There is a man roaming the streets of Dallas with a mission. He is the undisputed king of tacos and is the editor of the Dallas Taco Trail. José Ralat-Maldonado is a fun loving aficionado of tacos and loves good craft beer and life in general. His positive outlook on life is infectious as his love for tacos.
I caught up with Jose just off the heels of a taco inspection at a local taqueria in Oak Cliff. The restaurant swore they had puffy tacos and were well worth inspection. Jose differs with their assessment and you are sure to read about the restaurant soon on his Taco Trail website.
Although I have known Jose for several years, there were a few questions I had about his past and how he came to be the ultimate authority on tacos; and what exactly led him on this journey down the Taco Trail.
How did you begin your career in food writing?
My friend Josh Bernstein was working at the New York Press. Josh just wrote a book called Brewed Awakening, which is all about beer. My friend connected me with the editors of the New York Press and I wrote a few pieces for them just before moving to Dallas.
After I moved to Dallas I contacted the editor at the Dallas Observer who asked me if I was interested in writing about tacos.
So the Observer saw that your name was Jose and figured you could write about tacos? You aren’t from Mexico, are you?
No, I am actually Puerto Rican. I lived in Brooklyn in a place called Sunset Park which is Mexican, Puerto Rican and Chinese, and there were amazing places that I would eat at several times a week. Eventually I started taking friends to these places as informal tours. So I pitched the column to the Observer and I took what information I had from my experience in New York and what I knew about tacos.
In my opinion you are the foremost taco authority. Besides just eating tacos how did you gain this knowledge?
Well, I have eaten at about 196 places and counting, from new York to San Diego. Most of those tacos were here in Dallas. But I gained most of my knowledge from reading texts, essays, biographies; whatever I could get my hands on.
What would you recommend for a good source of reading about tacos?
I recommend a book by Jeffrey Pilcher who wrote Planet Taco. A man by the name of Gustavo Arellano wrote a book published earlier this year called taco USA which is mainly about CalMex. That is great. CalMex gave us the fish taco, but it also gave us Taco Bell.
Originally Taco Bell wasn’t evil.
No. But I do not think it is evil now. It has given us this assembly line of tacos, but McDonalds is like that as well. I do not think tacos should be easy. There is nothing finer than a pillowy corn tortilla filled with juicy, fatty meat. It doesn’t need anything else.
When you first visit a taqueria what style of meat are you looking for?
The first thing I look for is goat, which is rare in Dallas. In New York it was everywhere. I do like lengua. It is not difficult to make, but it does take a long time. Pastor is good, but it can be dry because most people do not make it on the vertical spit called a trompo.
So your favorite taco meat is lengua?
My favorite meat is pork because I am Puerto Rican, but I always order the lengua where ever I go. It seems most people are afraid of the tongue, but I don’t know why. It is down right delicious.
I like lengua uncut, but you have to shave it first, then braise it so it breaks down the meat.
Who in Dallas has a good example of lengua?
La Banqueta has the best. This is a place praised by food writers and bloggers, but yet because it is in such an iffy area of town most people don’t go to it. That is a shame because they have the best tacos around.
That is a shame. La Banquta is located on Bryan Street just a few blocks from Jimmy’s Food Store and should be considered safe. Their specialty is suadero. Explain that meat to us.
Suadero is brisket that is braised and finished off on the grill. It is cooked twice so you have a juicy center and crunchy on the inside.
Tell us about the Taco Trail and how it came to be.
Taco Trail was my regular feature on the Dallas Observer food blog, City of Ate. I left the Observer to go out on my own in 2011 and was graciously offered to keep the name Taco Trail as it was my own intellectual property.
I have been building the website up slowly and it has been evolving. I will generally post a few reviews each week and a new story or two. It is not to show people what is authentic, but instead what is out there. It is to show the diversity of the taco.
So you are not a taco snob. You will eat any taco?
I will eat any taco.
But you may not like it, right?
I may not like it, but that does not make them not authentic. I do not believe in the term authentic.
Corn or flour?
Corn. But at home I keep corn, flour and crunchy. The crunchy taco is for my kid. When I was eight years old I was eating Taco Bell, so I cannot fault my kid. And it is not worth arguing about.
Name the top five taquerias in Dallas and why?
La Nueva Fresh & Hot for their gusiada verde. La Banqueta for their cabeza, which is meat from the skull. Cow cheek basically. Cheek and temple area.
I like Taco Republic in Richardson for their Thai Chihuahua which is made with hoisin-marinated pork and given a shot of Sriracha. Cool & Hot is my breakfast taco choice. I like their barbacoa.
That’s four, and this is where it gets tricky. I like Veracruz for their lamb barbacoa. I love Good2Go for their SoCo. I like Rusty’s fried shrimp. It gets really difficult after four. Also in Fort Worth I like taco Revolver for their huitlacoche [a corn fungus taco].
Rock-N-Roll has a great tilapia with seasonings I can’t share. I was given their recipe but swore I wouldn’t talk.
What’s next for Taco Trail?
Taco Trail is getting a make-over right now. I have written some pieces for Dallas Voice and Dallas Morning News. I have written about the transsexual shows at taco joints. I will be doing some travelling. I will be a judge at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce festival. While I am there I will eat lots of tacos.
I also love to find rinky-dink taco trucks which can be hit or miss. But that’s the point, isn’t it?