The self-proclaimed taco brothers aren’t new to writing about tacos. After all, they got their start from blogging about breakfast tacos, which turned into a full-blown book: Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day. The next step? Another book that would allow them to explore the taco riches of Texas.
Tacos of Texas stemmed from all the recommendations Rayo and Neece received from everywhere. They wanted to showcase the best Texas has to offer, as well as educate people on the way of the taco. "In America, people’s reference to tacos are Taco Bell," explained Rayo, "so we wanted to go the diversity of the taco," from traditional Mexican to Tex Mex to fusion. Plus, Neece chimed in, "Selfishly, I want to just go all over the state and try all these tacos."
So Rayo and Neece did just that, trekking across Texas and finding and eating the best of the best, discovered through recruited taco ambassadors, research, recommendations, and just pure luck. They focused on ten cities all over the state, and explored the whole gamut: taco trailers, stands, trucks, home cooks, restaurants, and so on.
It’s a Texas taco encyclopedia, full of picks, stories, oral histories, and recipes, serving as an ambitious culinary road trip guide. Eater spoke to Rayo and Neece about their adventures over breakfast tacos (naturally) at Taco Joint on East Riverside.
What Does Austin’s Taco Landscape Look Like
Austin contains, as Rayo explained, "that good mix of very traditional Mexican taquerias to Tex-Mex places that’ve been here for generations." Neece chimed in: "From Matt’s El Rancho to Habanero" (501 West Oltorf Street). Then there are "fusion and chef-inspired styles." While people assume Austin is full of "white people tacos," Rayo said there are a lot of "Mexicans with great places," citing joints like Joe’s Bakery and Mi Tradicion.
The one flaw of Austin tacos? When places don’t have fresh tortillas, which isn’t a problem further south in Texas. Neece clarified: "There are good places with good tortillas in Austin, it’s just not as ubiquitous as other cities where it’s just everywhere."
Their Favorite Taco City
While Austin still ranks in their top three taco cities, for Neece, Laredo is number one. "Everything’s good and really fresh," especially the tortillas, breakfast tacos (known as mariachis), and piratas (tacos with fajitas, bean, and cheese).
Rayo’s hometown El Paso is number two for him ("Everything we do is spicier with earth tones"), but the top would be Houston, because of its taco diversity. Taco trucks with barbacoa, Boombox Taco’s beef ribs, Tout Suite Cafe chef David Rodrguez’s off-menu tripas, and more. "It’s that mix of the food and vibe" that works for him.
Finding Very Early Morning Barbacoa Tacos in Brownsville
While out in Brownsville, Rayo really wanted to talk to pitmaster Armando Vera, who cooks baracoa heads at Vera’s Backyard Barbecue. After trying and failing to reach him, Rayo decided to rally the taco troops and get to the barbecue spot right when it opened, which happened to be 4 a.m.
Once there, he discovered Vera drinking coffee and checking on his meats. Rayo worked his charms and eventually Vera warmed up and agreed to be interviewed, but with a warning: "If I get a customer, I have to stop."
Most Surprising Taco City
Neece’s pick was Abilene, where they discovered Lola (full name: Maria Dolores Molina), and her cafe’s many rules: "Men wait on the women, if you want something, you go in the kitchen and you get it," said Neece. Rayo added, "If she doesn’t have it, she’ll send you to the store, and you’ll bring it back, and she’ll make it for you." It’s all interactive.
For Rayo, it was Odessa, which he never considered a "destination place." They visited longtime Manuel’s Tortilla and Tamale Factory and ordered "under the table" tacos with "thick rich reds and green salsas" for some spicy New Mexico tinges. That combined with a visit to a backyard discada (what Rayo described as essentially a "Mexican wok") sealed the taco deal.
Their Go-To Tacos in Austin
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ’s lauded brisket taco is the winner for Rayo for its combination of smoked meat, salsas, and tortilla, which "just brings it home" for him. Neece sticks closer to his home, which means Taqueria Don Emilio (4415 Manchaca Road), where the bean and cheese tacos are solid. That, and his family are big fans of the small al pastor tacos from Mi Tradicion.
Elsewhere in the state, Mando is torn between two Dallas spots: Trompo’s not-al pastor one that they happened to try at what they called a "taco speakeasy" before the brick and mortar opened, and Urban Taco, because it’s "so simple and traditional" with an "authentic feel and flavor" and "spot-on quality" so much so that the tacos al pastor a la tuma (where manchego cheese is crisped on the outside of the tortilla) is featured on the book’s cover.
Other Taco Cities to Explore
If there was more time, the taco brothers would have loved to continue their explorations into other cities: Amarillo, Lubbock, Beaumont, Del Rio, Mason, New Braunfels, San Marcos. "There are just so many smaller towns that have been doing as many tacos as the ones in big cities," Rayo said. While there are no plans for a third book as of yet, they certainly have enough tacos to go through for one.
All images otherwise noted: From The Tacos of Texas (copyright © 2016 by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece), with photographs by Marco Torres, published by the University of Texas Press.