‘United Tacos of America’ Takes Austin Duo on Delicious Cultural Journey
Taco Journalists Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece bring their passion to El Rey Network
by Justine Harrington
Lead photograph by Kurt Volk
The taco is many things — a vehicle for delicious ingredients, an integral part of Mexican culture, an everyday Texan breakfast (and lunch, and dinner) staple—and, given the right circumstances, it can also be a tool for bringing people of diverse nationalities and cultural backgrounds together.
That last part is what Austin-based, self-proclaimed “taco journalists” Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece are primarily focused on with the creation of their new show, United Tacos of America. The eight-episode docu-travel series premieres on Oct. 15 at 9 p.m., on acclaimed director Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network. It follows Rayo and Neece, along with director Dennis Burnett and a small crew, as they embark on a taco-devouring journey around the country — to Houston, Austin, and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as other American cities like New Orleans, Chicago, Lexington, New York, and Los Angeles — to showcase the richness and variety of taco culture and the many ways that tacos are “part of the American experience,” says Rayo.
For Neece, a Senior Film Programmer for SXSW, and Rayo, CEO at Mando Rayo + Collective, a multicultural advertising agency, United Tacos of America is yet another step forward in their careers as taco journalists. The duo have also written two bestselling books, Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day and The Tacos of Texas, and they’re the creators of a seven-part YouTube series, The Tacos of Texas, and a blog, Taco Journalism.
For Rayo and Neece, tacos are more than a mere tasty dish — they’re a way to build a culinary and cultural bridge. “From the beginning, our focus has been on the taco as the entry point, or the Trojan horse, to learning about the cultures, the people, and the communities,” Rayo says.
Neece echoes this sentiment, saying, “When you break bread — or tortillas — with a person, it just demystifies who they are.”
With each episode, rather than simply trying out all the hippest taquerias in town, Rayo and Neese sought to investigate a specific taco-making style and tell the (often untold) stories of the makers themselves.
For instance, the Austin episode explores brisket tacos and features a slew of prominent local foodie figures, including Hoover Alexander, Johnny Walker of Johnny Walker’s BBQ in Lampasas, and Miguel Vidal of Valentina’s BBQ. In the episode, which will air on October 29, conversation topics ranged from the importance of African-American representation in barbecue culture to the relative lack of non-white people on barbecue awards lists in Texas.
Of the show’s intent, Rayo explains, “It was important for us to tell the stories behind the tacos, from the cooking traditions to how social issues are connected to the food; immigration, vendor rights, gentrification, and respect of the culture are all part of the story.”
As Neese says in the Austin episode: “The tacos taste better when you know the story.”