We don't see a lot of puffy tacos in Houston. At Tacos a Go-Go and El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the chewy centers reveal adherence to San Antonio tradition. Legend has it that Henry Lopez invented the fried masa shells in the 1950s. He's still selling them at two Henry's Puffy Tacos locations in the Alamo City. But they have a lesser-known cousin in Houston.
According to Los Tios owner, Gary Adair, who purchased the restaurant from its original owners in 2000, puffy tacos have been on the menu since the original Beechnut location opened in 1970.
For 35 years, one woman, Juanita García, has made them. Lucky thing, because according to Adair, not just anyone can do it. "It takes the most tender hand," he says. "It's like holding a piece of lace."
García gently plucks the rounds of masa from a custom machine that flattens them from blobs to paper-thin discs ready for the fryer. She gingerly places each piece of dough in the hot oil (the hardest part, Adair says), turning them as they inflate. For queso puffs, Garcia nudges them with a pair of long wooden spoons until they become near-perfect orbs. Masa destined to become taco shells is pressed into shape, allowing for a liberal stuffing of beef and veggies.
The result isn't so much a chewy San Antonio shell as something akin to a taco-shaped taco salad bowl. I told my dining companion that I didn't think we'd be able to split the taco, but in fact, the shell was so brittle that it divided in two immediately and seamlessly. The seasoned ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes within added to the suggestion of a taco salad.
I tried it as part of the #6 plate, one of the eight combo platters that have remained unchanged for 46 years. It also includes a queso puff, called "puffy queso" at Los Tios. The crisp walls are so thin it's a wonder that the thick, Day-Glo cheese spooned over it doesn't cause a rupture.
To a diner who didn't grow up with it, the effect can feel like an avant-garde take on Kraft mac 'n' cheese. The cheese enchilada that gets third billing on the plate tastes like the comfort of home, even to someone who's never had it before. To the diners who have been streaming in their whole lives, though, those puffy tacos are home.