes, the texts do not say, although in the case of the El Paso citation, the fact that it was used to describe a soft sandwich implies that the tortilla wasn't a hard shell. To be sure, the taco was a cultural touchstone.
From the beginning, tacos and their tortilla base belonged to the impoverished, the downtrodden, and the criminal. Nevertheless, it's almost as if the breakfast taco had always been part of Texas foodways.