A puffy taco is not a crispy taco, a crunchy taco, or a soft taco. It is strictly a puffy taco, and after having one (or three), you may be willing to forsake all other taco forms.
Chef Diana Barrios-Treviño Los Barrios in San Antonio will readily admit that she didn't invent the puffy, but she and her family have perfected them over the years. Maybe you've seen her make them on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, or read about her serving puffies to president Obama (and 2,400 others) last year on the White House lawn.
"My mother always taught me not to skimp on any ingredients," said Barrios-Treviño, who gets her fresh white masa brought to the restaurant daily at 5 a.m. She was worried about finding the fresh stuff in D.C.—the White House is strict about no outside ingredients. You walk in with your wallet, that's about it. But White House chef Cristeta Comerford luckily found her some.
The puffy taco starts with that fresh masa plus salt and water; but not too much water, otherwise the cornmeal putty will stick to your hands. Take about a golf ball's worth then smoosh it in the tortilla press until it's flat, but not too thin. Then into the deep-fryer it goes. Not for very long, about 45 seconds tops.
Whoever's on puffy taco duty at Los Barrios, or the second location La Hacienda de los Barrios, has to be part circus juggler, plopping them in, flipping them over a few times, preparing the next one, and making sure they don't break apart in the sizzling oil.
That was Bobby's problem on Throwdown. "He couldn't puff tacos to save his life," said Barrios-Treviño. It didn't help that he used maseca, not fresh masa, which she'll resort to in a pinch. Like the night after the show aired, or whenever it repeats on television now, she inevitably runs out of fresh masa because every table orders at least one platter of puffies (and each comes with three).
The key is to gently spatula-poke the frying masa so the sides fold up into a shell as it's puffing in the jacuzzi of sizzling soybean oil. When they come out, the puffies are super-crisp on the outside but soft within—surprisingly light for fried dough, not doughy or heavy in the slightest, just airy and corn-y inside.
You can fill them with, really, whatever you want: beef or chicken plus lettuce, tomato, beans, cheese, and guacamole. "One lady comes in here and wants the tripe from the menudo soup in her puffy tacos," said Barrios-Treviño, who is all about accommodating anyone, from the margarita-sipping mom to the eight-year-old, making everyone feel like they're in her big friendly living room.
We recently visited La Hacienda de los Barrios to learn how to make the Tex-Mex specialty from start to finish. Watch the puffication in the slideshow!
Special thanks to the Texas Beef Council, who sponsored this trip to San Antonio!