Austin’s Taco Mile takes eaters off the trendy taco path
Austin is known for its trendy food scene, but a lone stretch of “diamond-in-the-rough” food spots and taquerias have earned the monicker “Austin’s Taco Mile.” They prove once again it’s best to not judge a book by its cover.
And who else would we invite to talk to us about the taco mile but the Taco King himself – Mando Rayo. He’s a James Beard Nominee, a taco journalist and host of the podcast “Tacos of Texas” and he spoke with the Texas Standard on his experience on the Taco Mile and how its existence shows a history of gentrification, but also a celebration of immigrant culture.
Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: So paint a picture of Austin’s Taco Mile, would you? What is it? What does it look like? And where is it?
Mando Rayo: Yeah, if you head outside of the trendiest spots in Austin, Texas, you got to go to where immigrants go and eat. And that’s off of Rundberg Lane and Lamar. Out of that stretch of one mile, there’s over 40 places to get yourself a taco spot. But it’s not just that. It’s also taco cousins: there’s immigrants from Mexico, but as well as Central America. So you got pupuserias, you got quinceañera shops, tire shops. You have abarrotes Mexicanos. So, in a sense, it’s the barrio, if you will, that’s still kind of in the city of Austin that, you know, unfortunately goes unnoticed a lot of these times because they’re not trending on Instagram or what have you.
You know, you’ve talked with us about how much food is a reflection of culture and, in many ways, our history. I guess one could say – and I would imagine you would be among the first to point this out – the taco scene here is very much, in a sense, a reflection of a segregationist past, right?
Oh, yeah, completely. I mean, I think it goes back to just the history of Austin and moving people – predominantly Mexican-Americans and Black communities – to the east part of Austin. But you also see that people are pushed out even further east nowadays. They’re pushed into these small neighborhoods that, for the most part, go unnoticed. And so there’s high crime in that area or a lot of poverty, but it’s also a lot of blue collar immigrant populations that are just, you know, getting by and starting up their own taco shop or asking people how can they get those flavors from home. And that’s where you really see those communities, whether it’s Rundberg area… Now further East Austin, Dove Springs… These are the areas that have a lot of my favorite spots because they got, you know, some of the best tacos in the city.
I should probably say that I mentioned “past,” but this is an ongoing thing. This is part of history up to the here and now. And we are certainly undergoing a change in demographics in the Texas capital city. What is happening with the immigrant story in the city?
Well, Austin is definitely an immigrant-friendly city, hands down. But unfortunately, what happens is a lot of those populations get ignored. You know, the Austin Taco Mile in the East Rundberg area, in a little strip mall you can have an African store next to a Chinese restaurant and next to a Mexican meat market. And part of that, you see the influx of immigrants. You know, even one of the interviews we did was with Jose Carrasco, and he’s a community activist there at Dobie Middle School. He says that there’s over 15 languages spoken just in that middle school.
So the push, not only to these high poverty areas, is beholden on the immigrant population, unfortunately. And then for us, you know, what we can do about it is shine the light and support and bring awareness to these neighborhoods that we need to be, you know, supporting.
Well, let’s talk about that. If you were visiting this area and you wanted to partake in some of the best cuisine out there, what would you recommend?
Oh, for sure. You know, there’s plenty of spots. Obviously, we actually even have a map that we put out. But, you know, some of my favorite spots are Carnita El Guero, which have some of the best carnitas in town. That’s right off of North Lamar. La Chilanguita – it’s actually tucked away kind of next to or behind a tire shop, which is a really great sign. Those are some of the best places. If you see a tire truck or a gas station, the taco truck next to it probably is a good sign. They have machetes, which are those extra long quesadillas, as well.
And then one of my favorites is Tacos El Charly, which is a truck that does tacos al pastor, but it’s a whole scene there. You know, you have vendors there, people are selling homemade products, they’re selling balloons for the kids and it’s a whole scene. They even have a one-man karaoke, which is amazing. So I mean, I think when you look at culture and thriving in culture and the richness, you’re going to find it here at Austin’s Taco Mile.
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