Thursday, March 3, 2016

Taco Wars and Erasing the Barrio

David Knowlton

Two fetishes of origin excite the food world more than they should: who and where. They ignite wars of thinly repressed erotic power as someone or somewhere claims a given food.

The questions seem historical but answers must prop up the preening ego and erotic thrust of the one making the claim. We could paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the past appears mid stroke and creates a paroxysm of self-love.  

Such a war burns between the press of Central Texas’ sister cities. Like webcamers they preen and parade to make both San Antonio and Austin claim to be the home of breakfast tacos. 

Their spitting and sparing even drew Gustavo Arrellano all the way from the Pacific Coast. Though he can bluster in prose fit for a luchador, he calls out Texas bombast while he looks for data. 

Arellano challenges Matthew Sedacca and Austin restauranteur Diana Vasquez-Valera’s claim that if not the taco, the concept of “breakfast tacos” was born in Austin in the 80’s. 

Arellano turns to the archives, the newspaper and magazine ones, to look for the phrase “breakfast taco”.” History by clippings is a dangerous business,” he proclaims, yet he charts his evidence for why he feels Austin cannot claim to be where the phrase originated. A spattering of sources outside Austin had already published the phrase before the 80s and it doesn’t turn up for the Texas Capital City until 1986 in an article in Texas Monthly

Of course, none of this means there weren’t breakfast tacos in Austin before then, just that they didn’t have a press agent even if hordes lined up to eat them at cafes and stands every morning and masses more made them at home.

I was one of both camps while at the University of Texas from 1978-1988. I don’t remember the phrase from the beginning of this period though I do from well before the Texas Monthly article.

Phrase be damned! From my first days walking down Guadlaupe, and crossing to or from campus, I frequented vendors at metal carts who sold egg and potato tacos.

Mornings, I often went to other taco stands and cafes throughout the city to order egg and chorizo tacos. These were not burritos, rolled and tucked. They were tacos, folded over. They were not restaurant fare; they were far too simple for that. Just down-barrio common sense. 

Yet, Austin’s Barrio risks erasure in the preening of restauranteurs and posing of Anglo press who think they and theirs are the ones that matter. 

Sedacca writes about breakfast tacos: “the largely Anglo population in Austin having an appetite for this Mexican-inspired dish wasn’t a strong likelihood in the ’80s.” 

Despite what Sedacca writes, we Anglos of Austin were scarfing up Mexican food then, whether the enchilada combo, chicken lime soup, or tamales. We made nachos, not in a pile but one chip at a time. We had migas in the Student Union cafeteria. We ate fajitas on campus at Chicano student fundraisers before they were made of sirloin. We consumed tacos, even for breakfast.

This was not new. Already a century before, Austin’s Gabachos ate food from the Barrio. Tex-Mex, even without the label, was already there. Here is the issue: the many historical cross-overs of Barrio food into Anglo Austin while dismissing the Barrio

Just a little research will support this issue and show its complexity. Let us look at much mentioned restauranteur Diane Vasquez-Valera. Her heritage goes to Moses Vasquez, born in Austin in 1923 — his wife Carmen Villasana and he opened Austin’s first Tamale House in 1959*— and to Carmen’s father Antonio Villasana who settled in Austin after fleeing Mexico, in 1912.  “In the 20s” he opened “a small restaurant called Tony’s Café near what is now Austin City Hall.” Villasana also pioneered a tortilla factory in Austin in 1935. 

Austin’s Anglo establishment already ate food prepared by Barrio entrepreneurs though styles and particular foods came and went. “‘Breakfast tacos began when they were sold to the public, and they became—not an overnight sensation, but a novelty, a delicioso concept,’” said Vasquez-Valera. She means when they were marketed and then became a named thing.

“The elder stateswoman of Austin’s breakfast taco scene said that her family initially didn’t think there was much hope for commercial success with the breakfast tacos [. . .]” (Sedacca) 

Though Vasquez-Valera forgets how much we Güeros were already eating her family’s and other’s breakfast tacos by the 80’s her memory of a barrier and changing trends speaks truth. 

In 1893 Mexican vendors sold on Austin’s courthouse square (Cohen, Rayo, and Neece). Old Mexican Town, Austin’s Barrio, was then downtown, around Guadalupe and Fifth Streets, but the 1928 city plan relegated its people to the city’s east side. Segregation ensued, although Mexican restaurants run by people from the Barrio became increasingly popular. Popular (read Anglo) appeal of the food and segregation of its cooks went folded like a taco. 

Vasquez-Valera’s brother, Robert remembered growing up in the forties. “You wanna know what it was like as a kid eating tacos? If I took tacos to school, everyone would say shame on you. There was a lot of shame eating a taco back then. You had to hide them. You couldn’t eat them in front of nobody.” (Anderson)

Some food crossed the line of public and of Anglo acceptability in some moments and other food did not. That shifting unequal line — call it appropriation if you want — is the story of Tex Mex.  

Arellano’s initial and parting shots may be the most incisive in this taco war. He looks over his shoulder to Mexico’s purists to say “we're talking about "breakfast tacos" as a quantifiable meal, not tacos for breakfast, which has happened in Mexico since time immemorial” while he ends with “San Antonio never had to brag about its breakfast taco love—folks there just call it "breakfast." 

Yup, and Yup.  

Tacos were just breakfast in Austin too, me consta. Marketers’ and journalists’ slime-fests don’t press a tortilla or fold a taco worth a damn.


  • In my quick look online for sources I found 1959 as the most common date for founding this Austin tradition. While this date is given on page 24 of Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, on page 156 the same book claims it opened in 1961. Research needed. 


Addie Broyles, “Tamale House owner Robert 'Bobby' Vasquez dies”, Austin 360, (April 28, 2014),  

L.V. Anderson, Oral History of Breakfast Tacos Recalls an Era When Tacos Were Shameful Slate (August 12, 2013) 

Andrew Weber, “A Brief History of Austinites ‘Discovering’ Mexican Food”,, (February 24, 2016) 

Gustavo Arellano Who Invented Breakfast Tacos? Not Austin—And People Should STFU About It, OC Weekly (February 23, 2016) 

Jarod Neece and Mando Rayo, Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day (The History Press, July 9, 2014)

Jason Cohen, Mando Rayo, and Jarod Neece, “The Most Important Taco of the Day”, 

John T. Edge, “Tacos in the Morning? That’s the Routine in Austin”, The New York Times, (March 9, 2010) 

Mathew Sedacca, “How Austin Became the Home of the Crucial Breakfast Taco: The history of the city’s beloved morning dish”, Austin Eater, February 19, 2016.

Rachel Feit, “Tamales or Not, It's a Family Affair: Robert Vasquez's breakfast taco empire expands”, The Austin Chronicle, (May 18, 2012) 

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