In South Texas, the breakfast taco is a morning staple. Filled with eggs, bacon and beans, the breakfast taco is San Antonio's Egg McMuffin. It's breakfast on the run for a city proud of its Latino heritage.
On any given morning in San Antonio, you’ll see people in line waiting for tacos, either at the counter or at a drive-through. Breakfast tacos are practically considered a food group all on their own.
On the northeast side of the city is a small restaurant I’ve been going to since I was 2 years old. It’s called Cristan’s Tacos, and it’s part of a family owned group of about five restaurants. Lucy Cristan is the owner of this location. She’s like an aunt to me.
Cristan’s has had a place in my family’s heart since this store opened in 1987.
“The thing that really satisfies me, and I’m so glad to see, is the kids that come to eat with me, like you when you were little.” Lucy said. “And now they’re you’re age and older and have kids of their own.”
The restaurant sells a variety of food centric to Latino culture in Texas, from breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros plates, gorditas, enchiladas and other Texas-influenced Mexican food. But the tacos are the most frequently ordered item.
Cristan’s was originally a grocery store in the 1960s, located just outside of downtown. Lucy’s mother was the owner. During the late mornings Lucy’s mom would make tacos for her children and the smell would entice customers.
“One customer came in one day and said ‘Ms. Cristan! What are you cooking in there?’ and my mom says ‘I’m cooking a picadillo taco’ and he says, ‘that sure smells good, do you think you can sell me a taco?’ And she says ‘well okay, I’ll sell you one,’ ‘How much?’ ‘25 cents!’”
Selling ready-to-eat food in a grocery story was frowned upon by the health department at the time. So they had a method around getting caught.
“Every time the inspectors would come in we would say “WATER” that would mean that the inspector was there and that we couldn’t sell mom’s cooking and so we’d stop," Lucy said.
Still, word got around and Mother Cristan began to sell so many tacos the taqueria next door went out of business, Lucy claims. That’s when Lucy’s brother Frank bought the building next door and moved the tacos out of the grocery store.
“We opened in 1963, Joey, and it became a little gold mine," she said.
Lucy and her four other siblings would eventually open restaurants of their own throughout San Antonio.
Lucy opened the first of her stores in 1983 and a second one in 1987, right near where I grew up. They needed to create a menu, and that's where my dad came in.
“Joe was one of my customers, Joe Palacios. We had menus to make and we knew he was a photographer so I asked him ‘can you take pictures of my food?’” Lucy said. “He tells me ‘Yes, I’ll even make a menu with your pictures.’ a good, good customer, your dad.”
His photos still remain on the wall today.
Where and how TexMex cooking developed in the Lone Star State depends on who you ask, however, it's certain the food is vastly different than from across the border.
“The food from Mexico is spicier and it’s got a lot of ingredients that we don’t use here,” Lucy said.
The breakfast taco is also vastly different from other types of tacos eaten through the day. It’s typically filled with early morning foods, like bacon egg, and cheese, or bean and cheese, barbacoa, chorizo and egg, or country sausage and egg.
But the absolute key ingredient is the corn or flour tortilla. Lucy makes about 1,000 tortillas a day.
“It’s not an easy process. People think that my tortillas are made with machines like other people that I’ve seen. We use our hands to make the dough just like at home," she said.
Regardless of what the taco is filled with or the time of day, Lucy has one cardinal rule.
“The tortilla makes the taco. If you don’t have a good tortilla you don’t have a good taco.”