Who Invented Breakfast Tacos? Not Austin—And People Should STFU About It
Fancy breakfast taco in Laguna Beach.
Photo by the Mexican
*Please see editor's note at the bottom of this story...
For the past five years, I've made multiple trips to Texas, from El Paso to Houston, Shamrock to Laredo, all in the search for and praising of Tex-Mex food (hell, I even wrote a book about it). One thing I learned quickly: Texans hate each other more than they hate California, and they pair off for their rivalries. So Houston despises Dallas, Lubbock can't stand Amarillo, El Paso is basically left alone by everyone 'cause it's all the way over there so Chuco gets into it with Las Cruces in New Mexico, and McAllen will always tell Brownsville it's better, with Harlingen the eternal peacemaker.
But no city holds more righteous anger toward another than San Antonio has toward Austin. The venom is such that I've reduced it to a historical joke: The course of Tex-Mex food in America is such that it originates from the Rio Grande Valley, gets discovered in San Antonio—and then Austin takes all the credit for it. It's a simplified, not-entirely-accurate equation (after all, fajitas went to Houston, while Fritos headed off to Dallas), but every time I tell that joke in the Lone Star State, people laugh. Hard. Even in Austin.
I tell the above as a point of reference for non-Texans to understand the Lone Star State's latest intra-republic beef: breakfast tacos. On Friday, Eater Austin published an article called "How Austin Became the Home of the Crucial Breakfast Taco," and, well, no. The backlash to the piece was vicious, with most of the ire coming from San Antonio. It's so nasty in the Alamo City that a Change.org petition went up asking Austin to exile the Eater writer from Texas "for Taco Negligence." The main complaint: everything, from the article's title to the author's insistence that Austin invented the term "breakfast taco" to San Antonio arguing Austin stole its culinary heritage to the fact that the Eater scribe a twee gabacho whose response was himself tweeting "burritos 4 life" with a picture of himself enjoying a giant burrito (a Cali abomination: Texas-style burritos are lean and mean). Fuck that gabacho!
In a way, I feel bad for author Matthew Sedacca, for wading into the ever-sticky issue of cultural appropriation with all the naiveté of an infant. In this case, he's right to deem Austin a nexus for breakfast taco culture, as is my colleague-mentor-compa Robb Walsh in saying that Austin popularized breakfast tacos in this century thanks to South by Southwest (Sorry, San Anto, but hipsters haven't descended on ustedes yet, and y'all be happy that hasn't happened).
But Sedacca's article commits a cardinal sin: shitty reporting, which happens again and again with these newfangled web-only publishing concerns. He credits Walsh (without directly quoting him, in a punk-ass journalistic sleight-of-hand) with saying that Austin " is the birthplace of the phrase [Sedacca's emphasis] breakfast taco, and thus the original catalyst for its widespread, and originally unexpected popularity."
No, no, and no.
There is no mention of the phrase "breakfast taco" or "breakfast tacos" in the online historical archives of the Austin American-Statesman through 1976, according to research conducted by the Weekly. The earliest reference I could find for the term "breakfast tacos" occurred in the July 23, 1975 food section of The Arizona Republic, in which their correspondent described eating "Breakfast Tacos" (capitalized in the original, signifying it as a curio) during a culinary tour of San Antonio—not in Austin. The following year, in the August 26, 1976 issue of the El Paso Herald-Post—not in Austin—an advertorial by Ashley's of Texas (the legendary Mexican-food company that invented tortillas in a can) offered a recipe for breakfast tacos. That November, the San Antonio Express—not in Austin—offered a breakfast taco recipe by the Express' favorite purveyor of the meal, Benny's Place (not sure if it's related to the city's Benny's Tacos). By 1977, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise—40 minutes east of San Anto, and not in Austin, either—was running ads for restaurants advertising breakfast tacos, ads that stated the restaurant's tacos specials were being "continued by popular demand." And by the end of the 1970s, newspaper clippings show breakfast tacos popping up in school cafeterias from Texas to California—but nothing about Austin.
Austin? The earliest reference I could find to "breakfast tacos" in the city is a blurb in the the November 1983 issue for Texas Monthly for the then-new Julio's Cafe, which is still operating. In fact, Texas Monthly—which I respect the hell out of but which a lot of Texans claim can't see beyond the Austin city limits—didn't note its home city's taco obsession until its April 1986 taco issue, noting that "the Capital City's taco repertoire is neither as expansive nor as provocative as San Antonio's" but that "always most prominent are the breakfast items, the particular taco form on which Austinites dote." By this point, Eater Austin, breakfast tacos were already a decade into widespread, namebrand popularity in gabacho culture through Texas and beyond. The mid-1980s, by the way, is the time when, according to Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, a fabulous book by Jarod Neece and my pal Mando Reyes, breakfast tacos became a trend in Austin—again, a decade after San Antonio set the template for Austin to rip off.
Torchy's Tacos, the Chipotle of breakfast tacos
Photo by the Mexican
Of course, history by clippings is a dangerous business, and I'm more than happy to amend this post if someone finds even earlier references to "breakfast tacos" than the ones I cited. But the point remains: breakfast tacos were already a known commodity long before Austin officially decided to go breakfast-taco crazy. Sorry, kids, but being Columbused by hipsters in New York and L.A. don't count as discovery, especially when schoolchildren in San Bernardino were already having breakfast tacos in their trays back in the 1970s—but then again, San Berdoo doesn't count.
None of the above is meant to demean Austin, or to even knock it off its self-placed crown as the capital of breakfast tacos. I've eaten at Tacodeli, Torchy's Tacos, most of the other hipster spots; the last time I was in Austin, this past fall, I had a screening of Bordertown catered by a mujer who did tacos de weenie with her own flour tortillas. It's a fine dining city, and its obsession for breakfast tacos is admirable—but it's like a teenage boy proud that he just got chest hair. Articles like the chingadera Eater Austin published propagate a dangerous, yet far-too-common trend in foodways reporting: not only is history whitewashed, but it's downright ignored in favor of easier, more-appealing narratives.
Besides, San Antonio never had to brag about its breakfast taco love—folks there just call it "breakfast."
*Note: For the armchair Aztecs and custodians of Cervantes out there, we're talking about "breakfast tacos" as a quantifiable meal, not tacos for breakfast, which has happened in Mexico since time immemorial. Stop hating on Mexicans in the U.S. already and concentrate on your own country—BOOM.
Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. His favorite breakfast taco remains breakfast burritos.
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