The number of taco places in Austin is mind blowing — from white tablecloth restaurants to humble roadside stands, from dawn to the dead of night, you’ll find tacos on a menu or a blackboard somewhere in this Texas town.
Everyone in Austin has advice on tacos, so in order to narrow down the field we did some research and discovered a bunch of guys who take their tacos very seriously at Taco Journalism.
Identifying themselves as ‘the Taco Mafia’, these boys are dedicated to no-nonsense reviews of taco joints they have tried and tested in Austin and beyond.
We sat down with two of the taco mafiosa, Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece, at one of their favourite taco spots, a nondescript but homey place called Rosita’s Al Pastor, to talk all things tacos over plates of superb tacos al pastor.
Q. Terence: So how did you get started?
A. Jarod: A guy in LA who had ‘the great taco hunt’ and we got inspired by that. We ate tacos every day so we just started going to places and writing about them, and we had our own take on them. There was nothing like that in Austin at the time. We just wanted other people to know about good tacos and that there’s bad tacos and there’s no reason to eat them!
Mando: Bad tacos like college tacos — students don’t care what they eat!
Jarod: We love tacos. We love writing! There are five of us. Justin who can’t be here: Gordon, our ‘Mid-West taco correspondent’ who does ‘tacos for white people with questionable taste’: and we have Alex, who is our undercover Mexican girl.
Mando: Before I joined the taco mafia, I always dabbled in making tacos and other Mexican fare and I would always bring tacos to work and I was known as ‘the taco guy’. I was talking to a food writer who worked for the Austinist and he asked me to write my top five and I wrote it in my own style, talking about my Mexican roots and the culture, and mixing Spanglish in with words I make up, very non-traditional grammar!
Jarod: So I said, Mando, what are you doing writing for this guy? Come write for us! This was around four years ago and around that time a place called Torchy’s opened and they’re very gringo tacos… they were like charging five dollars a taco… some of them were okay…
Q. Terence: The green chili pork taco at Torchy’s was good…
A. Mando: I don’t like it. I’m a traditionalist, that’s why!
Jarod: I like some of them, for sure, but you can come here to Rosita’s and get a whole plate of food, not just one taco, for the same price. Everyone starts going “this place is amazing” about Torchy’s, and we were like, well there’s a place only a couple of blocks from Torchy’s that’s really great.
Q. Terence: Is it hard to convince people that some places are not authentic?
A. Jarod: No, it’s trying to convince them to go places that they might not be comfortable with because they don’t speak Spanish. That’s hard.
Mando: What we’re trying to do is open doors to places that they might not have heard of, places other than the mainstream places where you meet your friends.
Q. Terence: With those kinds of places, and places where they do many different things other than tacos, does it make it better or worse for taco culture?
A. Jarod: Well, there are about four places that do Korean tacos and one of them is really good, but I wouldn’t eat them every day!
Mando: It depends who you ask. There are people who only want traditional tacos, with only corn — not flour — tortillas, but there are so many regional differences anyway. You come to places like these and it’s a certain style and it’s about the region the people come from…
Jarod: You have Tex-Mex, Austin Tex-Mex, Interior Mexican…it’s like, where’s your favourite taco from? Which kind of taco? Breakfast tacos? A lunch place like this? For dinner it might be somewhere different… do you want something fancy…
Mando: You can find one dollar tacos and six dollars tacos within five miles of each other in Austin!
Jarod: I mean, here they make the tortillas right here by hand, grill them right there…
Mando: People come here because it’s true Latin; they like the food and the atmosphere.
Q. Lara: Do Latinos born here, who might be a generation or more removed from their roots, prefer authentic tacos or have their tastes changed?
A. Mando: However many generations you are removed from crossing the border, you have this connection to the culture, and part of that is the food experience. Many still have that memory of their grandmother’s tortillas and look for that experience.
Q. Lara: We’ve found in many places around the world, where the cuisine has been adapted for the local audience, that it’s no longer like the original cuisine.
A. Mando: Sure, the mainstream places won’t have things like cheek, forehead and brains on the menu, and will have more common dishes on the menu, and the salsa will be less spicy — but there are trailers that have these authentic tacos.
Q. Terence: When we Tweeted we were meeting you guys, Güero’s tweeted and asked if you were taking us there…
A. Jarod: It’s a good place to take friends from out of town. But the food is aggressively mediocre.
Q. Terence: I hear the margaritas are good there though…
A. Jarod: The margaritas are very good. They don’t use mix, just fresh lime juice. But we wouldn’t take you there to eat. We’d take you to Matt’s El Rancho. It’s the best of the big places, but it’s Tex-Mex. They make their own tortillas, have six different types of bean, great grilled meats… it’s a real institution. There are a lot of new places, but they are more like college drinking places.
Mando: With the website, we’re focused on the food. We’re not in it to sell ads — we don’t have any advertising on the site — what we’re really serious about is being honest about the food. And people get mad at us!
Jarod: With all these Austin institutions, people are like, “What do you mean you don’t like Maria’s?” We’ll, it’s not that good!
Mando: We have fun with it because we are honest. F*ck it, it’s just our opinion. You don’t like it? Go start your own blog!
Q. Terence: Do you guys get recognized when you go out to eat tacos?
A. Jarod: No, but I’m sure the guys at Torchy’s know us! But we can be at a party and someone will say, “see that guy over there, he owns such-and-such” and you think “oh, I didn’t write a very good review of their place!”
Mando: It’s not like we let them know we’re coming to eat!
Jarod: We’re not in it for free meals, that’s for sure!
Q. Lara: So is a taco a meal or a snack?
A. Jarod: It’s a meal. It’s a snack. That’s the beauty of tacos. You can get one as a snack, or you can make a meal of it.
Mando: You can get big tacos where they really pack them in. You can get taquitos, the little ones, but get six of those and you have a meal!
Q. Lara: What should we drink with tacos?
A. Mando: Tequila mostly!
Jarod: Tecate beer or ice tea because we’re in Texas!
Mando: On a hot summer’s day, a michelada is good.
Q. Terence: So what are your favourite places? What about breakfast tacos?
A. Mando: Porfirio’s Tacos is traditional. Tacodeli is modern breakfast tacos.
Jarod: The problem is the places with the great breakfast tacos don’t have great coffee and the places with great coffee don’t have great tacos!
Q. Lara: What about tacos on the run?
Q. Terence: What about sit-down places?
Q. Terence: The best area for tacos in Austin?
A. Jarod: East Austin, for sure, and then South Austin. North Austin is pretty desolate for tacos! It’s hard to get a good taco downtown.
Mando: There are growing Latino neighbourhoods and all these trailers are starting to pop up too!
Q. Terence: What about other trailer food?
Q. Terence: But I just can’t bring myself to take a photo of the cupcake trailer…
A. Mando: Yeah, I’m not buying it either.