Arturo (Art) Lopez wasn't sure what to make of a couple of New Yorkers who wanted to talk to him about puffy tacos. We found him, one afternoon back in the late 1990s, across the street from Ray's Drive Inn, watching a friend work on his car. Were we trying to sell him advertising? Hhe wondered. No, we assured him. Did we want to steal his recipes? Absolutely not. We were just fascinated by puffy tacos, the signature dish of San Antonio Tex-Mex cooking, and thought we'd find out more by coming to the source.
Puffy tacos are simply crispy taco shells made by deep-frying raw corn tortilla shells, so that they puff up like pork rinds or those flour-tortilla bowls chain restaurants serve taco salads in (conventional crispy tacos are made by frying tortillas that have already been cooked). The fillings are reasonably standard — various ground or shredded seasoned meats, with tomatoes and shredded lettuce and cheese. You see puffy tacos all over San Antonio today, but they very well might have started at Ray's.
Once he figured out that we just wanted to talk about his food, and maybe write something about it, Art Lopez opened up and talked enthusiastically about his late brother, Ray (Henry Lopez, who started a larger San Antonio Tex-Mex emporium, Henry's Puffy Tacos, is another brother), and about the origins of the dish. The Lopezes have frequently been called the inventors of puffy tacos, and Art told us about the early days of the specialty, when they were the favorite late-night snack of long-distance truckers who would stop by the Drive Inn.
He stopped short of actually claiming them as a Lopez family invention, though. "I don't say we invented puffy tacos," he said, "but we did invent the name. I have a trademark on it. One of these days, I'm going to get an attorney in San Antonio and stop everybody else from using it."
He never did, but continued serving his very excellent version of puffy tacos — the shells light, crisp, flavorful, and not greasy at all; the picadillo filling perfectly seasoned — to great acclaim. He was also known for his support of local sports teams and church activities on San Antonio's west side.
Lopez died on October 16 at the age of 78. No cause of death has been released.