Austin, Texas, “taco journalists” Jared Neece and Mando Rayo like to say they have been training for their job all their lives.
In 2006, they launched a blog called “Taco Journalism” writing about their experiences. That grew into their first book, “Austin Breakfast Tacos, the Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day.” That grew into a seven-part documentary series on PBS on the “Tacos of Texas.”
Now they’re going national, with “United Tacos of America,” a new television series that just launched on the El Rey Network. And the second episode brings them to Lexington.
The series is part travel show, part cultural exploration as Neece and Rayo go across the country in search of underground taco scenes.
Which is what they find in Lexington at the Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez on Alexandria Drive, which may have some of the best tacos you’ve probably never tried. Even though the restaurant has been around more than 15 years, it is a bit of an undiscovered gem for unadventurous eaters.
Rayo said they heard of Lexington’s thriving taco scene from Steven Alvarez, who taught a course at the University of Kentucky called “Taco Literacy.” Alvarez wrote about his goal of taking students beyond an appreciation of food and into an examination of the intersection of Southern and Mexican foodways.
Rayo said they also met local community activist and oral historian Alexis Meza, who helped them explore “Mexington.”
In July, they came to town and sampled the hand-made tortillas and meats, heard the Ramirez family story and go to know the area, including visiting the Kentucky Horse Park and Woodford Reserve Distillery.
“The show is about tacos, but we want to explore the places we go, so we had to talk about horses and bourbon,” Neece said. “We were definitely fascinated by the term ‘Mexington’ for the neighborhood where the restaurant is.”
They talked to the Ramirez family about their start working in the horse business and how that led to the restaurant.
And, of course, sampled the tortillas, which are made with a mixture of ground corn from Weisenberger Mill and Mexican masa flour, made fresh daily.
That’s the kind of entrepreneurship and cultural cross-pollination they see all across the country, Rayo said. “They’re building communities, getting foods from home and spreading them. When you walk in, you see a lot of blue-collar folks. These small mom-and-pop shops are feeding Americans.”
Customers may start with tacos pastor but if they can be convinced to try authentic varieties such as sesos (brain), lengua (tongue) or tripas (intestines), Rayo said they become repeat customers.
After sampling the tacos, Rayo said the “marination of the pastor is just spot on ... and the habanero sauce gives it the extra kick that you need. You can’t go wrong with tacos at $1.75 a pop!”
As Neece put it: “They make really damn good tacos. And it’s just cool to see people come in here, not being afraid to eat some really authentic food in the middle of Kentucky.”
Rayo pronounced himself a “Kentucky-fried Mexican” ready to go to town on Lexington’s tacos and tortillas.
The show touches on difficult issues including the cultural divide between immigrants and native Kentuckians and the touching ways food (and drink) can unite people.
“United Tacos of America” is on every Tuesday at 10 p.m. on El Rey Network, which is available on channel 232 on Charter Spectrum and channel 341 on DirecTV. You can also get a season pass for the series on iTunes and get all eight episodes delivered directly to your inbox.
The Lexington episode airs Tuesday, Oct. 22.
Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez
Where: 1429 Alexandria Dr., Lexington
Hours: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m., Monday-Sunday