‘American Tacos’ probes a dish’s evolution across borders

Russell Contreras

RIO RANCHO, NEW MEXICO (AP) — You can eat one with carne asada and corn tortillas in East Los Angeles, or one with flour and pit-grilled beef known as al pastor in Dallas.

Travellers can pick a few up outside of Berlin’s Schonefeld Airport before boarding a flight, or grab one with albondigas and collard greens in Memphis.

In each place, you can taste the social and global evolution of the taco, according to José R Ralat. Some tacos incorporate the influence of Asian cuisine. Others do their best to stay true to traditional taco orthodoxy — although no one can agree on what that is.

Ralat, the new Taco Editor at Texas Monthly (yes, that’s his title), has written a new book exploring how this simple dish with Mexican origins has spread and been transformed, from San Antonio to Tokyo, gaining fans and sparking some outrage among purists.

A lifelong project, American Tacos: A History and Guide (University of Texas Press) comes from Ralat’s travels throughout the United States (US) and examines a dish that has come to transcend borders, barriers and bullets. “No one owns the taco,” Ralat said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a living food, and I wanted to see how it is changing as we change.”

Combination photo shows ‘American Tacos: A History and Guide’ and a portrait of author José R Ralat. PHOTO: AP

Born in what is now Mexico, the taco is a creation of “the encounter” — the meeting of Spanish and indigenous peoples in the Americas. That meeting eventually led to the corn tortilla coming together with meats, beans and greens. After the US-Mexico War of 1848, the US grabbed nearly a third of Mexico’s northern territory, turning some ethnic Mexicans into Mexican Americans and creating a new southwestern border. The taco north of the line was now on its own, evolving for generations based on the available resources of its consumers.

As Los Angeles Times writer Gustavo Arellano outlined in his 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Mexican Americans in Texas were forced to use yellow cheese, giving birth to what we call Tex-Mex. Isolated New Mexico used red and green chiles in their tacos. California’s ever-changing diverse population added its own flavours. That history is what fascinated Nuyorican-raised Ralat when he began to explore how demographic upheaval and mass migration have changed the taco. He found Indo-Mex, or Desi-Tex, tacos in Houston, with restaurants using aloo tikki, saag paneer and curries. In Oregon and Florida, he stumbled upon K-Mex tacos, which use Asian fusion to introduce Korean fried chicken or bigeye tuna sashimi.

Ralat found kosher tacos in Los Angeles and Brooklyn made with peppery barbecue brisket pastrami charred with green salsa. “Deli-Mex” is what some called it, Ralat wrote.

But of course, Ralat found the heart of Mexican Americana holding true to and defending taco orthodoxy. “San Antonio does its best to remain what it calls authentic,” Ralat said. “And one could argue, that’s also needed.” How could one not enjoy fajitas in a thick flour tortilla with cilantro and onions?

“The taco is Mexico’s gift to the world,” Ralat said. “And the world is responding.”