Located so close to Mexico, Texans eat plenty of Mexican and Tex-Mex food, with tacos a staple of the cuisine throughout the state. While Texas may love tacos, food writers Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece adore tacos — so much so that they have written an entire book dedicated to them titled The Tacos of Texas. Rayo and Neece set out to discover what makes tacos so special and why so many people eat them in the first place by visiting 10 cities in the Lone Star State and traveling roughly 10,000 miles.
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Immediately intrigued by this taco story, Austin.com set out to interview Rayo several weeks ahead of the Texas Book Festival, where Neece will be making an appearance. We chatted about their travels across Texas to not only find the best tacos, but also why they are so loved within the Mexican culture and in Texas.
We kicked off our interview by asking Rayo to give a general synopsis of the book: “It’s the taco Bible of Texas. It’s a journey into ten cities; we traveled 10,000 miles, and we even had a council with ten people serving on that who were local taco ambassadors. We went to restaurants and taco shops, taco stands, backyards, people’s homes. Our mission was to uncover the best tacos that Texas has to offer, wherever they were making them or eating them. We were going to find them,” Rayo recalled. “It turns into a bit of a guide book too, because there are so many places that we hit in each city.”
As for talking about their own experiences with tacos within the pages, Rayo insists that the book is all about the journey. “We start off the book with like a taco 101, and then with each city, we met so many great people, and went on so many taco adventures if you will, that we ended up writing about all of the things that happened to us. The cities are not listed alphabetically. Everything is listed in the order that we went to each city and each region, and in each one we have those personal stories.”
With the state being so large, we were interested to know where Rayo and Neece were going to find these tacos. Were they limiting themselves to just major or mid-size cities? Or were they casting a wide net to truly find the best taco?
“We went everywhere from Amarillo to Laredo down in south Texas, Corpus Christi, Houston, and heading into the Hill Country, we stopped in San Antonio, and Austin, Dallas, and then in West Texas we hit up Odessa and Abilene,” he said.
As for the inspiration on writing the book, Rayo says that he and Neece call themselves “taco journalists.” “We have our blog called Taco Journalism, and we wrote a book about breakfast tacos. Our biggest thing was uncovering the best tacos and understanding people’s connection to the food. Yes, it’s about the taco, where you can eat it on the go or start a taco truck. But there is also a lot of culture and history and traditions behind that, and we wanted to uncover a lot of those stories. We interviewed over 100 people for the book and we did it all in six weeks.”
Of course, we wanted to know what Rayo thinks makes the Austin taco scene so great. Rayo explained, “Austin has a great mix of the different styles of tacos. Obviously, Austin is known for breakfast tacos, but we also have great traditional Mexican places and Tex-Mex joints. Then you have farm-to-table movement where everything is sourced locally, it’s organic. And then you have places like Taco Deli, and even though it’s not a place where you can find a traditional taco, it’s where the taco is going, you know?”
Rayo went on, “So, I think Austin definitely has that, though what I would say though is that Austin has more of the old school Tex-Mex joints and it has a certain kind of flavor. For example, everything has queso on it. I would also say that Austin needs to up its game in the tortilla making category. If you want a good tortilla that is made fresh, you have to go to San Antonio for that!”
To throw some fun into the interview, we wanted to know what taco restaurant Rayo would pick if he could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of his life. Of course, he was a bit stumped by the question since there are so many good places to choose from, admitting that it was hard to pick.
“It all comes down to where we are based. In Austin, I would pick Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, their brisket barbeque taco is amazing. It’s cool because it’s Texas barbeque style. They have the American version where you are slow cooking the meat and brisket, and then the Mexican version, and then lastly you have the Tex Mex taco where you have tortillas, salsa, and it’s kind of a mix of both. That would be my spot if I had to have one taco for the rest of my life.”
After going to many different cities around the state, we asked Rayo if there was a city that stood out to him. His answer was a surprising one. “Definitely Houston, it feels like a miniature version of Austin. It was definitely one of the more unique cities on our list. There are so many different styles, the people are friendly. There are some great chefs doing amazing things, and street taco trucks are everywhere there. There are straight Tex-Mex joints and little cafés, and then they have regional places, too. It’s what you would want in a taco town. They aren’t scared to try new things and create some great new tacos.”
In wrapping up our interview, Rayo was not sure what food the pair would write about next, though he reassured us that tacos would always be their main passion when discussing food. If you are interested in hearing from the authors in person, Neece will be at the Texas Book Festival in Austin on November 5th and 6th and will be held in and around the State Capitol building.
Watch the trailer for The Tacos of Texas below.
Featured photo courtesy Mando Rayo Facebook