Fronteras Extra: Chili Queens, Puffy Tacos

May 4, 2018

Chili Queens surrounded by customers at their stand at Haymarket Plaza in San Antonio, Texas in January 1933.
Credit Photograph courtesy of UTSA Special Collections

Steven Alvarez is an assistant professor of English at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. He teaches a course called “Taco Literacy,” which explores the foodways of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

San Antonio’s chili queens are a focus of study in his class.

“The chili queens are a perfect example of folks (who) we might say (they are) operating in the informal economy,” Alvarez said. “People were flocking to San Antonio to experience this kind of Mexican food experience, popularized oftentimes by journalists. The New York Times and the LA Times were saying ‘come to San Antonio, go to the Alamo, but while you’re at it, try out this chili that was served by young women.’ Some folks might call that ‘Sex Mex’ appeal.”

Alvarez also touches upon San Antonio’s puffy tacos in his coursework.

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“The puffy taco is something that’s San Antonio’s creation all its own and just deserves to be tried. It is what it is – it’s a puffy taco,” he said. “The air’s trapped inside of a corn tortilla so it puffs it out. It has a really fine texture, it’s more brittle of a tortilla. It has its own character.”

Instagram post of Taqueria Nixtamal in New York City.
Credit Taco Literacy on Instagram

Alvarez’s class is a writing class. His students interview people, write food reviews, and post their findings on Instagram. He occasionally has a chance to take his students on field trips to New York’s taquerias.

“To see them start class when the only options for Mexican food are chicken and beef (tacos) at Taco Bell, to be able to speak about nixtamalization at the very end is the journey we’re taking,” he said.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1