According to Mike Sutter, a taco expert who is also a food critic for the San Antonio Express-News, “[A taco] was small-plate, farm-to-table before that was a popular thing in food.” We can’t say that we disagree. Tacos are like the haute cuisine of fast food, and who wouldn’t want to enjoy that every day? Clearly Sutter had the same thought because this is the second time he has taken on a “365 Days of Tacos”.
In 2015, Sutter ate his way through Austin’s tacos consuming more than 1,600. He sampled them all. Every tortilla-wrapped flavor was tried from the basic, to the authentic, to the fusion flavors. Now, however, he’s moved on to San Antonio where he finds that the taco scene a lot more culturally engrained.
NPR‘s Kelly McEvers spoke with Sutter this week to find out why he set this new taco challenge for himself.
What is a Texas Taco?
Although many of us are familiar with breakfast tacos (and if you aren’t, you should immediately familiarize yourself with them), there is a whole world outside of potato, egg, and cheese swaddled in a flour tortilla. That being said if you like it basic, no judgement is being thrown around. Even Sutter admits, “One of my favorites is just a basic potato-and-egg taco in a good flour tortilla.”
For tacos, ingredients are crucial, but, “The tortilla is the make-or-break point. If you’re not starting with handmade flour or corn [tortillas], you’re already doing it wrong.” Sutter then amends his point by explaining that for every ingredient, good-quality and freshness is more important that quantity.
“You see the cooks coming back with these giant bags of tomatillos and tomatoes and fresh jalapeños and these big vats of marinating pork.” Sutter elaborates, “They’re cooking that to order.”
After all, it is the insistence on freshness that makes a taco the original farm-to-table food.
Taqueria vs. Taco Truck
According to Sutter, the difference between these two types of taco vendors is embedded in culture itself. Taquerias “were a part of the fabric of life here long before popular food culture and media discovered tacos. So instead of that itinerant popularity of tacos, you’ve had people whose taquerias aren’t measured by months or years, they’re measured by decades.”
Taco trucks, on the other hand, are more transient in nature. “In that yearlong series [in Austin],” he explains, “I must have gone to a hundred trucks. Half of those are gone already.”
Austin vs. San Antonio
In Austin, the simple truth is that the the taco culture “doesn’t go back quite as far.” Not that this is any detriment to the quality of tacos available in the city. It is only a reflection on the current environment where tacos trucks emphasize that their chef-inspired creations are farm fresh.
In San Antonio, it is merely assumed that a taco will be fresh. That’s because that is how it has always been – for generations tacos were only prepared with the available ingredients. And that legacy of freshness and functionality is something that should be celebrated.
Sutter clarifies “…people who eat every day out of convenience and necessity – they’ve been going to these places [San Antonio taquerias] since they were kids. They’ve been taking tacos in their lunchboxes, and there was a little bit of bigotry attached to that. Now it’s just time to recognize and give the same level of importance to the kind of food we eat every day instead of just on a special occasion.”