What Makes San Antonio's Puffy Tacos Unique

Behind Austin, Texas, and San Jose, California, is San Antonio, which is the third-best city for tacos in the United States, per a 2022 study. With nearly five taco spots for every 100 thousand people, San Antonio has a taco for everyone. From Tex-Mex restaurants to food trucks and from donut shops to traditional taquerias (via Eater), you can find a taco in San Antonio anytime and anywhere. Varieties range from barbacoa to vegan and from Michoacán-style carnitas to the Jalisco classic and San Antonio's most famous, birria-style. However, amidst it all, there's one type of taco you can't find anywhere else: San Antonio's puffy taco. 

A puffy taco isn't crunchy like your typical Taco Tuesday hard shell nor is it soft like an everyday corn tortilla; the puffy taco defines a territory all its own. When fried, Eater explains that the puffy taco's tortilla fills with air, creating a satisfying bite that's both tough yet tender, light yet sturdy, and crispy yet soft. And, according to Serious Eats, it's all about the masa dough. Masa is flour made from dried corn kernels that have been soaked in calcium hydroxide or lime water, then cooked and ground (via Mexican Please). However, the best puffy tacos use fresh masa rather than masa harina, otherwise known as instant masa — the determining factor between a sturdy puffy taco and one that crumbles into your lap.

History of puffy tacos

Like many of the most loved Tex-Mex foods, the puffy taco was invented in the kitchen of a Tejano grandmother. Even with lineage to the Yucatan salbute and the Veracruz gordita inflada, Texas Monthly states that the San Antonio puffy taco was an accidental occurrence. In the early 1900s, Maria Rodriguez Lopez was frying tostadas as per usual. However, in a moment of distraction, the stick she used to keep the tostadas separate slipped, falling on top of one of the tortillas. Still distracted, Maria left the tostadas to fry longer than usual, and, at some point, the tortilla began to inflate. As the air filled up around the stick, a puffy-shaped taco shell formed and a local legacy began. 

In the 1950s, Bon Appétit explains that an uncle and two brothers used Maria's recipe at the family-owned restaurant, Ray's Drive Inn. There, they served tacos with tortillas made by frying fresh masa dough shaped around a wooden stick. What was then called "crispy" tacos eventually got renamed into "puffy" tacos during the 70s — at which point the brotherly duo became a trio, and a family legal battle began. While the three Lopez brothers, Arturo, Ray, and Henry, fought over trademarks for their rival puffy taco joints, copycats started to spread across San Antonio. Eventually, the battle grew too costly, and the brothers would have to accept that the puffy taco name was meant to become an icon of the city, not just them.

Where to find puffy tacos

Now more than 240 restaurants in San Antonio are making puffy tacos (via Yelp). The light and crispy shells can be found all over the city — even inside a repurposed Dairy Queen at Los Barrios Mexican Restaurant, per Texas Monthly. However, Eater states that the original Lopez family-owned Ray's Drive Inn and Henry's Puffy Taco still reign as the best. This stance is also supported by food journalist Priya Krishna, who found that the shells of their contender's puffy tacos quite literally crumbled in comparison (via Bon Appétit).

However, if a trip to San Antonio isn't on your itinerary, you can always try making puffy tacos at home. Just ensure you use fresh masa and not masa harina, also called instant masa (per Mexican Please). Even though masa harina is easier to find in stores, Serious Eats says the difference between the two is the determining factor between a greasy, crumbly puffy taco and a light, sturdy one. So, before attempting a puffy carne asada taco night next Tuesday, visit a local tortilleria to get your hands on the fresh stuff.