Photographs by Danny Kim
To understand just how seriously Texans take their native breakfast taco, you need only glance at a post on the topic at Lisa Fain’s cult blog, homesicktexan.com—or rather at the 93 comments and counting it’s generated, a salsa-spiced chorus of hunger, longing, and obsession. The breakfast taco, like most iconic regional foodstuffs, is more of an argument, it seems, than a specific recipe, its precise contents dictated by family tradition and personal taste. Opinions on its construction are as tyrannical and precise as those about Philly cheesesteaks and Kentucky hot browns. The tortilla must be flour, and preferably homemade. Chorizo, if included, must be loose, fresh, Mexican style, not chunky Spanish. The finished product should, as a rule, be compact, streamlined, and understuffed, a svelte snack compared with the breakfast-burrito behemoths that have, until now, dominated morning menus up north.
But change may be afoot. Recently the breakfast taco has infiltrated the local foodscape, with toothsome renditions materializing at the taco garage Fonda Nolita; at Essex Street Market, where the Brooklyn Taco Co. runs them as a Sunday-brunch special; and at Goat Town in the East Village, where San Antonio native Julie Farias offers “Breakfast Tacos for Dinner” as part of her newly launched M&I Mexican Mondays, named in honor of her family’s meat market and served on the supple, flavorful flour tortillas it’s famous for.
Having never sampled the breakfast tacos of Austin or San Antonio, the hitherto deprived Underground Gourmet embarked on a crash course on the subject at two new Brooklyn taquerías. We began our studies at Güeros Brooklyn, a sunny Crown Heights storefront opened four months ago by the owners of Dram Shop, the Park Slope bar known for its excellent Texas-style double cheeseburger. It was immediately clear that management takes equal pride in its tacos: A crackerjack squad runs this assembly line as energetically and efficiently as the poissonier runs the fish station at Le Bernardin, building each specimen from griddle-crisped tortilla to paper-boated pocket in what seems like seconds. To your freshly scrambled eggs, you may add a swipe of refried beans, melty white Cheddar, bacon, or chorizo, among other mix-ins. Even better than the customizable breakfast taco was the migas taco, a handheld version of the beloved Tex-Mex dish of scrambled eggs mingled with tortilla strips. True to form, these tacos are relatively dainty and extremely addictive. Like those who contemplate dinner before they’ve finished lunch, the typical Güeros patron is planning ahead, plotting his next taco binge midway through the one at hand. Also, it is important to note, breakfast and migas tacos are only available Saturday and Sunday until 4 p.m. This would be sad news indeed if the shop didn’t also traffic in about a dozen eggless non-breakfast tacos all the time, each beautifully composed and accoutred with well-prepared fillings, fresh garnishes, and carefully calibrated salsas. (Heat fiends can amp things up with the housemade hot sauce.)
Of these, we’re partial to the brisket, paired with rajas and Cheddar, and the unusual, un-tacolike but satisfying fried chicken, the white-meat nuggets moistened with jalapeño buttermilk and pico de gallo. The deep-fried-avocado-and-jalapeño option is manna for local vegetarians, and flash-fried Gulf shrimp makes a sweet treat swaddled inside a flour tortilla with crunchy slaw and cilantro cream. About those tortillas: The flour ones are made in-house and toasted on the griddle, corn tortillas are delivered fresh from Corona’s Nixtamal, and one taco—the sour-cream-and-Cheddar-enriched picadillo—is presented, in all its ground-meat, high-school-cafeteria-style glory, in a crispy hard shell. Remotely Mexican, perhaps, but unfathomably delicious.
Güeros is more than the sum of its multiple taco parts, though. There are equally satisfying Tex-Mex sides, like creamy queso with fresh-fried chips, and two versions of beans—pintos with pork, and soupy black beans with collards. There’s Lone Star, Texas’s mysteriously fetishized state beer, and margaritas made with fresh juice, frozen or on the rocks. And, not least, there’s a friendly welcome, quick, polished service, and a congenial if snug setting, with bar stools and a handful of seats that fill up fast, especially at prime breakfast-taco hours.
Equally habit-forming is Williamsburg’s new Whirlybird, the first of its kind on New York’s caffeine scene: a serious coffee bar that doubles as a record-label gallery, with rotating exhibits of indie album covers, a couple standing tables, benches and tree stumps for outdoor seating, and a thoroughly Portlandian cast of characters milling about. It’s also the only place the U.G. knows where you may accompany your cortado or macchiato not with the usual muffin, brownie, cookie, biscotto, or past-its-prime croissant but with a hot, saucy breakfast taco. The combination is inspired, and makes sense, even if purebred Texans might consider the whole enterprise mildly blasphemous. Whirlybird serves two tacos—the No. 1, either vegetarian or with chunky chorizo for an extra buck, and the oversize deluxe Waldorf. Both come on corn tortillas, griddled in corn oil until they’re crisp and wavy. Inside, fluffy egg scrambled with Oaxaca cheese mingles with a hot stewed salsa of multicolored peppers and tomatoes. To finish, a brisk sprinkle of cilantro and a crumbling of jalapeño potato chips. This might not be the breakfast taco of a homesick Texan’s dreams, but it is a thing of slightly sweet, abundantly spiced beauty—a collaboration, it turns out, between owner Jeff Bailey, a Connecticut-bred bass guitarist, and a French-trained Ecuadoran chef who, according to Bailey, “had never even heard of breakfast tacos before.” In breakfast tacos, as in life, ignorance can be bliss.