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My mom would wake up a little earlier on a school day to make my family breakfast tacos. In my half awake, half dreaming state when the sun was just about to rise, I could hear the rolling pin hitting against the cutting board where my mom was rolling out the dough to make flour tortillas. Depending on the kind of tacos my mom was making, I could hear the bacon, chorizo or refried beans sizzle, or the potatoes frying, or my mom breaking the eggs into the pan and shortly after, the delicious aroma wafting into my bedroom. I knew it was only a matter of minutes before my mom would come into my room and tell me, “Princess, wake up, time to go to school.” She didn’t have to tell me twice. I got dressed for the tacos. Warm, soft tortillas with scrumptious fillings. It was the best way to start the day.
This, of course, didn’t happen often. It would happen once in a while when my mom felt like giving us some extra love. But luckily for me, my maternal grandparents lived next door and always seemed to have just made tortillas or a huge sarten full of delicious food. Occasionally my grandma would call us in the morning before school and told us to come over because she had a surprise for us. My brother and I knew they were tacos but the filling was the surprise. Sometimes they were filled with carne con chile, papas a la Mexicana, or the usual breakfast suspects. My favorite was just the simple refried bean taco. I was never certain if my grandparents intentionally made us tacos in the morning or if they never learned to make a meal just for themselves after years of making massive amounts of food to feed their 10 children. Either way, I got to reap the benefits and enjoy their work.
As kids and adolescents, my parents were migrant farm workers who each traveled across the country with their huge families for work, following the seasons of the crops. They picked cucumbers in Wisconsin, tomatoes and blueberries in Indiana and strawberries and cherries in Michigan. My mom had 9 siblings; my dad had 11 siblings — and it was my grandparents’ responsibility to feed them all. The easiest and cheapest way to feed that many children on a farm worker’s wage was to make tacos. My maternal grandma would wake up way before dawn before her family had to head to the fields so she could make a stack of flour tortillas and papas or fried chicken or refried beans. Tacos were portable and an easy vehicle for whatever my grandma had on hand that day. She would pack everyone’s lunch before they all left for a hard day’s work.
When they were back home in Texas, my grandma and grandpa would do the same for their kids before they left for school. They would pack them four tiny tacos; two were filled with beans and the other two had some sort of meat, chorizo or chicken. They wrapped them in wax paper, put them in a brown bag and sent their kids off.
My mom tells me when it was time for lunch at school, she and her classmates would move their desks around to face each other in a circle since their school didn’t have a cafeteria. My mom remembers she would open her lunch inside of her desk and wait until no one was looking to sneak a bite of her taco and then immediately put it back. She felt ashamed for bringing tacos to school and didn’t want anyone to know she wasn’t eating a bologna or PB&J sandwich like the rest of the kids. My mom was sad and embarrassed her family couldn’t afford white bread and lunchmeat like the others. Sandwiches were a luxury, something not eaten every day. Tacos were a staple food in their household and portable, but they marked my mom as a poor person, someone you don’t want to associate with.
A popular thing to do in high school was to stop by a gas station called Stripes and pick up a Q Taco — a potato, egg, bean and cheese taco named after a local radio station — before going to first period. I rarely got to do that because I had band practice all the time and had to be on the field during football season or in my chair during concert season by 7 am. But when I had a chance, I would stop by before going to class. Stripes tacos were made with freshly-made tortillas and ingredients and were pretty big for only a dollar when I was growing up. I guess that’s why everyone loved their tacos because they were amazing and cheap. I would take my mom’s or grandma’s tacos any day but during that time I was craving independence and loved every second of the freedom I could afford as a teen. When I got a car my senior year, you bet driving to Stripes was a big deal to me because I had control over it. I felt more grown-up just because I decided to go buy a goddam taco.
By the end of high school, I was ready to get the fuck out of the Valley. I was so restless with my education, my surroundings, the people. I had a secret girlfriend and was anxious about being found out and confused about everything. I wanted to be myself somewhere far away. I couldn’t wait for college and for new experiences and to be exposed to other cultures other than my own. Every time I ate out with my friends during the weekend, I wanted nothing to do with Mexican food and wanted to try everything else. I ended up eating lots of burgers, hot wings, fries and Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits — so much for broadening my palate. It’s not like I rejected tacos or didn’t eat them during this time because I frequently did, but I certainly took them for granted. I didn’t know I would greatly miss something so simple and mundane in my life in the years to come.
As a closeted teen, I was ready to go to college and feel freedom in a new place in Austin. It was a wonderful breath of fresh air, even if I wasn’t ready to come out my freshman year. But it wasn’t too long before I missed home, even though I didn’t like to admit it. I didn’t want to be like my high school classmates who left the Valley for college but quickly found their way back or visited every other weekend. I enjoyed being away, but also there’s just some things in the Valley that I couldn’t find in Austin — like tacos. Austin is known for breakfast tacos, but most of the places that people regard highly aren’t like the ones I grew up with. Austinites can sing the praises of Torchy’s Tacos but I still think they’re shit. The first time I went in search of home in Austin — and by that I mean looking for some damn good tacos — I was pointed in the direction of Torchy’s Tacos. The tortillas were rubbery, the salsa was useless and the taco fillings were tasteless and subpar. They were gringo tacos.
I lived on campus for the first two years and stuck to eating on or near campus, so I wasn’t very aware of what the Austin food scene had to offer. My taco search was stalled but far from over. It wasn’t until I moved off campus and lived in Riverside that I really found a piece of home in Austin. Riverside is a main roadway in southeast Austin where there’s a bunch of cheap student apartments in the area. Austin is a predominantly white city and historically, east Austin is where most of the brown and black populations live because of segregation that continues to this day. It’s an area that is now being heavily gentrified but that’s a whole other story. Unlike the areas near campus or downtown, Riverside was where I saw more families that looked like mine. The first taco place in Austin that I loved was El Taquito. They served street-style tacos, had al pastor freshly cut from a rotating spit, sold aguas frescas and several other Mexican dishes. In retrospect, it’s not the greatest place ever; the service was bad, the tacos were tiny and expensive but in the words of Rihanna, “[I] found love in a hopeless place.” It was the first place that reminded me of home and I liked that. My girlfriend, Gloria and I would eat there when we were stressed or needed dinner before going back to campus to write papers, which was all the time. I would always get the special — five street-style tacos of your choice with avocado and cotija cheese. They had this amazing salsa bar on an island that was horribly placed in the restaurant. It was great.
Later on, Gloria’s roommate suggested we try Al Pastor #2’s tacos, which was down the road from our apartment. Al Pastor #2 is a taco truck in the parking lot of the main restaurant Al Pastor and the missing link to my taco woes in Austin. Gloria and I might’ve been hungover when we tried it out for the first time, which made that experience infinitely greater but it was magic. I ordered breakfast tacos the first time: one papas con huevo and another of chorizo con huevo on flour tortillas. Through the windows I could see a lady making fresh tortillas, a young man cutting up onions, cilantro and limes, and another lady cooking the meat, eggs and potatoes. This was home. They served our tacos on a styrofoam plate and we ate them on the benches alongside a mom and her kids, a couple of middle-aged Mexican men, and college students like us. The tortillas were warm and soft, the potatoes were fried to perfection, the salsa roja was just the right level of hot. It was so familiar and just all so good. I kept going back to Al Pastor #2 for my taco needs till I left Austin.
In Dallas, I was desperate to find home again. I had just moved there with Gloria when she had to go to Philadelphia indefinitely for work. I only knew two other people in Dallas and I was the farthest I’d ever been from my family — a nine hour drive. At that time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with my life and on top of everything I was financially unstable. I was in search of tacos again, the tiniest piece of comfort and stability.
When I was still new to Dallas, I ate at a hip restaurant called Good 2 Go Taco with the only friends I knew in the city for brunch. The tacos were alright but I think when I ate them I tricked myself into thinking they were good because I was that desperate to find something familiar. They’re far from the tacos I know and were filled with things like hangar steak, spinach and hollandaise sauce. Not to mention they cost like $4 each. At one point I went there three weekends in a row, despite the fact they were only okay; it was like I was kidding myself because I thought they would be better the next time I went. They weren’t. The last time I went to Good 2 Go Taco, I was in their parking lot about to get out when I looked up and saw across the street a hole in the wall restaurant that said “Tortas y Tacos” in big neon letters. It was literally a sign. I walked across the street, ordered potato and egg tacos and waited a long time for them. They were small but delicious and I gobbled them up in no time. For some reason, in that place I finally realized I needed to learn how to make my own fucking breakfast tacos. Maybe in that moment, I realized it was ridiculous I was driving 15-20 minutes to this place to get tacos that were only okay, and that I could totally make these at home and omg I’ve failed my ancestors.
I discovered that the local Kroger’s bakery makes fresh flour tortillas in house and they’re pretty much the best store-bought tortillas I can find. (Hey, I haven’t mastered making flour tortillas yet.) I finally learned to fry the potatoes right, found the right combination of serrano peppers and tomatillos to make salsa verde and the right amount of chile de arbol for salsa roja. It’s the closest thing I could recreate to my mom’s or grandma’s. These were things I had to do for myself, so home was always with me.
As I’ve made new friends in Dallas who also love tacos, I found other taquerias to keep me close to my roots and to keep my belly full. I’ve found warmth and comfort in Taqueria Conin, Taqueria El Si Hay and El Come Taco. They’re all places where I feel the happiest in Dallas, where I get to speak Spanish with others in public even if it’s just to order tacos and to be able to support the Mexican families who own and work at these taquerias, who hustle together to make a living. They bring me joy because they’re familiar spaces that I know I can always go back to if I feel a little lost in this big city. And also, because tacos.
Tacos are truth. I’ve never known my life without them and they can always transport me home. They’re important to me and are so ingrained to my cultural identity and my family history, and essentially my soul. I can’t help but notice the ways tacos are consumed and talked about in popular culture today and just how ubiquitous they are in our society. I have a lot of feelings about tacos and I’m sure some of you do too! I want to share my joy and love for them with you. I also want you to understand where this food came from and how it got to your mouth. So I’ll be writing a biweekly column called Taco Tuesday, where we’ll get to dive into a lot of delicious topics. In this column, I’ll explore the history of tacos, the gentrification and bastardization of the taco and how it’s a “hipster food” now with white people making a profit off of them, the multitude kinds of tacos and how they came to be and bring you interesting facts about them and even include some recipes! I’m excited to walk along this path with you to taco kingdom.