When the idea of culinary innovation comes up, the ubiquitous taco isn’t necessarily the first food item that comes to mind.

But innovative taco recipes will be on the menu Thursday for the San Antonio Food and Wine Alliance’s first Taco Rumble, with a slew of chefs from San Antonio and Austin firing up the long-running feud between the two cities over which offers the best tacos.

Will it be taco innovation, or will a tried-and-true classic take the trophy?

Proceeds for the ticketed event at the Espee will support the nonprofit Texas Food and Wine Alliance‘s dual mission of educating students on culinary careers, and giving grants to chefs, farmers, and beverage producers throughout Central Texas in support of culinary innovation.

So far, the state organization, which includes chapters in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and now San Antonio, has given more than $360,000 in grants.

For the Rumble, a $65 ticket will give access to samples of the taco creations of eight Austin chefs and eight San Antonio food venues, including ¡Bucho! Tejano Street Fare, Jason Dady Catering, Lala’s Gorditas, Naco Mexican Eatery, and Carnitas Lonja. Drinks are included and sweets will be provided by local venues Bakery Lorraine, Lick Honest Ice Creams, and Paletería San Antonio.

For $150, the ticket includes a VIP event beginning at 6:30 p.m. with access to an exclusive agave spirits lounge. New San Antonio restaurant Cuishe will provide small bites to go along with tastings of fine tequilas and mezcals.

Winners of the competition will be decided by a panel of five expert judges, who will receive input from ticketed guests for a people’s choice component.

Brandon Watson, communications director for the Texas Food & Wine Alliance, acknowledges that the question of which city makes the better tacos might never be settled.

“There’s passionate, wonderful taco makers in both cities that are creative and keep pushing the boundaries,” he said. “I think the winner of this will certainly have bragging rights.”

Innovation is key

The Austin Food and Wine Alliance began its work in 2011 to bring a tech-sector startup ethos to the culinary world. In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the restaurant industry into chaos, the organization expanded statewide.

Events such as the Taco Rumble help the state nonprofit and its local affiliates raise money for ventures such as Fond Bone Broth in San Antonio, which received a grant to expand into major supplier Whole Foods Market.

“It’s a big thing on why we do what we do, incubating these businesses and taking them to the next level,” Watson said.

Chef Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin said innovation can include changing perspectives on traditional food and traditional roles in the food industry.

“As a collective we’re really trying to change that perspective on what a taquero is,” Rico said.

Rico is a member of the Austin Taco Mafia, an informal group of five Austin restaurateurs who have combined efforts on special events, including distributing thousands of meals during the February “snowpocalypse” that for days left many in Central Texas without access to water or electricity for cooking.

As a child of Mexican immigrants, Rico said his parents might have preferred he become a doctor or engineer, rather than a taquero, the name given to the taco makers found on street corners in Mexico City.

Though the profession might be looked down upon by some, Rico said, “we want to change the light on that and make kids be proud of their heritage and embrace it, and make it cool again.”

For the Taco Rumble, the collective will present the Campechana Taco, with arrachera and longaniza confit, salsa verde, habanero pickled onions, and cilantro on an epazote marbled tortilla.

The campechana name refers to a two-meat taco, in this case skirt steak and pork sausage. Though the recipe might appear specially designed for a fancy competition among top chefs, Rico said this type of taco is commonly found in Mexico City.

Canvas vs. carnitas

Setting the competitive tone for the Rumble, Rico’s personal taco philosophy is at odds with least one San Antonio chef. In its simplest form, Rico said, people think of the taco as a meal on the go.

“Most people in their mind think that taco is just meat, tortillas, cilantro, onions, and salsa,” he said. “But in my eyes, I don’t see it that way. I see a taco as a canvas. The tortilla is the canvas for literally anything you can put your mind on” as long as it tastes good.

Chef Alex Paredes of Carnitas Lonja in San Antonio will approach the competition by doing the same thing he does every day: make his signature traditional carnitas.

Carnitas can be translated as pork confit, as the meat is slow-simmered in its own fat, but he said he’ll stick to the Mexican name. His competitors might “want to name it a little bit fancier, but it’s the same thing,” Paredes said.

“You can’t fancy [up] a taco. It’s meat, or filling, a little bit of cilantro and onion, some salsa.”

Carnitas Lonja chef Alex Paredes adds salsa to a carnitas taco on Wednesday.
Carnitas Lonja chef Alex Paredes adds salsa to a carnitas taco on Wednesday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Rico points out that San Antonio specializes in regional taco styles, particularly those of Mexico City and Monterrey.

“San Antonio does amazingly well with classic street-style tacos,” he said, but “at least in my eyes, I feel like there isn’t that variety like you can find here [in Austin], where you can find certain regional specialties and different varieties,” such as Baja style tacos, and styles from Yucatan, Guadalajara, and Sinaloa.

Rico is aware of the ongoing competition between cities for top taco town, and that the San Antonio chefs will enjoy home-field advantage for the Rumble.

“We do see it like a rivalry, but we’re not bashing anyone,” he said. “We’re not talking sh-t to anyone that’s from San Antonio, because, you know, we respect what they’re doing. But, you know, we just definitely are pretty proud of what we’re serving.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...