The great taco debate has been in the Texas zeitgeist for a while. And one jab often thrown Austin’s way is its reputation for having more pricey tacos. Though surely a solid sentiment on its own, there is also the question of what one means by the term “pricey.”
Taco journalist Mando Rayo, a James Beard Award nominee and host of the Tacos of Texas podcast, talked with the Texas Standard on what issues arise when the neighborhood taqueria goes under and gets replaced by hipster tacos – and asks, who is this for?
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: First, tell us a little bit more about this sentiment that Austin has expensive tacos and why that might actually mean something more than the price tag reveals.
Mando Rayo: I mean to be honest, once you kind of hit the Austin city limits, if you hear the Teslas purring, the construction sites clanking and the fancy dogs on the sidewalk, you know you’re in Austin. And, to be honest, I call that taco gentrification, where you have places that have been pushed out. I’m talking about restaurants, mom-and-pop shops that have been pushed out because of the rising rents, because of the rising prices, and they’re not able to keep their restaurants.
And so what happens? Who replaces them? It’s a lot of restaurant owners, investors that always put a spin on the tacos. And what you have there now is all of a sudden you go from a $2 taco to a $6 to $8 taco. And that’s the idea of like, okay, what’s happening here, and who can go? You know, I guess that’s the question. Like, who can go to these places, as well as who are you leaving out?
Well, and you know, where is that money going? Let me ask you about this taco gentrification idea. Are you also talking about the tacos themselves? Like a taco menu item that calls itself a taco, but seems so far away from, you know, the way you, as an expert, might define a taco that maybe it’s not even a taco anymore or something like that.
Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s a different spin. And, you know, while everybody enjoys the taco, I don’t know if there’s enough attention put on what it takes to actually create something that feels like something that came out of a home or a kitchen. And so this idea where, you know, you just kind of put this spin on it, it kind of loses its meaning.
So this idea around taco gentrification that we explore on my podcast is like, well, what are the roots of that? And so what are the roots of Austin, all the way back to the 1928 master plan where Mexicans and the Black communities were pushed out of their neighborhoods and into the East Austin?
Perhaps the connection, if we’re talking about what’s a taco, right – and you’ve talked a lot about this in the past – it’s the connection with the culture, right? I mean, that’s what we’re talking about here in taco gentrification if I understand what you’re saying, no?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, you can put a nice facade on a restaurant, but you know, what you’re missing is the culture. And then you look around and you don’t see that representation in a business, in a restaurant – then, you know, there’s something missing there.
Our producer Kristen Cabrera was saying that during one of the last few years of the life of chef Anthony Bourdain, he took on the topic of why some types of cuisines are priced higher than others and said that Mexican food deserved more respect, and that it was a “racist assumption that Mexican food should be cheap.” Isn’t there something to that?
Oh, yeah, I completely agree. You know, when you think about like, say, tacos al pastor and the process it takes to make a good taco al pastor – I mean, you’re talking about multiple ingredients, not just like a season or mayonnaise, but it is a process. So I do feel that that is a completely valid point of view. But when you have so much of this high-priced taco, it excludes people.
So it’s kind of like, you know, where do you find that balance, right? Where like for me, I love a good taco, and I will pay the price for something that not only tastes good, but honors and respects where the food comes from. But at the same time, it’s like thinking about if your street, if most of what options you have now there are $6 to $7 tacos, there’s an imbalance there.