Last January, NPR's Kelly McEvers talked to Sutter as he began his venture into taco paradise. He completed a similar mission in 2015 in Austin, when he consumed a whopping 1,600 tacos, so hopes were high when he moved to San Antonio, a place where tacos are a part of the fabric life, and where some taquerias have been around for decades.
Then he got thyroid cancer. Despite radiation treatments and surgery, Sutter remained undaunted, never taking his eyes off the taco prize. Failure was not an option. "If I had to come back from the great beyond, I was going to finish 365 days of tacos. I was going to eat ghost tacos," Sutter says.
Now Sutter is cancer-free, and 1,300 tacos later (so far), McEvers is checking in on his progress. He tells NPR about his intense year dealing with offbeat taquerias, the effects of a life-altering illness, and perhaps most importantly: why it's good to have a quest.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
We definitely want to hear some of the greatest hits of the past year.
To start out with, I think about the day that I walked out of a little taco factory and saw a priest laying hands on a customer. And I thought, "I wonder if they know something about the food that I don't." But I kind of felt like that was a private moment between taco worshipers, and maybe I should just stay out of it. Sometimes you want to witness miracles, you don't want to be part of them.
I think about, too, the fear factor day that I had when I had tacos with liver and onions and beef sweetbreads and fried pigs' feet and blood sausage. And this was all at the same shop, on the same day. And they were so proud of these that they painted the names of them on the windows.
It's the holidays. Have you come across any festive tacos for the season?
The funny thing is that Christmas decorations started going up in August at the taquerias I was going to – or they were just still up from last year. Every day feels like Christmas when you're serving food that has pico de gallo. There's that festive green and red and white going on. It's kind of like little Christmas lights that you decorate your tacos with. But as far as people doing novelty tortillas or anything like that – I think they're just getting through the day. When you've got a menu that already has 45 different tacos on it, you really don't have to do anything extra.
What was your favorite taco of the year?
I went to this place where they were boiling carnitas in this big iron pot. It looked like a scene out of Macbeth. It's a rare form to do it that way. Most people just cook it in the oven. But traditionally, it's a dish that's boiled in fat. Everything crisps up and caramelizes, and then they just take the bits as they come out, put them all in one big bin and then chop them all together, so you get lean, you get fat, you get crispy. And then this place made its own corn tortillas, and they dressed the tacos out with a beautiful salsa, and it was just simple and beautiful.
There are complicated tacos that I had. But for sheer beauty and respect for the animal and respect for the form, and every little thing done exactly right – that's the kind of thing I appreciate.
You sound a little different than you did before. You've had quite a year. What happened?
In October, I got thyroid cancer. It laid me out for a little while, but it kind of also had me concentrate my resolve to do it. I had the surgery done on a Tuesday and I was back on the taco trail on Friday. It didn't affect my eating at all. I think that reflex is just so primal in me, especially with what I do, nothing is going to get in the way of that. It gave me a sense of normalcy, like, "Hey, nothing's changed. I still have seven taquerías to hit this week, and everything's gonna be fine."
There were days that I doubled up on tacos, tripled up, whatever the word is for 10-times up. I did 10 taquerias in one day.
The disease had nothing to do with tacos. I feel like I should say that.
So what's next?
In Texas, in any city that has more than 50 people, they're going to have more than 50 barbecue shops. So my colleague and I are going to do 52 weeks of barbecue in 2018 and drill down deep into the San Antonio barbecue experience.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
As it gets close to the end of the year, we wanted to check in one more time with a man who has had an interesting 2017. His name is Mike Sutter, and he is the food critic for The San Antonio Express-News, and his plan was to visit 365 different taquerias - 365 days in the year, 365 taquerias. And he's gotten pretty close. But like in life, some other stuff happened, too. First, we'll hear about one of his favorite moments.
MIKE SUTTER: Well, to start out with, I think about the day that I walked out of the Little Taco Factory and saw a priest laying hands on a customer, and I thought, oh, I wonder if they know something about the food that I don't.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) It's like, bless you, my son.
SUTTER: Well, that's (laughter) - well, if you look at a tortilla, it's kind of like a giant communion wafer. Maybe that's what was going on.
MCEVERS: What was your absolute favorite taco so far? What is your absolute favorite taco so far?
SUTTER: My favorite taco I think of the year had to be the place where they were boiling the carnitas in this big iron pot. I mean, it looked like a scene out of "Macbeth" because that's a rare form to do it that way. Traditionally, that is a dish that's boiled in fat. You just take, you know, a pork butt, you boil it in fat and it - everything crispies (ph) up and caramelizes. And then they just take the bits as they come out, put them all in one big bin and then chop that up together. So you get lean, you get fat, you get crispy. And then this place made its own corn tortillas, and then they dressed it out with a beautiful salsa, and it was just simple and beautiful.
MCEVERS: That sounds so good (laughter). I would eat that for breakfast for sure, like a big ole slab of carnitas.
SUTTER: Then you know as well as I do that the things that are considered breakfast tacos don't necessarily have to have eggs. Barbacoa is considered a breakfast taco. There are places that will make you an al pastor in the morning. This al pastor trompo - they do it on a vertical spit that looks like an inverted bell, and they shave it down as the night goes. But at Taquitos West Ave, which feels like eating on the street, the trompo is as big as a Volkswagen.
SUTTER: And it's sitting right next to the guy. He just shaves it down, throws it on the flat top, and that's your taco. Not - you don't see that very often, but, boy, when you do, you've got to get that.
MCEVERS: You know to stop the car (laughter). It's like - yes.
SUTTER: That's right. Yeah, slide sideways to get into that place. And then the trompo - it's so close to the street, you're going to be able to see it from the street, too, and there's just a little lean-to. I love this place too because they don't - there are no prices listed on the menu. You just order your tacos. They give them to you. Nobody charges you anything. You pay at the end of it. It's such an honor system. And I thought it would be so easy just to walk away from this when they're totally busy, but they completely trust you to walk up and pay your $1.40 or your $1.60 for your taco. And, man, that is money well spent.
MCEVERS: So I want to bring this up. I mean, you sound different than the times we've talked to you before.
SUTTER: A little bit different. It's been part of this interesting year.
MCEVERS: Yeah. What happened?
SUTTER: I - in October, it's not exactly a gift, but I got thyroid cancer. And we got that taken care of. We had - I had surgery on a Tuesday, and on Friday, I got back out on the taco trail. I had my big bandage on, and I just decided, well, I'm going to rock this like an ascot.
SUTTER: We'll just go in and - because it didn't affect my ability to eat, thank God.
MCEVERS: Which is amazing.
SUTTER: That's right. Well, I just decided that there was nothing that was going to get in the way of finishing 365. You make a commitment like that, it only matters if you actually finish it out. So I thought if I had to do that from the great beyond, I was going to eat ghost tacos and that would be the last few days of the year and that would be your Christmas miracle.
MCEVERS: And are you cancer free now?
SUTTER: I am. You know, I don't know if it was the tacos that created the miracle, but it's like my oncologist said, miracles happen. Be available. So I thought, yeah, I'm going to get out on the taco trail, and I'm going to be available every day.
MCEVERS: Mike Sutter, thank you so, so much.
SUTTER: Oh, it's my pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S RAINING TACOS")
PARRY GRIPP: (Singing) It's raining tacos from out of the sky.
MCEVERS: In case you were wondering, Mike Sutter already has a project for 2018 that we also might be forced to document - 52 weeks of barbecue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S RAINING TACOS")
GRIPP: (Singing) It's raining tacos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.