This Food Critic Will Take The Taco. Again. And Again. And Again.

Jan 12, 2017
Originally published on January 13, 2017 10:40 am

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

How many tacos is too many tacos? That is a question that our next guest can answer. He is the food critic for The San Antonio Express-News, and he says he will eat a taco every day in 2017 and write about the experience. And this is not the first time he has done something so insane. He is with us now from member station KSTX in San Antonio. Welcome to you, Mike Sutter.

MIKE SUTTER: Well, thank you so much. I have to go back and correct a little bit of a misperception because it won't just be eating one taco a day. When I go to a taqueria, I'm going to work the menu a little bit harder than that. When I did this series in Austin in 2015, I ate 1,600 tacos, and we just call that, in this business, research.

MCEVERS: I guess my main question is not whether or not you can do this - right? - 'cause you've done it before, but why?

SUTTER: Why eat tacos? I don't know if I should be offended by that question.

MCEVERS: I think it's important to explore the question. Like, you know...

SUTTER: Yeah, we'll go - I mean, 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.

MCEVERS: What?

SUTTER: And I know that sounds completely counterintuitive, but a good reason to eat tacos every day is it's pure protein. It's wrapped in a light layer of carbohydrates. It's farm fresh. I mean, we talk about the farm-to-table movement, but taquerias have been doing that since time immemorial.

MCEVERS: I'm sold. Like, that's enough. You didn't even have to sell all that stuff to make me think this is a good idea.

SUTTER: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: Ok. So, like, what tacos are you planning to eat today?

SUTTER: I'm going to be eating barbecue in a little bit, and then I'm going to eat at two taquerias on the same road after that.

MCEVERS: What kinds of tacos are we talking about?

SUTTER: Well, 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 and a good flour tortilla. Had that yesterday at a taqueria that you that you might have called fast food. And if fast food were like that, it wouldn't have such a bad name. This is a taco that for a $1.47 was stuffed as full as a trucker's billfold.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SUTTER: And it was these wonderful, dirty potatoes and freshly scrambled eggs. And you've really just had to wrap it with both hands to get it up into your mouth.

MCEVERS: Are there enough taquerias in San Antonio to give you enough material for an entire year?

SUTTER: Well, and there's a broader discussion to be had about that because tacos were part of the fabric of life here long before popular food culture and media discovered tacos.

MCEVERS: Sure.

SUTTER: Taquerias aren't measured by months or by years. They're measured by decades.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

SUTTER: And they've been in those buildings. There's history in the bricks. And the hard part in San Antonio is going to be narrowing the list to 365.

MCEVERS: Really?

SUTTER: In this great wagon wheel that is the interstate system around San Antonio, you could pick a spoke and do an entire month without leaving that spoke.

MCEVERS: What, for you, makes a good taco? Like, what puts it up there in the category of, you know, top 10?

SUTTER: Well, I think first the tortilla's the make-or-break point. You know, if you're not starting with handmade flour, or corn you're already doing it wrong. But having said that, I'm not a dilettante. We're talking about a commodity that costs around $2. I mean, are we given a hard time to the guy that's charging you $15 for a hamburger and not baking his own buns?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right.

SUTTER: The second thing that I look for in a taco is what I call 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 it melts together. I mean, it's all fine and good if you like fried chicken and queso and lettuce and ranch dressing and bacon jam.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SUTTER: But folding all that stuff into a tortilla doesn't make it a taco. It makes it an excellent snack wrap. Let's not call it a taco, and I think everybody's going to get along a little bit better.

MCEVERS: You're a white dude, right?

SUTTER: Yeah, I've been told.

MCEVERS: You know, you're in a pretty Latino city writing about tacos.

SUTTER: Right.

MCEVERS: Is that an issue? Is that a thing?

SUTTER: I think that's a completely legitimate thing to say, and I've heard that said to me. And it was rough in the beginning. I wasn't getting treated poorly by the people selling tacos. They're in business to be in business.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

SUTTER: I was getting a little bit of pushback from the customers. And I started figuring out how to order in Spanish. The most important thing I learned to say in Spanish was (speaking Spanish). And just right up front...

MCEVERS: Sorry, my Spanish is not good (laughter).

SUTTER: My Spanish is terrible. And then they meet me halfway, and we do the order half in English, half in Spanish. And 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.

MCEVERS: Mike Sutter is food critic for The San Antonio Express-News, talking about his 365 Days of Taco project. Thank you very much.

SUTTER: You're welcome, and follow along with us at expressnews.com/tacos.

MCEVERS: Cool. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.