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Morning in Austin

Is the breakfast taco, the Tex-Mex morning staple, the perfect breakfast?

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Few food subjects rouse the emotions of Texans like the Tex-Mex morning staple — the breakfast taco.

In Austin specifically, breakfast tacos are ubiquitous; they are an accepted (and often taken for granted) part of everyday life, thanks to the blending of Mexican and American cuisines and cultures throughout the state. Fancy a bacon, egg and cheese on your way to work? Chances are there’s a taco truck on your commute, and in many cases the local coffee shop either makes their own or brings some in every morning to sell to tired, hungry Austinites.

Texans are so obsessed with the seemingly simple breakfast dish that much literature has been published on the topic. The New York Times tackled the subject back in 2010, and Austinite Hilah Johnson published an entire book on the subject the same year (the second edition came out in 2013). This past year, two Austin-based taco bloggers put their knowledge into a book as well, called Austin Breakfast Tacos, where they gathered recipes and stories from notable chefs and food industry types from across the city. Excerpts from Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece’s treatise were subsequently featured in Texas Monthly’s oral history of the breakfast taco.

The culinary treat is starting to break outside of state borders as well. Breakfast tacos are now being served in Washington, DC, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Even Taco Bell has tried to get in on the game (although their slant – a waffle taco – will never fly with purists).

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So what’s all the fuss about? The warming combination of fluffy eggs, mushy potato, and crisp bacon brought together in the chewy confines of a flour or corn tortilla is a simple celebration of basic breakfast ingredients. They’re easy to make, quick to consume, and you can enjoy a variety of styles in one sitting without feeling impossibly full. In Austin Breakfast Tacos, Rayo and Neece also point out the versatility of the concept: “You can have breakfast tacos at almost any time of the day, and for a lot of Austinites, after a long night working, at a show or just going out, they really hit the spot, whether you wake up at 8 AM, 2 PM, or even 6 PM.”

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One of the best things about breakfast tacos is that no two are exactly alike. While the basics might be the same (tortilla, eggs, salsa), the sky’s the limit as to what you can include, and like many regional delicacies, everyone seems to have a warring opinion about the best composition. Flour or corn tortillas? How many ingredients are acceptable? What kind of salsa is employed? Cheese or no cheese? And even more importantly – what kind of cheese? Each small decision adds up to the success of the final product.

Rayo says at his last count before the book was published, over 370 places in Austin served breakfast tacos. Some joints go the traditional route and offer simple concoctions, like Cenote’s corn tortilla filled with eggs, cheese and choice of bacon, chorizo, or potato. Others, like Veracruz Tacos, offer migas tacos, which fold a dollop of the popular Mexican breakfast dish (migas features tortilla chips, chiles, tomatoes, onions and avocado with eggs) into a tortilla. Torchy’s Tacos typically gets creative with its meat options, like The Wrangler, which features eggs, potatoes, smoked beef brisket and jack cheese with tomatillo sauce.

Rayo says he has seen his fair share of extravagant and odd combinations – like the Hawaiian-style taco that featured eggs, shrimp and Spam – but on the more appropriate end of the spectrum, beans, nopalitos (sautéed cactus pads), sautéed vegetables like onions, mushrooms, peppers, and tortilla chips are all also fair game for inclusion.

“Sometimes it’s the simplest recipes that turn out the best,” Rayo said. “One of my favorites is the simplest one: Bean, cheese and bacon by Juan Castillo. He shared his story about eating these tacos after his father’s barbershop shift at midnight on the weekends. It’s a sweet story.”

Personally, I adhere to Rayo’s mantra that simple combinations yield the tastiest tacos. I prefer a rudimentary combination of eggs, meat (bacon, chorizo, barbacoa, carne guisada), and cheese as the very basic platform, with potato or avocado providing the finishing touches, and a good dollop of salsa to brighten up the mix with heat, and bind together the ingredients under a single spicy blanket.

The RGV “Old School” Breakfast Taco #1

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Ingredients

For the frijoles charros (refried beans):
4 cups dry frijoles (pinto beans)
1 package salt pork, cut in half
1 onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole serrano chile, thinly sliced into 10–12 rounds (half with seeds removed)
1-2 teaspoons salt (more or less to taste)
2 teaspoons black pepper (more or less to taste)
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 cup chopped Roma tomatoes
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons manteca (lard)

For the tacos:
Tortillas de harina (corn tortillas)
6-8 eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
Splash of water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Thick-sliced bacon (optional)
Shredded Longhorn cheese (optional)
Avocado (optional)

Instructions

For the beans:
Rinse beans in cold water and sort out small stones. Place beans in a stock pot with both halves of salt pork. Cover with water by 2 inches, bring to a boil for a few minutes and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Simmer 2 hours under gentle low heat, keeping an eye on water level. (If more water is needed, make sure to add very hot water.)

After 2 hours, throw in diced onion, minced fresh garlic, and sliced serrano. Cover and continue to simmer for 1 more hour. Add salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin, chopped Roma tomatoes and cilantro. Cover and continue to simmer for 30 minutes or until frijoles are tender and done. In a cast-iron skillet, melt the manteca under medium heat. With slotted spoon, transfer cooked beans from stockpot to skillet until skillet is moderately full and continue lightly sautéing beans in hot manteca for about 5 minutes.

Transfer some bean broth from the pot to the skillet. Begin mashing the beans in the skillet by hand until they are smooth and creamy. Add a few spoonfuls of cooked beans from stockpot to skillet. Set skillet to the side under a very low simmer, awaiting the preparation of the RGV “Old School” Breakfast Taco.

For the tacos:
Warm tortillas de harina on a comal and set aside. Prepare skillet for eggs. Heat mixture of vegetable oil with butter over medium-low heat. Crack all eggs in a separate bowl and add a splash of water and salt and pepper. Lightly beat eggs, water, salt, and pepper only until incorporated. Pour egg mixture into hot skillet. Increase heat to medium. Gently stir with a wooden spoon until four-fifths cooked, or to your preference. Turn off heat and move skillet to the side. Take warm tortilla, fill with 2-3 tablespoons frijoles refritos and add warm scrambled egg to fill taco to desired fullness. Devour with a bottle of very cold Mexican Coke.

Tex-Mex options: Place one slice of cooked thick bacon on top of eggs and/or top with shredded Longhorn cheese. Or add a slice of avocado. Growing up, we enjoyed simple tacos of eggs with beans, nothing else — but these options kick it up a notch!

All photos by Dennis Burnett from Austin Breakfast Tacos

Emma Janzen is a freelance writer based in Chicago, where she lives with her fiance and two color-coordinated cats. Writing about beer is one of her favorite activities, next to drinking beer, of course. Right now, her favorite styles are Stouts and Sours; the more concentrated and complex the flavors, the better. Janzen has also written for the Austin American-Statesman, austin360.com, Draft Magazine, Real Magazine, and Texas Architect.

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