Team Treks Through Texas For New Taco Book

The team working on The Tacos Of Texas poses with Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd. Author Mando Rayo's marketing background helped them secure a few sponsors, including Chevy who has loaned them a truck for their journey to 10 Texas cities.
The team working on The Tacos Of Texas poses with Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd. Author Mando Rayo's marketing background helped them secure a few sponsors, including Chevy who has loaned them a truck for their journey to 10 Texas cities.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

For many, landing a book deal is a dream come true. As with many creative endeavors, actually doing the necessary work is harder that it looks.

The creative team behind forthcoming book The Tacos of Texas is Austin-based authors Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece of the Taco Journalism blog; Houston-based photographer Marco Torres (who is also a freelance photographer for the Houston Press and shoots many music events) and filmmaker Dennis Burnett. The Tacos Of Texas will be published by The University of Texas Press and is expected to hit shelves in October 2016.

They’re visiting 100 taco trucks in 10 major Texas cities and only have six weeks to do it. Book deadlines run way ahead of publication due to the time needed for editing, layout, marketing and printing. Despite 10- to 15-hour workdays, the team tries to maintain as much enthusiasm for the tenth taco trailer as they do for the first stop of the morning.

Fortunately, the guys have enough passion to carry them through. Torres even got a tattoo of Texas on his left forearm with an image of a crispy-shelled taco where Houston would normally be. It was so fresh when we met that the skin around the new ink was still just a touch puffy.

His coworkers have the same level of enthusiasm. “I was born with a taco in my hand!” laughed Rayo. “I was always around the kitchen when I was a kid, whether it was sniffing out food or my mom making tacos or enchiladas. I was always around it but didn’t really get into tacos until later. I was always making tacos or bringing tacos to work. People would always ask me, ‘Hey, where can I find these different types of tacos?’ I was the taco guy.”

Rayo, who has a day job in marketing, joined forces with Neece on the Taco Journalism blog in 2007 and the web site soon became a valuable resource for finding the best tacos in Austin. It wasn’t long until he was leading groups on tours of taco trucks (including one in Houston). In 2010, noted food culture writer John T. Edge quoted Rayo in an article on the Austin breakfast taco scene.

The Tacos Of Texas is actually Rayo and Neece's second book on the subject. The first was Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story Of The Most Important Taco Of The Day.

I caught up with them at Tacos Tierra Caliente. They were there to interview chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly who is himself a taco truck fan. He’d suggested the modest Tacos Tierra Caliente trailer and had several other recommendations as well. While Rayo talked with Shepherd, Burnett filmed the interview and Torres circled around from one side of the table to the other, seeking just the right angle for the perfect shot.

Due to nothing more than coincidental timing, their tour of ten major Texas cities is happening during the hottest months of the year. On the day of our interview, it was 88 degrees, sunny, and as humid as a sauna—in other words, typical Houston weather. It wasn’t long until faces were beaded with sweat and shirts were clinging damply to our backs. It’s just a typical day for those chronicling the journey. “You feel dirty all the time,” says Burnett.

Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and author Mando Rayo talk about Tacos Tierra Caliente under an awning at West Alabama Icehouse across the street.
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and author Mando Rayo talk about Tacos Tierra Caliente under an awning at West Alabama Icehouse across the street.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

The challenges vary for each team member. Burnett, who recently relocated to Austin from Savannah, Georgia, finds the never-ending taco consumption daunting. “It’s 100-plus degrees. You’re sleeping in a new bed every night getting four or five hours of sleep a night. Staying hydrated—I’ve had a lot of coffees and Mexican Cokes. Tacos are delicious but they’re also heavy. We’ve eaten a lot of meat. It’s all fresh but once in a while—we were in El Paso and I was like, ‘Find me a fruit cup.’”

Houstonian Torres has no problem consuming so many tacos. “I have an iron stomach, so that doesn’t really faze me. I’m a music festival veteran so staying hydrated in this weather—I’m good at that. On the other side, keeping up with the media—I’ve shot more than 10,000 photos already and I’m sure it will end up being 15,000 to 20,000 photos I’ll have to go through and edit.”

Even veteran taco journalist Rayo didn’t expect the level of intensity required to visit eight to ten trucks a day. However, the whole team believes the endeavor is worthwhile. Rayo sees it as part of a greater mission. “It’s about the history of people. Why did they start this trailer? What type of food? Where did this tradition come from? For me, that’s as important as the tacos themselves. When you’re taking a bite, you’re taking a bite of history, culture and tradition, whether you’re of Mexican descent, Anglo, black—it doesn’t matter. We all love food and it’s important for people to know those back stories.

For the next few weeks, the team has more cities to visit and more tacos to eat. Even after the book deadline has been met, there will still be more tacos to eat, at least for Rayo. He’ll be back in Houston on October 24, this time as one of the judges for the Houston Press Tacolandia event. Obviously, he's eminently qualified. 

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Tacos Tierra Caliente

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