Because while beefy, smoky Texas barbecue gets most of the press, eggs and bacon in a flour tortilla just as surely reflects the collision, and fusion, of cultures in Central Texas. There's an argument to be made that they're the most important. Barbecue is the special occasion meal, worth the two-hour drive, the four-hour wait. Breakfast tacos start every single morning.
The tacos are so ubiquitous, in fact, that until you move somewhere where there aren't trucks and gas stations and fast food chains and fast casual chains and mom and pop restaurants and high-end coffee shops selling breakfast tacos, you might not notice how important they had become to you. Not just symbolically. There are few portable breakfasts more filling and satisfying than a breakfast taco. Now every morning, you can't tell the difference between hungry and homesick.
Making Texas-style breakfast tacos in LA is much more difficult than scrambling some eggs and wrapping them in a tortilla.
Making Texas-style breakfast tacos is much more difficult than scrambling some eggs and wrapping them in a tortilla with a breakfast side or two. Making them at home will never approximate the way your grandmother made them, or the essential pleasure of grabbing two or three on the way to work. Truly obsessed, you decide to open a restaurant serving these tacos. But the eggs and bacon and refried beans and cheese are just the beginning. You need the right salsas, the right tortillas, the right sides, the right coffee, the right decor, the right service. And even then, your restaurant will be a novelty, when you sought to recreate something unremarkable and everyday. But maybe that's okay. Maybe that's even good. Leaving home made a simple and useful dish into a lost piece of the puzzle not just for you, but for everyone like you. Your customers will deeply, absurdly grateful that you have brought those tacos back.
Austin, Texas, is not the home of the breakfast taco, but it is the place where they became an iconic dish. Breakfast foods wrapped in flour and corn tortillas exist across Texas; they are so woven into the fabric of San Antonio they're not always referred to as breakfast tacos. They're just "tacos." It took self-conscious, self-mythologizing Austin to turn them into a thing. The mania began back in the mid-80's, when a beloved breakfast and lunch restaurant called Tamale House started selling them, according to Austin Breakfast Tacos: A History (excerpted in Texas Monthly). Previously, the tacos had been a morning staple whipped up by Mexican-American mothers and grandmothers, but never available in restaurants. The combination of cheap eats-seeking college students, anti-pretentious slackers, and the blue and white-collar workers grabbing breakfast to go caused the breakfast taco to swiftly take over the entire city's morning routine.
Briana Valdez didn't know if anyone in Los Angeles would want to eat breakfast tacos. She hoped that they would. But the decision to open HomeState, a small cafe serving "Texas food" like breakfast tacos in Los Feliz, was very personal. She needed that food back in her life.
Valdez grew up all over Texas and spent her college years in Austin, where she fell in love with the breakfast taco. When she moved to Los Angeles in 2000, she was bewildered to discover the food she'd considered Mexican food her whole life was nowhere to be found. She says, "I remember when I asked for queso at a Mexican restaurant, they brought be a bowl of shredded cheese."
For the uninitiated, queso is a near-ubiquitous cheese dip in Texas, traditionally made with Velveeta and canned Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and chilis, which both gives the dish a bad rap and makes it ridiculously delicious. The processed cheese isn't something dragging down queso; it's a potent reflection of the place and time of its creation. But that had not translated to Southern California. On the surface, Tex Mex is not a huge presence in Los Angeles, but as one of America's most influential and powerful cuisines, its fingerprints are everywhere. Tex-Mex creations have been re-shaping our culinary culture for over a hundred years, from chili (via San Antonio in the 1890's) to fajitas (popularized in the 1980's in Houston). Queso and breakfast tacos might be next.
Once she survived her initial culture shock, Valdez realized she had a mission: to translate the food she grew up with to her new hometown. Her hunt for a space took years. The search was punishing, and she considered giving up. Finally, a friend offered her a small cafe space adjacent to his bar. It was much smaller than she needed, but it was a space, and at that point it was all that mattered.
"When we were building the restaurant, we had no money. In the end, it worked for the concept," Valdez says. "Austin is all about repurposing, and that's in the spirit of what we want to do." They opened with no sign, a tiny kitchen, and a few seats inside. Every week, she ran to Ikea to pick up a new set of outdoor tables. When a friend finally made them a sign for cheap, Valdez says, "I told my sister I was worried people will think we were rich because now we had a sign."
Valdez paid obsessive, detailed attention to every aspect of her tiny cafe, an approach associated with fine dining, not a casual daytime restaurant.
The scrappiness of their opening circumstances, however, belies the seriousness of the restaurant's intentions. From the beginning, Valdez paid obsessive, detailed attention to every aspect of her tiny cafe, an approach more often associated with fine dining than a casual daytime restaurant. This isn't an accident: Valdez worked at Thomas Keller's Bouchon, where she learned the chef's famously precise and exacting approach, which she applied to her own project. Remarkably, it took that level of commitment to truly recapture what seems like the most basic and plainest of pleasures, Texas daytime dining.
And not only did she succeed: she is reaching entirely an new audience. When HomeState opened, Valdez had the modest ambition of serving her fellow Texan expats a food from home they missed. She tweaked the menu to appeal to California sensibilities — the queso uses non-processed cheese, the eggs are free-range, and there is a kale salad on the menu. But she did not believe anyone from outside of Texas would embrace the restaurant. They did. In a huge way.
"I'm joking about having team shirts made: Team Blanco and Team Trinity. People are devoted to their one taco," Valdez says. Apparently, many customers never even explore the rest of the menu of frito pie and migas and daytime tacos like the beef picadillo. They only want their go-to breakfast taco. It's uncannily like Austin.
In fact, much of HomeState uncannily re-creates Austin. Not the flattened image of Austin as a hotbed of barbecue and greasy egg and cheese tacos and beer, masculine-identified pleasures that have made the city a hotbed of bachelor parties (and tech conferences). HomeState reflects a much broader and more rounded vision of the city.
The Blanco and Trinity tacos represent two sides of the breakfast taco world, and of Valdez's own experience. The Trinity is a combination of classic breakfast taco ingredients: eggs, bacon, potato, cheese. A real bread-and-butter breakfast taco would probably include just 2-3 of those ingredients, but the Trinity hits all the right notes. The Blanco is egg whites, mushrooms, and Monterrey Jack cheese. At first glance, that might seem like a dish obviously inserted to please Angelinos, a cuckoo of a taco, but in fact, it's the most personal dish. "In college, I was a health nut and a vegetarian, so when I ate tacos, it was egg whites scrambled with vegetables," Valdez says. After all, Austin isn't just a town full of barbecue and bacon tacos: it's a town full of vegetarian hippies and marathoning health nuts and all sorts of other people. And they all love breakfast tacos.
HomeState puts an impressive amount of effort into re-creating the contemporary Austin breakfast experience. The flour tortillas are handmade. They serve coffee from an Austin roaster, Cuvee. Topo Chico, a Mexican mineral water with a deeply devoted cult in Texas, is cold and plentiful. Valdez even turned their lack of a fryer into an opportunity to work with another Austin vendor: El Milagro, one of the city's best local tortillerias. The make for HomeState their own, special tortilla chip, one designed with just the right amount of heft for queso while still remaining light.
Even the California-friendly aspects of the menu feel familiar to anyone who has lived in Austin recently. The fact is, Austin is a town increasingly shaped by the tastes of the many Californians moving there, especially by the food trends of Los Angeles. Both are towns where casual eating is an art. The climates are sympathetic if not strictly similar, the influence of regional Mexican cuisines is massive, and laid-back, outdoor eating is king. While HomeState doesn't much resemble Austin's classic Tex Mex breakfast joints — those family-owned, photograph-covered, pleasantly pork-fat-scented havens of comfort and tradition — it does almost perfectly re-create another dominant type of restaurant: the new-school counter, cafe or food truck slinging breakfast tacos made with local eggs on handmade tortillas, where you can get egg whites and veggies,too.
As Los Angeles is influencing Austin, Austin is re-shaping Los Angeles, too. Texas-style restaurants are a growing trend.
As Austin is being influenced by Los Angeles, Los Angeles is being shaped by Austin, too. Texas-style restaurants are a growing trend. From thriving barbecue restaurants to Bar Ama's homage to Tex Mex to Austin chains like Hopdoddy expanding here, the exchange flows both ways. There are even other breakfast tacos scattered across the city. But while putting eggs and some sundry fixins in a tortilla makes a breakfast taco, the underlying flavors are often more Southern California than Texas. The salsas tend to have too much lime or roasted flavor; the chorizo tastes different; there's only a single corn tortilla propping up the eggs, rather than a heftier flour one or doubled-up corn. HomeState's breakfast tacos taste like Texas breakfast tacos. The refried bean and cheese has the right smokey flavor, the correct mild bite of cheese. The salsas taste correct.
Nailing those flavors is not something that came naturally to Valdez, either, despite the fact she grew up with them. It took a great deal of tweaking and re-working and research. "It was hard to stay in the lines of Texas influences and avoid the Baja Mexican flavors that exist here," she says. "When I grew up, our salsa was like ketchup, it was condiment, not something to blow fire out of your ears." HomeState serves two salsas, red and green, delightfully delivered to the table in squeeze bottles. They're cilantro-heavy and made with fresh vegetables. The red salsa is a recipe Valdez watched her sister whip up in her kitchen in San Antonio, one that had the exact right balance of flavors she'd been unable to track down. When she flew back, she put it on the menu immediately. They add additional spices to their chorizo, too, to make it taste "like San Antonio," Valdez says. "It's a strange thing to say, but it legitimizes the food."
But an obsessive focus on Texas purity would have made the restaurant feel stultified and fussy. HomeState nails a ideal balance between tradition and playful innovation. Their migas (think chilaquiles but with scrambled eggs) come topped with chorizo or even brisket, unheard of in Austin and also a fairly genius idea. And they're also willing to cater to, and shape, local tastes in entirely new directions. Queso in Texas tends to be a lunch or dinnertime appetizer, preferably paired with a frozen margarita. Valdez never even prepped it for the morning, until customers started asking. Now, it's hot and ready at 8 a.m. Diners in Los Angeles aren't just embracing orange cheese dip. They're taking it even further than most Texans would and eating it for breakfast.
But the restaurant's devotion to Texas isn't really even about food. Valdez says if someone is disappointed in the food, she's okay with that. Breakfast tacos and migas especially are dishes often first experienced in the home, made by mothers and grandmothers. That's an impossible bar for a restaurant to clear.
Service is the most Texan aspect of the restaurant. Not the unique food but the welcome and community.
But service is an entirely different story. "We can fall short on our food, but I can never hear about someone on staff being rude," she says. Valdez wants to bring friendly Texas hospitality to Los Angeles. When her servers ask customers how they're doing, she wants them to genuinely care, like she thinks Austin servers do (Austinites might disagree, but that's another story). She sees this warm service as the most Texan aspect of her restaurant. Not the unique food, but the feeling of welcome and community.
I asked her if that was a priority in part because so many people who come to this restaurant are homesick. She said she wasn't sure; instead, she thought the restaurant would not truly be Texan without a Texan brand of hospitality. But she also admits that having this restaurant is her way to feeling at home in Los Angeles. It's a place she wants to feel welcoming not just to customers, but to friends.
"I never want to take ourselves too seriously. I want it to feel like a lil' shitkicker. Our operations are a powerhouse — it's so tight in the kitchen — but I want the dining room to feel laid-back. This place was going off the other day at 8 a.m. Where else in the city is having a party at 8 a.m.?"
Hospitality is too narrow a word. What Valdez is doing is bringing a different culture to Los Angeles, and stretching Los Angeles's definition of itself as a result. She's proud of the framed issues of Texas Monthly on the walls, the kitschy Texas souvenirs decorating the corners, the warm, communal, neighborhood vibe that somehow never tips over into sceney-ness. "I feel a big weight to make sure we do this right," she says. "I do feel like a cultural ambassador more than an ambassador of food. So many people have cried in here. They say, Oh my god, thank you so much for doing this."
Customers are crying over cheese dip and egg tacos? Believe it. When I started working on this story, I had eaten at HomeState several times, and was intellectually curious about how Valdez and her team managed to translate so much of Austin to Los Angeles without feeling hokey or fake. But when we discussed how emotional this place could be, I realized my attraction was not intellectual at all.
This was mildly surprising. I moved from Austin to Los Angeles about six months ago, sure, but I'm not a native Texan, whatever that means (no one where I'm from talks about being a "native Pennsylvanian"). I don't think I would feel a well of emotion eating great brisket here in Los Angeles, or even downing a margarita. No, the emotion here is tied up in how daily and vital the food HomeState serves is. And not just the food: Valdez's hard work has genuinely re-created the culture of these morning places.
During the five years I spent in Austin, my entire life revolved around the cafes and casual restaurants HomeState channels: thoughtful, careful, welcoming places serving uncommonly good coffee and breakfast tacos. Now, I have to travel ten miles to find a single one. HomeState made me realize how much I missed my daily life in Austin, and that I foolishly did not understand what I had loved when I was there. It hurt to know there was only one place like that now, and it was special and transportive, not a part of the fabric of my life. But ultimately, I was so grateful that a piece of it was here for me. That I could get breakfast tacos whenever I needed them, in every sense of the word.
During our conversation, Valdez often framed HomeState not as a restaurant, but as a story. An untold story thus far in Los Angeles, with breakfast at the center. It's odd to think of a restaurant as a story, but of course they all have stories to tell. Especially restaurants trying to recreate a place somewhere else, a place missed. Susan Orlean used the term "homesick restaurant" writing about a Cuban restaurant in Miami, but American food culture in general, and Los Angeles in particular, are shaped countless restaurants opened with an equal mix of entrepreneurial spirit and longing. For those not from the missed place, restaurants stand in for the original. For immigrants, expats, and exiles, restaurants can both recall what's lost and offer real solace.
"My first solid food was a flour tortilla. I never realized it before, but HomeState is about representation."
But just because you grow up with a cuisine or type of restaurant doesn't mean it's easy to re-create it. In fact, it's a mission best approached with intense, loving seriousness, because it is so hard, and so high stakes, to get it right. (This also explains why restaurants inspired by culinary tourism, rather than deep connection, can seem soulless). In contemporary culture, restaurants tend to be judged first and foremost on their food. Certainly any establishment with perfect design and a buzzing crowd but disappointing cooking feels like an empty shell. But there is an alchemy in great eating establishments that goes beyond pure cuisine, or on-point design, or thoughtful service. This goes double for a restaurant designed to soothe homesickness and represent an entire community, one that before might have been misunderstood or ignored. The word we have for this magic is a "vibe," but maybe it is something closer to "story." HomeState is Valdez's story. Her whole story. She says, "My first solid food was a flour tortilla. It's an expression of where I'm from. I never realized it before, but HomeState is about representation."
As any artist knows, once you represent a thing, it belongs to those who see it, and it can take on a life of its own. The Central Texas breakfast is, I suspect, on the verge of losing its regional isolation. Los Angeles might be ground zero for its expansion, thanks to the city's general enthusiasm for all things Austin and Valdez's hyper-committed ambassadorship. A second HomeState will open on Figueroa in Highland Park later this year. And the Silver Lake Intelligentsia will start stocking HomeState breakfast tacos to go, inspired by Austin coffee shops.
I don't know if Texas transplants will feel the same rush of emotion grabbing a Trinity or Blanco with their coffee at one of the city's most popular cafes the way they do at HomeState. That's also completely okay. The breakfast taco is emotional for some, but it's just straight-up useful for many more: portable breakfast goodness, a tortilla doing what it does best. As HomeState's breakfast tacos spread, the story they tell with shift and change, until it becomes a story about Los Angeles, too. And Valdez will be responsible for a whole new slew of memories of sitting outside on Hollywood Boulevard, eating hot cheese and bacon and egg tacos on a beautiful California morning, feeling utterly and perfectly at home.