New television show United Tacos of America from Austin’s taco journalists Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on the El Rey Network (Robert Rodriguez’s channel). Eater Austin had a chance to preview a few of the episodes and catch up with the pair ahead of the show’s premiere.
This is not the first show for Rayo and Neece. The pair started first gained attention with their website, Taco Journalists, which morphed into two books (Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day and Tacos of Texas). From there, they teamed up with YouTube channel Indie Lens Storycast and PBS Digital Studios for an online taco documentary series in 2018.
How the Series Was Made
With United Tacos of America, Rayo and Neece followed a similar formula to their other works (Rayo calls it a “learning journey”) that delves deep into not only specific kinds of regional tacos and “food beauty shots,” but also the culture and community issues that are integrated into each dish.
“We use tacos as a Trojan horse,” explained Neece. “[The taco] is a vehicle to have these deeper conversations.”
In an episode where the pair traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to dine on cabrito (kid goat) and barbacoa (slow-cooked beef head), they also visited a respite center to provide tacos to new immigrants to the U.S., and talked to university professors who spoke on the history of how barbacoa evolved as a rancher’s dish.
The Biggest Taco Surprise
For this series, Neece and Rayo travel to eight cities across the United States, from Austin to New York City, once again relying on recommendations from researchers, regional experts, and taco connoisseurs to find spots to feature in the show (“Taco lovers are very opinionated,” offered Rayo). Both agreed that Lexington, Kentucky was the biggest surprise in during their journeys.
In that episode, the pair visit Tortilleria Ramirez in the Latino neighborhood called “Mexington,” as well as Seviche, which made bourbon carnitas. “It was my first time in Kentucky, and I loved how that mix of Mexican culture and Southern culture just shines through,” explained Rayo.
Their most memorable filming experience
It wasn’t all taco business: Neece and Rayo made an effort to explore taco-adjacent local culture at each city, which led to them getting lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) lessons in Los Angeles. “Not everybody was into the idea,” laughed Rayo. “[But] it turned out great, it was so much fun. Nobody got hurt!”
How Tacos Unite Us
“By sharing their food, by sharing this culture, you get this different kind of connection with a person,” explained Neece. “They’re not this ‘other’ person anymore. [People] can connect to a person a lot deeper by eating their food.”
What Makes for a Good Taco Spot, According to the Taco Journalists
- “If there’s a telenovela blaring in the background somewhere.” - Neece
- A spinning trompo
- Good salsa and refried beans (Neece pointed out: “You can tell a lot from a bean and cheese taco.”)
- Flowing agua fresca
- Good vibes from the other people eating there
- Walking in and being treated like family