Mom’s Tacos and Austin Food Trailers: My Comfort

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

Odd Duck Trailer

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.

Bits and Druthers, fish and chips

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.


Filed under About Penny, Austin, Austin Food Trailers, Texas

17 Responses to Mom’s Tacos and Austin Food Trailers: My Comfort

  1. d

    The mashed potato was the glue that binds in many ways beyond the taco. I don’t think any taco will ever come close to what your mom nurtured you both with.
    But the best part in life is to never, ever stop searching. What an amazing journey it will be, to find something close to your mom’s tacos.

  2. iliana de la Vega

    Like the article very much, nothing like Mom’s food!
    We use potatoes as one of the ingredients in tacos de canasta to keep several of the fillings drier, such in the tacos de pipian. Very cleaver decision of your Mom’s !!!!

  3. Wonderful story. I have so many stories from childhood related to food in the deep south of Louisiana. I followed my grandmother’s maid, Rose, while she cooked 3 meals a day. Rose wasn’t my mother but she sure gave me a lot of love (and hot chitlins…pig’s fat). I am here in Houston and wrote an article on my blog about Canino’s Mexican Market. Have you been there? Its fabulous!

  4. Joe Kuhn

    Been to BITS & DRUTHERS, Loved it,Gotta get back for a ” FIX”…

  5. Thanks for the comment Iliana, it means a lot coming from you! Love your trailer, it’s ALWAYS a stop for me when I get home.

  6. Amy

    I may have to travel to Austin to visit East Side Kings. I could jump right into that bowl!

  7. Please tell me you’ll take me to get that guacamole when you are back in Austin! Lovely pictures, miss you!

  8. I just licked my screen.

  9. You got me with the fish and chips picture (can’t hide my British upbringing). Handed down recipes and food traditions are so special. It forms the basis of my whole approach to cooking. Beautiful images especially the one with the pink light shining in shards.

  10. This makes me miss Austin even more than I usually do. Portlandia calls them ‘food carts’, but I’m calling them ‘food trailers’ from now on…. ♥ Tejas…

  11. Have you ever tried the puffy tacos at Ray’s Drive In in San Antonio? I photographed there last year for Taste of the South and they were delicious! I’ve tried to find a good puffy taco since then and nothing has come even close. What are your favorite food trailers in Austin?

  12. SCTacoLady

    I make tacos that are similar at home. I make seasoned ground beef with chopped onion, hand cut iceberg lettuce, cheese and taco sauce. The best part is the hand fried taco shell, nothing beats it. I can only imagine the time it took to fry enough shells for a family. My husband says the best Mexican restaurant is our house.

  13. Pork belly ramen out of a truck? Blowing my mind.

    Really nice essay. Great tribute to the best of home cooking and the best of street food.

  14. Pingback: In a Land Far, Far Away? « Screenwriting from Iowa

  15. Your photos are beautiful and mouthwatering… I love the story of your mother’s taco’s…. I’m not a photographer, but I do write a food blog and some of the recipes have short stories attached. If you have a chance… check it out. :) Lots of Mexican comfort food. But seriously… you are awesome, I could only dream of working with someone like you.

  16. El Naranjo, tostadas and guacamole – I need these in my life immediately!!

  17. el fish n chips se ve delicioso!!! que sabroso se ve todo!!! Buen provecho!!