Odd Duck Trailer, pork belly sliders
For years, I have been trying to find a crispy taco the way my mom made them when I was a kid. Using tongs, she’d gently fold each corn tortilla in half as it fried to make the perfect taco shell. She would precisely lay each shell on a plate lined with paper towels to dry; then she would move on to the next tortilla. In advance, she’d make her famous picadillo: ground meat, diced onion, garlic, a hint of tomato and her secret weapon—a small amount of mashed potato—to make the ingredients meld and come together. The potato was her invention, or at least I thought it was. It would allow the meat to stay in place in the taco. She also would carefully dice iceberg lettuce, tomato, and onion, and grate cheddar cheese for toppings.
It was a big deal in our family when my mom made these tacos. My brother and I would hover around the kitchen watching her cook, salivating in anticipation of her filling the last taco shell so we could finally dig in.
There was an unspoken joy and love for everything that those tacos meant.
It’s hard for me to write about them without getting emotional about how special it was: the moment we sat down as a family and ate those tacos, the savory interplay of perfectly seasoned picadillo, crunchy taco shell and sharp cheese was heaven. But it was more than that. It was a first generation Mexican-American woman, who learned this recipe from her mother who learned it from her mother, and so on. It was personal history. It was love for her family and much like her using a little mashed potato in her picadillo, it was the glue that helped keep us all together. I have a lifetime of childhood memories around those tacos and they were some of the happiest times in my life.
El Naranjo, tostadas and guacamole
East Side Kings at Grackle, Ramen noodle, pork belly, poached egg, green onion and kimchee
As adults, my brother and I now search endlessly for a close second to our mother’s crispy tacos. I am convinced we will forever be chasing the memory of them.
I think that’s why I love the food trailer scene in Austin so much. In Austin we call them trailers not trucks. This is Texas after all. Most trailers started out as part of a very small Mexican food scene. Now, food trailers do some of the most exciting and progressive cooking in the city.
They come in every style and shape: Airstreams, re-hab’d shipping containers, carts, old-school camping trailers…anything goes.
Sure, you can still get a mean migas taco from an Austin taco trailer. That’s easy. But add to that a hand-battered, fried avocado and refried bean taco. A quesadilla with bulgogi, kimchi, onion and salsa. Venison sausage with Brussels sprout and ricotta slaw. A pork belly slider. The list goes on and on and on.
Austin is the place where a world-renowned Oaxacan chef comes, opens a food trailer and serves some of the best interior Mexican street food the state has to offer.
Whenever I’m back from a location shoot, the first thing I do is head to one of my favorite food trailers. It’s what makes me feel immediately at home.
Have I found anything close to my mom’s crispy tacos? Not yet. But you can bet I’ll keep looking.
I wrote this essay for the April 2011 Newsletter of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Republishing it here in commemoration of Mother’s Day.