When food writers say tacos are having "a moment," Texans laugh. To them, the taco is so much more: It's a history lesson, a geographical right, a constant reminder of the Lone Star State's complicated connection with its neighbor to the south. Countless versions, some indigineous to Texas, others faithful to regional Mexican traditions, line the state in ridiculous numbers. A moment? In Texas, the taco has been having a century.
Dallas boasts brisket tacos dripping with meaty juice. In San Antonio, they favor puffy tacos with crisp and pillowy tortillas. Closer to the border it's all about pit-cooked barbacoa. Trompos spin with marinated pork all over the state. And from Amarillo to Corpus Christi, Texans devour homemade corn tortillas stuffed with eggs and chorizo for breakfast. It's a dish versatile enough to link modest taquerías, mid-range family restaurants, and upscale chef-driven spots. And food trucks: Austin has so many good ones that some folks never bother to enter a restaurant.
"Tacos in Texas, whether Tex-Mex or a variety of regional Mexican, are rising together," says José R. Ralat the writer behind the Dallas-based blog, TheTacoTrail.com. "They inform each other and give diners more choices. And no longer is the dingy hole-in-wall the barometer of authenticity."
Americans have long sneered at the moniker "Tex-Mex," associating it with sizzling fajitas, chili con carne, and crunchy tacos with crumbly beef and shreds of iceberg lettuce and cheddar. But the genre has assumed a life of its own. "The line between Tex-Mex tacos and Mexican tacos (from the interior states) is thinning," says Julia Celeste, San Antonio magazine's food writer. "In San Antonio, the very epicenter of Tex-Mex cuisine, we only began seeing fillings like al pastor or cochinita pibil within the last decade."
Our list of the 25 finest tacos covers the whole state: upscale, downscale, and everything in-between. Some orginate in James Beard-nominated kitchens, others from greasy dives in gas stations. All are worth seeking out.
Barbacoa Taco (Tierra Caliente, Houston)
Where It's From: Tierra Caliente, 1919 W. Alabama St., Houston
Why It's a Standout: The clientele of Tierra Caliente – mostly from the nearby open-air dive bar – probably don't realize how good they've got it with Tierra Caliente's barbacoa, an irresistible, shreddy beef barbecue sputtering with rich flavor accentuated with cilantro and undercut with chopped onions. Fair warning: The salsas pack more heat than a gun range in July. Fortunately there's lots of ice-cold beer nearby.