American Tacos: A History and Guide

By on Sunday, November 13th, 2022 at 3:00 am

American Tacos by José R Ralat with some tacos on the background, and the tacos were good FYI

José R. Ralat began a journey across Texas writing about tacos. He is the Taco Editor for Texas Monthly, a delicious sounding professional title, and has catalogued his taco findings on the blog The Taco Trail. In his book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, he explores the introduction of the taco in American and attempts to categorize various contemporary tacos.

The book is broken down based on style of taco. The opening chapter is on breakfast tacos, and Ralat explains their origins and how the breakfast taco diaspora from Texas to places like New York and California. He looks at San Antonio’s and Austin’s claim to have invented the breakfast taco, but also drops facts about the history of tortilla production in the United States.

There is a big emphasis on individual restaurants. For instance, he brings up Tamale House, a breakfast taco joint operating since 1976 where tacos were cheap and affordable. He interviewed the owner who revealed he and another taco seller ended up in a taco war competing on price. These details offer a unique perspective that Ralat has captured through his investigations. The owner of Tamale House has since closed, and the owner has passed away, making Ralat’s account of the shop partly a preservation of history.

Each chapter then concludes with a list of recommendations on where to find the best examples of each of the tacos.

The book progresses with this model looking at Golden and Crunchy, Barbacoa and Barbecue, K-Mex, Sur-Mex, Jewish and Kosher Tacos, Alta California, and Modern tacos. Each chapter cites examples, offers an explanation to the food pathway, and provides descriptions. The book includes obvious names like Roy Choi and his Korean BBQ taco truck, but also plenty of people history might not have widely publicized.

The story of American tacos is somewhat chaotic. While Ralat does try to find a universal narrative to tie the book together, each of the style of tacos seems to have evolved independently based on the cultural influences and needs of local populations. In this regard, the book also more like a collection of narratives about tacos than a singular monolith. To be clear, this isn’t a problem with the book necessarily, and artificially forcing these many different stories together into a singular narrative probably would have hurt the overall book. If there is a universal theme, it is that the varieties of tacos adapt to the people eating them.

At times, the background on some historic elements of tacos in America fell short. There is some acknowledgment of that history, like when Ralat mentions Al Pastor tacos were actually invented by Lebanese immigrants. But it felt like a shallow explanation for important historical elements. Where it succeeds though is in talking about the present, about taco shops operating now and in the moment. It feels more like journalism than history, and that’s fine too.

Reading book made me hunger for tacos, both the ones I could easily obtain in Brooklyn, and the far-off ones in Texas and California. There is plenty to like here, and anyone looking for a better understanding of the taco zeitgeist in America would benefit from this volume.


American Tacos: A History and Guide

José R. Ralat
University of Texas Press
April 15, 2020

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