For as long as I can remember, dinnertime has meant “taco time” at my house. Even if we were eating caldo de res or another deliciously authentic Mexican dish, a pile of warm tortillas was always stacked on the table, which meant that a taco was within reach. There’s a photo of 4-year-old me sitting beside my dad as we both enjoy some tacos, my eyes wide above my plate.
It never felt like a big deal to me. We woke up, we ate breakfast tacos. A warm flour tortilla with butter was a perfect snack. We ate quesadillas instead of pizza, and an order of tacos was our happy meal. My dad grilled, but instead of traditional Texas barbecue, we ate fajitas, pollo asado, and frijoles.
Since then, I’ve become acquainted with the vast array of international food this city offers, but my go-to is still the taco. After I picked up my first camera in 2005 at age 25, I began to document the food that I consumed on a regular basis. Yes, I was that weirdo taking photos of my meals even before Instagram or smartphones or food blogs existed.
I do distinctly remember finally realizing what a big deal tacos are for me. The year was 2009. I was on my way to the coast of Oaxaca for a weekend getaway full of sandy beaches, rough waters, and seemingly unlimited fresh mariscos. With our flight canceled until the next morning, my travel companion and I were treated to an unexpected, yet delightful, layover in the Mexican capital.
I had been there once before, 10 years prior. My mother and I had saved some money to join a church group that was traveling to Mexico City to see Pope John Paul II during his visit to North America. It is one of my fondest memories of my mom, watching her wave joyously to the pope as his motorcade passed by our hotel, attending mass at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez, making the pilgrimage to see the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and, of course, eating everything we could find that contained Vitamina T: tacos, tortas, tlayudas, tostadas, y tamales.
And there I was in 2009, sitting in a hole-in-the-wall taco shop just steps away from El Zócalo, eyes flooding with tears under the neon-green and fluorescent-yellow lights above as I remembered that trip with my mother. It took only one bite of the savory, adobo-marinated pastor taco, dripping with lime and salsa verde, for my emotions to burst open like a candy-filled piñata at Christmastime. The more I ate, the more I cried, both from sadness and joy.
It was the taco that did it—the same taco that I’d shared with her in Mexico City years ago, as she sat across from me, ordering another plate even before we finished the one in front of us. That taco helped me mourn in a way that I didn’t know was possible. It fascinated me that something so simple could have such power.
My mom taught me so much about life: how to balance my checkbook, the importance of obtaining an education, and even how to cook tortillas. Her final lesson was in 2007, when I learned how to take care of my father and siblings after she passed away.
And so I’ve spent almost every day since chasing the perfect taco. As a taco journalist, I’ve traveled all over our state as the primary photographer for The Tacos of Texas book, which UT Press published a couple of years ago (see below). I’ve eaten tacos in 15 Mexican states, and in most major cites of the United States. And what I’ve realized is that I’m beyond blessed to live in Houston, a city with a strong taco tradition that keeps growing, forever feeding us with the sacred trinity of a tortilla, filling, and salsa.
Houston is a city filled with taco treasures. Yes, there’s a taco truck on just about every corner, and we’re all the luckier for it. It wasn’t easy to pick my very favorites in Houston, but as a taco journalist, I knew I must. Pick up a local cerveza to pair with one of them, and you’ll be dining like a king.