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13 Apr

How Puffy Tacos Became The Unofficial Food Mascot Of San Antonio

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If you haven’t been to San Antonio, you may not be familiar with the puffy taco. I’m from Dallas—a mere five-hour car ride away—and had never heard even the name until someone informed me that it was the unofficial food mascot of San Antonio. I hopped in my car to investigate.

At first, I was skeptical. The puffy taco, for the uninitiated, is a member of the filled tortilla family that’s distinguished by its bubbly, fried shell. It’s not the same thing as a crispy taco, whose exterior is more like a tortilla chip; nor is it as pliable as a regular soft taco. The puffy taco occupies an ideal middle ground between the two. The outside is delicate and crispy, dotted with hot bubbles of air that form in the fryer; the inside is juicy and dense. The magic happens when the filling (usually some kind of spiced beef or chicken; or in best cases, avocado, more on this soon) seeps into the crispy crevices and air pockets, becoming a singular, mouth-melting unit. The taste is not unlike that of your standard Taco Tuesday taco: lettuce, tomato, cheese, and meat, wrapped up in a salty corn casing. But the dainty, crispy texture makes it special. Eight puffy tacos into my San Antonio trip, and I was officially converted.

Stay puffy my friends. #iphone7plus

Robert Jacob Lerma(@robertjacoblerma)님의 공유 게시물님,

There is no shortage of places to eat puffy tacos in San Antonio, but the one that everyone talks about—the O.G. birthplace of the puffy taco—is Ray’s Drive Inn. The restaurant opened up in 1956, and walking in now, it feels as if nothing has been touched since those early days. The outside is a well-worn brick-and-wood facade, where you can still park your car and get ’50s-style carhop service. On the interior, every inch of the walls is covered in antiques and memorabilia collected by Ray Lopez, the founder. Over the years, this includes: a vintage Singer sewing machine, a collection of old Texas license plates, a strung-up pair of old sneakers signed by members of the San Antonio Spurs, faded photos of celebrities who’ve visited, and a restored black 1924 Ford Model TT dump truck that’s parked right in the back dining room. Ray Lopez used to drive around during the annual parade in town. “Ray’s is old-looking and there’s nothing modern about it,” said Gloria Lopez, Ray Lopez’ sister-in-law and the current owner of Ray’s Drive Inn (Ray passed away in 1998). “This is because we want to make it feel like home.”

Photo by Steph Goralnick
Photo by Steph Goralnick

Like the design, the recipe for the puffy taco at Ray’s hasn’t changed either—not even the cheese. And for good reason. I tried a handful of tacos across the city, but the version at Ray’s reigned supreme. It was crisp but tender, light, not greasy, and filled with a rotating set of perfectly spiced meats. My favorite, though, was filled with mashed avocado, making for a fresher, brighter bite. While other puffy taco contenders were a bit too crumbly on the outside, part of the shell having fallen off in the fryer; Ray’s had a sturdy, golden-brown shell and a satisfying crunch.

Although Ray’s opened up in the ’50s, the puffy taco itself didn’t come along until 1977, when Ray’s brother, Arturo Lopez, opened a restaurant in southern California. Arturo was inspired by the unique way his grandmother made tacos. She would start with masa trigo—a wheat flour-based dough mixed with lard, leavening, and salt—shape it into a tortilla, wrap it around a little wooden board, and deep fry it until it started to bubble and puff up. Arturo fell in love with the dish, and decided to dedicate his entire restaurant to the concept, calling it “Arturo’s Puffy Taco.” He eventually bought Ray’s Drive Inn from his brother in 1982 and made puffy tacos the star of the menu. While the puffy taco craze didn’t wholly catch on in southern California (though Arturo’s Puffy Taco still exists in Whittier, CA), the dish became an icon at Ray’s. “It was just a catchy name, and people jumped on the bandwagon,” said Lopez (she officially took ownership over the restaurant with her children, John Louis and Maria Idalia, after Arturo died in 2015).

The popularity of the puffy taco soon spawned copycat restaurants across the city. One of those even included Ray and Arturo’s younger brother, Henry, who opened a rival restaurant, Henry’s Puffy Tacos in 1978. This led Arturo to trademark the name “Puffy Taco” in 1992, starting a hairy legal battle between brothers. Eventually the lawsuits got too expensive, and Arturo accepted the fact that the puffy taco name would be for all. Type “puffy tacos” into Yelp now, and over 240 restaurants will pop up, all claiming to have perfected the San Antonio staple.

While I was at Ray’s, I met Odelia Martinez and her daughter Dolores Cedilla, representing two generations of Ray’s regulars. “Before San Antonio was super developed as a food city, Ray’s was the place to go, hang out, and get a great taco,” Cedilla said. “Now the city has grown up, and it’s still always packed because it just hasn’t changed.”

The puffy taco remains Ray and Arturo Lopez’s local legacy—a dish that combines San Antonio’s diversity with a bent towards culinary innovation. “It’s no ordinary taco,” Norma Navarro, the restaurant’s general manager, told me. “It’s a ritual. It’s a point of pride, and we own that pride here.”

From BON APPÉTIT

Hannah Kim
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