Breakfast Tacos Take on New Role in Austin

Something else is popping up on Austin visitor guides besides the stately Capitol building and the party mania that is Sixth Street: breakfast tacos.

They are “near the top of foods that Austinites hold dear to their hearts and would defend by any means necessary” said Austin food writer Addie Broyles.

Breakfast tacos in Austin are like bagels to New York, found everywhere from gas stations and coffee shops to taco stands and even diners. They have joined the ranks of BBQ and Tex Mex as the food Austin newbies have to try and Austinites celebrate.

Yet not even the most prideful Austinite would say the tacos started here: they are definitely a gift from our neighbor to the south. So how is it that breakfast tacos are so a part of Austin?

They are Austin’s “MexMuffin” said Robert Vasquez, playing off of McDonald’s McMuffin. Since 1977, Vasquez has been operating South Austin’s Tamale House No. 3, an Austin legend praised by locals for serving breakfast tacos all day.

Vasquez explained that the breakfast taco can be traced back to the mothers of Mexican day laborers. Needing something easy to prepare and pack, they would make tacos comprised of beans, eggs, and potatoes to send with their sons out into the fields, he said.

In the same vein as Tex Mex, Austin has redefined that breakfast taco, evolving its traditional Mexican flavors to cater to a wider range of Austinites.

A mixture of corn tortillas and eggs called migas, nopalitos, cheese, bacon, chorizo, jalapeño, avocado, onion, tomato, spinach, mushroom, and even brisket and ham are now some of the ingredients Austinites can pick for their breakfast tacos from restaurants like Maria’s TacoXpress, Polvo’s, Torchy’s, and East Austin’s Juan in a Million. A variety of salsas are also constant accompaniments.

These changes in the breakfast taco “aren’t meant as an affront to traditional cuisines” said Broyles, but rather “a way for people to feel like they are taking something meaningful and putting their own spin on it.”

Broyles even argues that food is always changing and “therefore ownership of one food is always in flux.”

As Austin has adopted breakfast tacos as their own, naturally Austinites have developed their own culinary rules for them.

“Don’t waste your time with a heat lamp taco,” said Broyles referring to some gas stations’ and coffee shops’ sacrilegious storing of the food.

Nikki Ibarra of local favorite Habañero Mexican Café, also concerned about quality, said “it’s all about the fresh ingredients.”

Even Vasquez, who prefers the more traditional styles for himself, said that “though corn tortillas are the more Mexican, flour tortillas hold up better with the moisture of the eggs.”

And “don’t dare call them breakfast burritos,” said Broyles. Breakfast burritos are differently wrapped, packed, and more of a California thing.

Still easily made and packed to go, they are also cheap, almost always under $5. At Tamale House No. 3, 85 cents gets you a breakfast taco and lets you choose two items with each additional item at 15 cents. Vasquez prefers the eggs and potatoes.

They are so convenient that they have become somewhat of Austin’s “super food” said Katie Sandlin, a born Austinite and alleged breakfast taco aficionado.

“I can definitely find a connection between the on-the-go, weekend warrior lifestyles that many laid-back Austinites live and breakfast tacos,” said Broyles.

They can be eaten to recover from a crazy night or easily picked up en route to a festival or Lady Bird Lake.

Broyles admits she cannot exactly track Austin’s continuing relationship with the breakfast taco. It may even be that Austin taco rival San Antonio can claim more history.

“No one knows breakfast tacos like San Antonio,” said Jeanne Russell of San Antonio.

Whether or not that statement is true or not – quite a few Ausinites would disagree – “it doesn’t mean we can’t share in the breakfast taco love,” said Addie Broyles.

Nikki Ibarra on the other hand, a member of the family behind Habañero Mexican café, noted a special kind of breakfast taco “epidemic” in Austin.

“I’ve never been anywhere else where they demand breakfast tacos,” she said.

Austin is one of those places that really likes to celebrate itself. From campaigns to “Keep it Weird” to boasting about local music and food treasures, Austin maintains a lot of pride. Breakfast tacos, in all their convenient and tasty glory, have become part of that pride.

Before their restaurant in Austin, Nikki Ibarra’s family operated a similar Mexican restaurant in Eastern Oregon, but their menu lacked breakfast tacos.

“People didn’t really understand breakfast tacos in Oregon,” said Ibarra, who remembers being embarrassed when she once took them to school with her.

Yet recognizing their high place in Austin life, the Ibarras’ new restaurant, Habanero Mexican Café, makes sure that it serves breakfast tacos along with its other Mexican breakfast plates.

Ibarra is glad they do. She said was “dying without them.”