Editor’s note: This story was originally published in June, 2020.
Tacos are everywhere in the United States.
And everywhere they go, argues José R. Ralat in “American Tacos: A History and Guide” (University of Texas), they take on the flavors around them.
In Mexico, tacos are regional. What goes between a folded tortilla changes in every corner of the country.
Ralat, the taco editor of Texas Monthly magazine, sees the same regional variation happening in the U.S., where tacos are filled with barbecue, kimchi and even pastrami.
And in the South, we have Sur-Mex.
Ralat spoke to The American South about this delicious development in our region.
The American South: How do you define a taco?
José R. Ralat: Two ways. There’s the physical definition. A tortilla, the most important component. Its filling, which does not have to be meat. And a salsa. But I also define a taco as representative and reflective of its time and place. It’s regional. Its appearance, its taste, its essence depends on what the people want to eat, who those people are and what ingredients are available in the marketplace.
AS: Why have tacos been so enthusiastically embraced across the U.S.?
JRR: Mexican food as a whole makes everything better. Whatever you throw at it, it improves.
AS: When was Sur-Mex created?
JRR: The world’s two greatest corn cultures are Mexico and the U.S. South. The fact that it took until the 1990s for it to coalesce is surprising, considering that Mexicans have traveled the South and populated the South even before it was the Americans South.
AS: Who created Sur-Mex?
JRR: Taquería del Sol, which is in Atlanta and Nashville. And then El Mero in Memphis is the greatest example of learning from Taquería del Sol and running with the idea.
AS: How is Sur-Mex different from the Tex Mex restaurants that have long existed in the region?
JRR: El Mero and Taquería del Sol, for example, both have fried chicken tacos. El Mero then goes beyond with things like albondigas, or meatballs, in chipotles mixed with collard greens. That sounds so Southern and so Mexican, but it’s something entirely different. It is Sur-Mex. I dream about Sur-Mex, actually. Why isn’t this more prominent? Why isn’t this being talked about on the Food Network? This is wrong. It should be everywhere.
MORE : How an Indian-American from Kentucky became a Mexican chef.
AS: Do you see Sur-Mex as something organic, driven by Mexican Americans in the South embracing the food around them? Or is it more self-conscious and driven by chefs?
JRR: It’s both. You have a chef like Oscar Díaz of Jose and Sons in Raleigh, N.C., saying that he would like to make Mexican food with Southern components. Oscar said to me, “This is our food. This is what we eat here. This is just as much a part of us as it is them.”
AS: What is the future of Sur-Mex?
JRR: The South has immigrants from all over the place. I think you’re going to see a lot of splintering or branching out. You’ll have Sur-Mex but Sur-Mex will include Indo-Mex. It will include examples of food being adapted from other populations living next to Southerners. It’s really spurred on by the taco’s inherent adaptability.
Take a bite of Sur-Mex
Ralat recommends these restaurants that blend the flavors of Mexico and the South. Note: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some restaurants have limited seating or are only offering takeout.
Jose and Sons
4112 Pleasant Valley Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina.
Note: The restaurant is currently closed and will relocate to the above address in a few weeks.
El Mero Taco
8100 Macon Station Rd., Cordova, Tennessee.
708 Texas St., Shreveport, La.
737 Octavia St., New Orleans
Taquería del Sol
Various locations in Nashville, Tennessee, and throughout Georgia.
News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at [email protected] Sign up for The American South newsletter.
This article originally appeared on The American South: ‘Mexican food as a whole makes everything better,’ Southern-style tacos included
Gallery: Taqueria La Herradura opens in former Chick Fil A (The Knoxville News-Sentinel)