A couple of weeks ago, I visited Austin to help judge the city’s annual hot-sauce festival. I spent only two days there, yet I ate enough of the region’s Tex-Mex specialties to qualify as honorary cast producer for Austin City Limits, indulgingin treats we only read about in magazine profiles ’round these parts. Breakfast tacos that fuse refried beans with eggs and bacon in small flour tortillas. Chili featuring fatty, luscious sirloin, dressed minimally with chopped onions, shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream. Queso (pronounced “kay-so” even by Mexicans) that is to dairy what Gatorade is to water. Pecan pralines so sweet that a bite can meet your body’s sugar needs for months.
I also traveled down Interstate 35 to San Antonio, the cradle of Mexican food in the United States, and a town with an unlikely Orange County connection: the puffy taco. This legend of the Food Network is one of the mightiest members of the taco family, a fresh disc of masa flash-fried until the thing puffs up to create air pockets, then bent and stuffed with meat (usually carne guisada or picadillo), lettuce and a snowstorm of shredded cheese. It’s as if a taco dorado decided to evolve into a sope but quit halfway, and it combines the pleasures of the two: thick yet airy, earthy, crispy, golden, one of America’s great regional treats.
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Puffy tacos exist in only two places in the United States as indigenous foodstuffs: the River City and the Whittier-La Habra area. It’s there that one branch of the Lopez family (the clan behind the puffy taco’s most famous makers, Ray’s Drive-In and Henry’s Puffy Tacos) opened two puffy taco stands decades ago while living in Buena Park. And although the La Habra location closed years ago, Arturo’s Puffy Tacos in Whittier still offers a taste of Texas to the curious and the homesick.
Sí. Whittier isn’t Orange County, but Arturo’s Puffy Tacos might as well be, located just two blocks from La Habra, a postgame favorite for fans of La Habra High’s mighty Highlanders football squad. They offer other entrées—tacos, burritos, enchiladas and another Tex-Mex creation called the crispy hot dog that consists of a corn tortilla wrapped around a wiener, then fried—but if a restaurant can subsist on puffy taco proceeds for years, something must be right with those tacos. Order three, and all you have to do is spill on each a bit of green-chile sauce—redolent more of the Lone Star State than anything south of the border—and enjoy the marvels of a glorious “Mexican” meal that would make Rick Bayless scream.
Arturo’s Puffy Tacos, 15693 Leffingwell Rd., Whittier, (562) 947-2250.