Taco 'bout it

Austin taco expert’s new podcast unwraps Tex-Mex food and family culture

Austin taco expert’s new podcast unwraps Tex-Mex food and culture

A hand displays a taco in front of a handwritten menu.
Can't go wrong with tacos for breakfast. Photo courtesy of Tacos of Texas.

Thankfully for passionate eaters, some foods are just the lowest common denominator. You could bring pizza to any party or sandwiches to any business meeting. You could eat tacos pretty much anywhere, and if you’re with the right people, you might learn something about them through what’s on the tortilla.

Mando Rayo knows how to pair a story with the perfect salsa, and is inviting listeners to dip into his podcast, Tacos of Texas. Each episode covers a different taco topic, like “West Texas: The Origins of the Discada,” “Chicanos and Chingonas on the Rise,” and “Austin’s Taco Mile.”

While it would be tempting to make a podcast full of taco reviews and cooking tips, this series is all about culture and tracking trends.

The first episode, “The Rise of Tex-Mex BBQ,” is a fitting opener, reminding listeners that Texan tacos are a category of their own. It delves into personal experience to honor foods that came authentically from unassuming home kitchens and barbecue pits. Most importantly, it corrects itself on the title; Tex-Mex isn’t really a trend that rose, it’s just some folks’ lifelong identity.

Similarly, even though Tacos of Texas follows changing norms in the taco landscape (“Tacos in the Time of COVID”), the conversation takes a knowing tone between the interviewer and chefs who related to each other culturally long before outside media caught on.

“Tacos have been here since before Texas was a state,” says Rayo. “If you grew up in a Latino or Hispanic household, you’d be hard-pressed [to find] somebody that hasn’t grown up eating tortillas and tacos and salsas. It was just, you know, the basic food that we ate growing up.”

It all started with the Tacos of Texas book, a unique collection of food stories more than recipes. In each city that Rayo and his friend Jarod Neece visited, they selected an emblematic taco to carry the local stories. In compiling those stories, the pair became “taco journalists.”

Following the same format, PBS aired a seven-part Tacos of Texas series. Each 10-minute video starts with a “taco tip” for ultimate taco noobs (e.g. turn your head, not the taco), and moves on to a more behind-the-service-window voyeurism, kind of like a Tex-Mex Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, but spicier.

From there, Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network picked up the series in a two-season expansion called United Tacos of America. The hosts traveled outside of Texas to famous taco destinations like Los Angeles, and less famous ones like Lexington, Kentucky. In between busy seasons, Rayo knew he wanted to work on a podcast and bring the stories back to Texas. This time, Austin’s KUT and KUTX Studios signed on for distribution.

The podcast (by Rayo and Dennis Burnett’s company, Identity Productions) takes a very similar shape but has to work with a lack of entrancing taco visuals. To mitigate that, each episode opens with “The Sound of Tacos,” a segment that asks interviewees their favorite taco sounds, and plays them for an oddly immersive portrayal of a disjointed experience. The tacos are not what’s most important here. Rayo calls them a Trojan horse for stories of immigrant life, small business, and community.

“We try to uncover a lot of these different issues; that really goes back to the food,” Rayo says. Centering on the people who make the food “answers some of the questions around who gets to tell the story. For me, it’s very important to have those Mexican and Mexican-American voices — and Latino voices — front and center because they haven’t been, really, in the past.”

Some interviews are conducted in Spanish, with the agreement that not everyone will understand, and that’s okay. It’s still preferred to dubbing, which depersonalizes the speaker by deleting his or her voice.

The interviews are not so long that a non-Spanish speaker would have to skip the whole episode, and as Rayo points out, “It’s 2021.” There are ways around it. Rayo’s suggestion is to listen with a friend who can not just translate the words, but invite another into the experience of being bilingual.

While Rayo takes a tough-love stance on getting authentic voices out there, he understands not everyone is confident picking the right food truck or ordering in Spanish. With Tacos of Texas, he wants to make small businesses accessible outside of what’s doing well on social media.

Ideally, anyone should be ready to approach a new taco experience, understand something about the people running it, and order with an open attitude.

“I think part of that is just being kind and friendly to the people that work in these taquerias,” Rayo says. “Try something new. Explore a new taco. Even though you think you know your city, there’s probably a new taco spot opening up.”

Learn about tacos around Texas anywhere you listen to podcasts, including the KUT and KUTX Studios library.