By Forrest Brown, CNN
Two simple words can spark mouth-watering bliss or a series of blistering retorts in Texans: Breakfast tacos.
In the Lone Star State, who gets the credit for these morning tortilla sensations can be a matter of habañero-hot debate.
A highly contested Eater article in 2016 helped start a full-on Breakfast Taco War between Austin and San Antonio. While that particular battle eventually settled down, flare-ups continue.
But to get a true picture of this simple food with a complex history, we must go beyond Texas and first look at another place: Mexico.
Mouthwatering tacos in Monterrey
The breakfast taco is actually part of a long parade of foods (pizza, for instance) whose fuzzy origins and various claims of authenticity spark ferocious debate.
There’s one thing we know for darn sure: Today, breakfast tacos are enjoyed on both sides of the Rio Grande River. In her CNN “Searching for Mexico” series, actor Eva Longoria traveled to Monterrey in the state of Nuevo León.
“The breakfast taco may be the simplest of street food, but it’s been been hitting the spot for the workers of Monterrey for nearly a century,” narrates Longoria.
‘Not a junkie food’
CNN Travel caught up with Esquivel — born and raised in the border state of Sonora and resident of Monterrey for more than 10 years — to find out more.
“When I arrived in Monterrey, I discovered all the different types of tacos that everyone eats in the morning. You can have a taco of eggs. You can have a taco of meat. You can have a taco of potatoes.”
Esquivel describes breakfast tacos as “a really fast food, but not a junkie food.”
Esquivel said you can find breakfast tacos in other states in northern Mexico, but Monterrey and the state of Nuevo León are the culinary epicenter with more places to get them and a larger selection of fillings.
Some of the city’s favorites are the machacado (dried beef) with eggs, the barbacoa (slow-cooked meat, often in a pit) and the deshebrada (shredded beef). In other words, you’re in meat country.
Timeline of the breakfast taco
Esquivel said the breakfast taco goes back to the early 1900s and perhaps even earlier in Monterrey.
Compañia Fundidora, a former iron and steel foundry that dates to 1900 but is now a recreational and educational park, helped the breakfast taco get its start in Monterrey. Employees came “to work really early, and so they had to have a really fast breakfast in the morning, and one fast breakfast in the morning is a breakfast taco.”
And from there, the tacos spread into southern Texas, Esquivel said, which is reflected in the cuisine of today. “I think the flavors here in Monterrey, mostly in the north, are similar to some flavors in Texas.”
North of the Rio Grande
The river may mark a political line between two nations, but it has been no barrier at all to crossings of cuisine and culture. And Texas also shares a passion for the breakfast taco. You can tell that just from all the kerfuffles about them.
“No Texas city can claim the breakfast taco,” says José Ralat, the taco editor of Texas Monthly magazine. He places the ultimate credit south of the Rio Grande.
“It comes from Mexico — where exactly, it’s not really known. Geographically, the most likely source is northern Mexico. There is no literature that I have seen that can point to any particular city in northern Mexico.”
As for today, “they’re popular in [the Mexican states of] Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, which all border Texas,” he said.
Eddie Vega — who grew up in McAllen, across from the Mexican city of Reynosa in Tamaulipas state — is known as “Taco Poet of Texas.” He points out that historically, what’s now south Texas was once part of Mexico.
Before 1836, “the border was further north. All this region was eating a combination of indigenous and Spanish food together.”
Vega said that growing up, breakfast tacos weren’t some trendy food to him attracting attention from the likes of The New York Times and other coastal media.
“When you get to south Texas, and I’m from the Valley, we had breakfast tacos, but they were in my house. My mom would make them. It’s not something we’d go to a restaurant to get because economically that region is very poor and nobody’s eating out. Or not eating out in the morning especially.”
Ralat and Vega both said the breakfast taco was staple deep in south Texas and then San Antonio long before Austin got in on the action. So how did Austin become so synonymous with them?
Austin has “a great branding mentality, they have a knack for PR. Every year, Austin is flooded with coastal elites checking out South by Southwest,” Ralat said. “They try some options, and then in their minds, they think it’s an Austin thing. My job is to question the stuff … and let history speak for itself.”
Ralat said San Antonio has “a bit of an inferiority complex that they’re often overlooked to the benefit of Austin when San Antonio is older, has more culture, it’s more diverse, and the food is better.”
“To be clear, they’re both Tex Mex towns, and breakfast tacos are Tex Mex. But they’re also border food. When the Eater article came out” — championing Austin as “home” of the breakfast taco — “San Antonians lost their minds.”
Vega said the culinary history is too distant for any one place to stamp itself as originator or king purveyor. “I don’t know that one city — San Antonio, Corpus Christi, McAllen, Brownsville or Laredo — can claim it. You have differences with them because of ingredients.”
Jessica Elizarraras, a Rio Grande Valley native and the executive producer for MySA.com, said many people have put the origins dispute behind them.
“I think at this point we’ve mostly moved on from the great taco war of 2016,” Elizarraras said in an email interview with CNN Travel. “Is there occasional ribbing? Absolutely! Are there great tacos across the state? 1000 percent. The Mexican diaspora is far-reaching and so are their tacos.”
She cites a 2016 article by Gustavo Arellano as a detailed settlement of the issue that effectively shows Austin is not the start of the breakfast taco.
She also points out the regional differences within Texas.
“A flour tortilla in San Antonio tends to lean a bit puffier than its Rio Grande Valley/Coast counterparts. Con Huevos Tacos in San Antonio is the best of both worlds: a thin but sturdy tortilla, filled with fun, flavorful combinations.”
They’ve gone nationwide
Ralat said he’s now seeing breakfast tacos coast to coast. He was also recently in Nashville and saw them offered there.
“I hesitate to eat them at a place that calls them Austin-style. … I want the food to be high quality. I don’t want it to be spin.”
Elizarraras suggests people just enjoy them — with or without huevos (eggs).
“Breakfast tacos are ephemeral as they come, which makes them that much more magical,” she said.
“Bean and cheese is a great example of a breakfast taco that doesn’t have eggs. … Chicharron en salsa (verde or rojo) is another example of a tasty taco that doesn’t require eggs. Barbacoa — made using a whole cow-head, and more generally, beef cheeks — is a classic breakfast taco in San Antonio, often paired with Big Red [soda] for a Sunday morning treat.”
The joy of it all
In the end, why does the origin of a type of food even matter?
“Part of the issue is erasure. Just like with anything else in our Mexican-American culture, to feel left out of a conversation when you know you’ve part of that conversation for a long time.” Vega said.
And back south of the Rio Grande, they are a source of unity, Esquivel said.
“I think the breakfast tacos here in Monterrey … and the northeast of the country is something that unites everyone.”
They’re popular with the poor, the middle class and the rich, he said. “The place can be ugly. The place can be like in the streets. But you will see people in suits there eating breakfast tacos.”
For Ralat, breakfast tacos are much more than a great way to start the morning.
“I think history, especially food history, is important to know because it provides another mirror for our culture.
“It’s interesting to me that tortillas are the foundation of Mexican culture, and to break bread with someone is a sacred act. So let’s take it literally, and say that you share tacos with someone else. That’s so nice. And it’s just so joyful.”
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