Why do you think that some people call it a breakfast burrito versus a breakfast taco?
[Lots of laughing]
That was something that was not in your book, and while I have my own theory, I wanted to hear from you.
Did you hear my lecture on the whole subject? This is funny. About three years ago I was in San Antonio to speak and was hanging out with my friends from the Current and we go to this place to get breakfast. I see on the menu something called breakfast tacos. I had never had breakfast tacos before so I asked my friends, “What they hell are breakfast tacos?” And they started explaining it to me; “Oh it’s like a flour tortilla with eggs and cheese or eggs and bacon or eggs and potatoes” [in a sarcastic voice].
But then they realize that I am not kidding them, and they say wait, “You don’t know what a breakfast taco is? Well, what do you guys eat for breakfast in Southern California?” I told them that we eat breakfast burritos, and my friends are like, “What the hell is a breakfast burrito?” and I tell them it is a flour tortilla with eggs and cheese or eggs and bacon. We’re looking at each other and we’re accusing each other.
“Why the hell do you eat breakfast burritos, that’s not Mexican food!” Well why the hell do you eat breakfast tacos, that’s not Mexican food! Of course I ate the breakfast tacos and they were spectacular.
On the flight back home, in terms of this idea of authenticity [with Mexican food], I had an epiphany from that moment. Who was I to tell my friends from San Antonio, all of them Mexican, some of them with ancestors going back to the 1800s and some of them Mexican immigrants themselves (but all of them equally under the allure of breakfast tacos), that breakfast tacos are not authentic Mexican food? Similarly, who are they to tell me that breakfast burritos aren’t authentically Mexican food? Everywhere I go to talk about Taco USA, I always mention this moment.
As to why breakfast tacos settled in San Antonio and breakfast burritos in Southern California, you can actually trace that. The burrito actually entered the United States through California, where it became popular in the 1950s so for us [in Southern California] burritos are more indigenous to our food. Even to this day, breakfast tacos are almost impossible to find in Southern California.
Is it wrong to love Tex-Mex food?
Not at all, not at all. Of course, everyone in the United States at this point in time hates Tex-Mex. This is sad to me.
Rob Walsh is the best expert and would have the best answer on this, but what he says is that before Dianna Kennedy came onto the scene, it wasn’t called Tex-Mex, it was called just Mexican food. All the sudden this British woman declares Tex-Mex to be public enemy number one and everyone has believed her since, especially in this day and age where you have so many different options of Mexican food in this country.
No one pines for Tex-Mex anymore, outside of Texas, and of course it doesn’t help that Tex-Mex comes from Texas a state that a lot of people like to bash. Before [writing Taco USA] I used to be one of those people. I thought Tex-Mex was not authentic Mexican food, but again, who am I to tell people that Tex-Mex is not authentically Mexican? It’s a type of Mexican food, just like food from Zapoteca or Oaxaca, and once you get over that intellectual hang up and actually try the food, Tex-Mex is amazing.
There’s also different varieties: if you go to El Paso, that’s closer to New Mexico which is it’s own Mexican food, San Antonio, shit, nowhere else are you going to find puffy tacos, you go down to the valley there’s some awesome barbacoa and the original home of fajitas, you go to Houston and it has it’s own style of Mexican food, then you go to Dallas there’s brisket tacos, you go all over Texas it is so huge that you have so many different styles that constitute Tex-Mex.
Sure, not all of it is going to be great, but a lot of it is. To deride it as somehow being “inauthentic” because it comes from Texas is just silly.
This was the title of one of your chapters, but you left me hanging. Do you think that Tex-Mex is doomed? That it will go away?
In Texas it will remain. It is going to remain a regional specialty, but I don’t think it will ever have the same influence as it once did. You see the arc of Mexican food in this country from the 1880s to the 1980s and Tex-Mex influenced all of the Mexican food in the United States. But since the 1980s, it is Cal-Mex that is influencing the rest of the United States.
The last great innovation that Texas gave to the United States was fajitas, and that was in the 1980s. Since that time, what has California given the United States in terms of Mexican food? We gave them the taco truck, the humongous Chipotle style burrito, bacon wrapped hotdogs and the regional Mexican cuisine.
All that said, there’s no way on Earth that Tex-Mex would fade away in Texas itself. Could you really image a Texas without chile con carne or puffy tacos? No. But that food is not going to spread anymore. Think about it, why hasn’t puffy tacos gone on to a national audience? Why is it still just a San Antonio phenomenon? I think that it is sad because puffy tacos are so delicious, but they are not going anywhere.
Why do you think that gringos, like myself, favor flour over corn tortillas?
That is because flour tortillas were the first tortillas to gain popularity because they were easier to make than corn tortillas. With corn tortillas you need masa, and making masa is not an easy thing to do. Flour tortillas on the other hand, shit, you just get some flour and roll it up into a ball and make your tortillas.
Good Housekeeping was printing recipes for tortillas in the early 1900s, but they were all flour tortillas, because in many regions of the United States you couldn’t get masa. I think that just carried over to this day; a lot of Americans grew up eating flour tortillas because that was all that was available.
On the following page Gustavo talks about why people are so passionate about their version of Mexican food, his favorite places to stop when he visits San Antonio, his reaction to Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco and his thoughts on the next big Mexican food trend in the US.