It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. NPR’s Kelly McEvers talks to Mike Sutter, food critic for the San Antonio Express-News, about his “365 days of Tacos” series, in which he eats at a different taco joint every day for a year. He’s done it before, in Austin, where he ate more than 1,600 tacos in 2015. But now he’s moved to San Antonio, and he’s finding that the taco scene there is a bit different, and in fact is tied to a cultural identity that spans back many decades.
Kelly McEvers: My main question is not whether or not you can do this, because you’ve done it before. But why?
Mike Sutter: If we want to take it from a health perspective, then we’ll look at the year that I did this before. I lost 10 pounds. I know that sounds completely counterintuitive, but a good reason to eat tacos every day is they’re pure protein, they’re wrapped in a light layer of carbohydrates and they’re farm fresh. We talk about the farm-to-table movement — the taquerias have been doing that since time immemorial. Have you ever seen a taqueria open in the morning or a taco truck about to open at night? You see the cooks coming back with these giant bags of tomatillos and tomatoes and fresh jalapenos and these big vats of marinating pork. They’re cooking that to order. It’s healthy food. It was small-plate, farm-to-table before that was a popular thing in food.
What kinds of tacos are we talking about?
Breakfast tacos are generally available all day, but I’m not just going to stick with that, although one of my favorites is just a basic potato-and-egg taco in a good flour tortilla. I had that yesterday at a taqueria that you might have called “fast food.” If fast food were like that, it wouldn’t have such a bad name. This was a taco that was stuffed with … these wonderful dirty potatoes and freshly scrambled eggs, and you really just had to wrap it with both hands to get it up into your mouth.
What, for you, makes a good taco?
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. Whether it’s that fluffy and dusty flour tortilla that San Antonio loves, or the doubled-up corn tortillas from Austin taco trucks, if the tortilla’s wrong, the taco’s never right. I also look for faithfulness to the form. If you’re going to do a breakfast taco, cook the eggs to order. Let’s not just dip them out from a steam pan. If you’re going to do a bean and cheese, let’s have it in the right ratio so that it melts together and doesn’t squish out the sides… Food is all about ratios and that holds true with tacos.
Is there one taco that sticks out, for good or for bad?
A form that I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to was the puffy taco. Ask anyone from San Antonio and they’ll tell you it was born there, and a lot of people will tell you it was born at Ray’s Drive-In. I think the best taco I’ve had in San Antonio so far was the beef puffy taco from Ray’s Drive-In. You just take this nice pile of masa, flatten it out, fry it. It gets puffy and crisp but a little bit soft so you can fold it. And then you put that together, and it’s a perfect little taco purse. It’s dressed with lettuce and tomatoes and cheese – it’s got a little bit of a hybrid appeal to it.
Are there enough taquerias in San Antonio to give you enough material for an entire year?
There’s a broader discussion to be had about that, because tacos 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. They’ve been in those buildings, and there’s history in the bricks. The hard part in San Antonio is going to be narrowing the list to 365. I had to work hard to get to 365 in Austin.
How different are the tacos in Austin and San Antonio?
The culture in Austin doesn’t go back quite as far, so what you’re looking at is taco trucks. So, it’s trucks vs. taquerias. In that yearlong series [in Austin] I must have gone to a hundred trucks. Half of those are gone already.
Do you feel like in some ways you’re giving San Antonio its due?
I think it’s time we paid tribute to the people who formed the bones of the San Antonio dining scene. We love to talk about the latest farm-to-table bistro and what the hotshot chef guys are doing, but people who eat every day out of convenience and necessity – they’ve been going to these places 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.
You’re a white dude. You’re in a Latino city writing about tacos. Is that an issue?
I don’t think I have to be born in the blood to appreciate the form. I think if you approach it with respect, it doesn’t matter what your background is.