BROWNSVILLE — If José R. Ralat is correct about the effect of tacos on humans, Brownsville’s Southmost neighborhood must be one of the happiest and chattiest places on earth.
Ralat, described by the New York Times as “an expert on the folklore of tacos,” spotlights the best tacos Southmost has to offer, in his opinion, in the September issue of Texas Highways, the state’s official travel magazine.
The cover story, titled “Welcome to the Taco Capital of Texas,” features seven taquerias along Southmost Boulevard that he feels best represent Southmost’s tacos in terms of “history, diversity and quality.” Ralat, food and drink editor of Cowboys & Indians magazine and author of the book “American Tacos: A History of the Taco Trail North of the Border,” out in April 2020, spoke to The Brownsville Herald by phone from Dallas, where he lives.
“Southmost might have started with one or two taquerias, but now you’ve got all these different types of places that are all doing excellent work,” he said.
Ralat divides the medium into three categories: beef tacos, breakfast tacos and fried tacos. The featured A-listers, unranked, are Easy to Go Tacos No. 1, Las 7 Salsas Restaurante, Marcelo’s Tacos, Sylvia’s Restaurant, Taco El Compadre, Tacos Pkchü and Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que.
During his first trip to the Rio Grande Valley, in 2013, Ralat visited El Compadre.
“I just ordered tacos and I got this plate with cheese on the tacos,” he said. “I took photos, posted it on Instagram and within minutes someone was trolling me saying, ‘Those aren’t real tacos.’ … There are a lot of strong opinions. That’s fantastic because that not only helps us learn, it helps us communicate, and helps us eat better.”
Ralat’s view, expressed in the magazine article, is that cheese on a taco is not a crime, despite what some purists might think.
“I was thinking about a wider audience, because there’s this preconception that tacos don’t get cheese, but not in the Valley, because of the history of the region,” he said. “It’s cattle country. That, once again, influenced what I featured. Flavor is great but context just makes it better.”
Ralat began writing about tacos professionally a decade ago, first for the Dallas Observer and more recently for his website, TheTacoTrail.com. As he notes in the Texas Highways piece, Ralat traveled to 38 cities around the country doing research for the book.
From contract to print will have been four years, plus another few years of initial research and hammering together a proposal, said Ralat, who visited the “major taco centers” in cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Brownsville and San Antonio, of course.
“I wanted to go to Charleston, S.C., because their scene is blowing up, but it’s expensive to fly into Charleston,” he said. “With a small book advance every penny counts.”
The fact that tacos are growing in popularity every day Ralat hopes will lead to a second book somewhere down the line.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the Midwest,” he said. “Really, if you want to talk about the great American taco, you can talk about the regional permutations in Texas and California and similar (places), but really the crispy taco as it’s evolved in the Midwest, that’s where a lot of research needs to be done. And also Miami’s blowing up.”
Inside the Lone Star State, however, and no matter how strenuously the residents of San Antonio may beg to differ, no finer exemplar of the taco exists beyond a three-mile stretch of Southmost Boulevard, where “it’s nearly impossible to eat a bad taco,” Ralat writes.
“For the quality, you’re not going to eat wrong,” he said. “You’re not going to find bad tacos in Southmost. They might not all be great, but they’re all going to be good.”
Ralat said he spent three days researching tacos in Southmost for Texas Highways, plotting beforehand every prospect he could find on Google Maps. In several cases, restaurants that were supposed to be there weren’t, and at least as many were there that weren’t supposed to be, he said.
Besides the super seven, Ralat’s article recognizes four more Southmost establishments as “additional spots on Southmost that are sure to leave you fully satisfied, if not downright comatose”: Brownsville Coffee Shop No. 2, Otro Rollo, Taqueria La Vaquita 4, and Tacos Matamoros No. 2.
Tacos here are special because here is special, he said.
“I think that the border is special because it’s this overlap,” Ralat said. “It’s this meeting place that bridges two cultures, two cuisines. It’s a place that’s not one thing or another. It’s its own thing. … It’s its own place with its own food ways.”
Culinarily, Texas is unlike anyplace else, and the more time people spend thinking and talking about the food and how it informs the culture, and vice versa, the more they realize how special it all is — the taco serving as the perfect vessel for deliciousness, happiness and communication, he said.
“Tacos are a force for good,” Ralat said. “If you’re at El Compadre or Vera’s or 7 Salsas, there’s the food that you share that will make you happy, and it will make you up to conversation.”