A deep dive into one of the world's essential dishes.
It’s hard to think of another food with the dual identity of tacos.
On any given night in Mexico City, at Taqueria Álvaro Obregón in the Roma Norte neighborhood, a hefty mustachioed taquero shaves pastor pork from his trompo onto small tortillas, tacos for drunk Chilangos (as Mexico City residents are known) under the sober gaze of General Obregón himself, framed and behind glass.
Meanwhile, a couple of miles away at Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s high-end modern Mexican restaurant (currently number nine on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants) you might find yourself looking down at a lamb “taco”: a perfect tortilla stained green with cactus paddles, delicately spooned with a little lamb barbacoa, a seared onion, and incredibly smooth blobs of avocado puree.
These days, tacos can be high or low, cheap and ubiquitous, or rare and pricey.
Once almost exclusively the food of the streets in Mexico, tacos exploded in the late 20th century to become almost ubiquitous and variable as the sandwich. From roving vendors in Mexico City hawking tacos al a canasta from plastic-lined baskets to the Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell, and from fish tacos at home to Empellón Taqueria in Manhattan, for Brussels sprout and almond tacos by chef Alex Stupak, author of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations.
Clearly, we in North America are living in some golden age of the taco.
Wait, What Is a Taco Though?
“Taco” is a word with many meanings in Mexico: It’s a wooden hammer and a slang expression for getting drunk, among a score of others. The late 19th century saw the first mention of tacos as the food we know today—what one dictionary defines as “tortilla de maiz rellena de carne picada, queso, etc., que se toma como refrigerio” (“a corn tortilla stuffed with ground beef, cheese, etc., which is taken as a snack”). It took another generation or so for tacos to surface in the United States.
“Tacos originally migrated to California and Texas in the 1920s,” writes Gustavo Arellano in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, “and only made it into scattered Mexican cookbooks written by Americans in the 1930s.”
The Strangely Non-Mexican History of Tacos in the U.S.
Most of us who grew up well north of the border (and ultimately, people across a wide sweep of the planet) got to know tacos a generation after those first cookbook mentions. Around 1950, Glen Bell, an entrepreneur with family roots in Minnesota, opened a small chain of burger places in San Bernardino, California, same town where the first McDonald’s launched a few years earlier. Bell, though, was interested in giving his chain something different.
“They were simple constructions,” Arellano writes of the first Taco Bell tacos. “Prefried shell, ground beef, chopped lettuce, shredded cheese, and a chili sauce Bell modified from the same condiment used on his chili dogs. Tellingly,” Arellano notes, “the Latinos who frequented his stand eschewed the tacos in favor of hot dogs and hamburgers.”
BEFORE WE GET STARTED
A few things explained.
The foundation of tacos—literally—is corn: the corn tortilla or tortillas that cradle fillings. The process of making tortillas begins with an ancient process called nixtamalization. As a grain, corn (a.k.a. maize) is huge, and it has a very thick hull, or pericarp. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs of what is now Mexico and Central America developed a simple method for removing this hull, a process known as nixtamalization: soaking grains of maize in water in which some alkali substance has been dissolved. Originally, these were ashes or naturally occurring sodium carbonate deposits known as lime; nowadays Mexican cooks use cal, calcium oxide, sold as white, rocklike lumps, ready to be crushed and dissolved in hot water. The nixtamal softens the hull and allows it to partially detach from the kernel so it can be rubbed off. The softened grains that result can then be ground into masa, or dough, for making tortillas, tamales, and other dishes.
The unleavened dough for tortillas—the prepared masa—is made from wet-milled nixtamalized corn. Stone burs cut and mash the corn as they grind; kneading allows the mass to come together as a cohesive dough, ready for making tortillas. Tortillas are shaped by hand or machine and baked on a griddle known in Spanish as a comal.
More and more corn tortillas are made with masa harina, a flour composed of flash-dried corn masa. (Maseca is the widely available brand.) “Because it’s made with less water… and then is dried,” writes food scientist Harold McGee, “masa harina has less masa aroma and an added browned, toasty aroma, and produces a softer texture than fresh masa.” http://www.mimaseca.com/en/
Wheat-flour tortillas (tortillas de harina in Spanish) are typical of Sonora, in northwestern Mexico, where they’re used to make burras, the local type of tacos (we call them burritos in the U.S., where they’ve grown and morphed into something all their own). “[Burras] are filled,” Diana Kennedy writes, “ rolled, and served with a simple tomato sauce.” Traditional fillings are dried beef cooked with powdered chile (carne seca con chile colorado), but can be filled with carne machaca, shredded beef.
AN INCOMPLETE GUIDE TO MEXICAN TACO STYLES
Eat around, get inspired.
The birthplace of the tortilla has an astonishingly wide and varied taco culture. Here are a few of the styles that have caught on north of the border.
Source: La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia Del Taco
Tacos a la Parrilla or al Carbón
Region: Northern Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas)
Typical Protein: Beef
The classic carne asada tacos, typically skirt steak, flank steak, or flap meat, salted, seared on a griddle (U.S. taco truck–style) or grilled over propane or charcoal, chopped, and scooped into warm tortillas.
Tacos a la Plancha
Region: All over Mexico
Typical Proteins: Beef, Pork
These are the ubiquitous tacos of taco trucks and lunch counters, protein and sometimes vegetables, seared and cooked on a flattop griddle, or in a cast iron or other large, heavy sauté pan. They can include taco versions of alambre, seared or grilled beef, chicken, or pork with bacon or chorizo, peppers, onion, and cheese.
Tacos al Pastor
Regions: Mexico City, Puebla
Typical Protein: Pork
The name means “in the style of the shepherd,” but the origins of this popular style are somewhat murky. They’re most likely related to Middle Eastern shawarma, an adaptation in Mexico by Lebanese and other Arab immigrants to Central Mexico. Thin cuts of pork are marinated with chile, spices, and pineapple, and threaded onto a long vertical spit, or trompo, then cooked while rotating in front of a heat source, gas, electric, or charcoal. Often in Mexico City, a peeled pineapple is skewered atop the meat; the taquero includes a small slice in each taco.
Tacos de Canasta
Region: Mexico City
Typical Fillings: Refried Beans, Potato, Chicharron, Chorizo…
On the streets of Mexico’s capital, you’ll see guys on bikes fitted with huge baskets lined with thick blue plastic. Inside, layers of premade tacos (“tacos de canasta,” basket tacos) with various soft, highly seasoned fillings. From a separate container of salsa, and maybe one of pickles, fixed to the handlebars, you can season your tacos however you like.
Tacos de Guisados
Region: All over Mexico
Typical Fillings: Beef, Pork, Chicken, Eggs, Potatoes, Rajas, Cheese
A taqueria devoted to tacos de guisados will have a primary recognizable feature: the array of thick earthenware cazuelas filled with a variety of guisados, or “stews”: chicharron (fatty pork skins) simmered in red salsa, tinga (chicken stewed with onion, tomato, and chorizo), cooked nopalitos (young cactus paddles), and many, many more. Point at whatever you want, stand, and eat.
Tacos de Pescados y Mariscos
Regions: Coastal areas all over Mexico
Typical Proteins: Fish, Octopus, Shrimp
These include shrimp and—of course—the U.S. favorite, Baja-style fish tacos.
3 PARTY SALSAS IN 30 MINUTES
You’re going to need some salsa with that. Here’s how Chowhound’s Chris Rochelle ekes three wildly different types of salsa from one shopping trip.
3 ESSENTIAL BOOKS ON TACOS
La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del Taco (Spanish edition)
By Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena
Tacopedia (English edition)
By Deborah Holtz, Juan Carlos Mena, and Rene Redzepi
“La Tacopedia is a result of five years of taco research,” writes Erin Mosbaugh at First We Feast. “The resulting encyclopedia includes gorgeous Lucky Peach-esque illustrations and a fun map of Mexico that lists taco styles by state.”
Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico
By Hugo Ortega with Ruben Ortega
“The section on tacos is especially informative, and again true to the streets of Mexico,” says Mexico City food writer Nicholas Gilman. “The most interesting recipes have been culled from the author’s travels around the country and interpreted to re-create authentic flavors.”
Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets, and Fondas
By Lesley Téllez
"Eat Mexico” says Amazon, “is a culinary love letter to one of the biggest cities in the world—a chaotic, vibrant place where residents eat from sidewalk grills and stands, and markets and casual restaurants serve up fresh, hot food daily.”
Source fresh corn tortillas from a place with high turnover. If you’re not fortunate enough to be able to buy from a stand-alone tortilleria or the tortilla counter at a Latin American market, look for packages that feel fresh—they’ll feel pliable through the bag, an indication that they’re moist and tender. Avoid thick, handmade-style tortillas.
Heating a Stack of Tortillas
Place a tortilla directly on a hot gas or electric burner, leave for about 5 seconds, flip it over, and place another tortilla on top. Leave for 5 more seconds, turn both tortillas over, and place a third tortilla on top. Continue in this way until the whole pile is hot. Wrap in a clean cloth kitchen towel to keep warm and moist. Source: Diana Kennedy, The Art of Mexican Cooking
It’s the rare home cook who has access to a trompo, the twirling spit at taquerias. Here, we’ve adapted the technique for the home grill. The results come deliciously close to the real deal. Get our Tacos al Pastor recipe.
Toss fresh, ethically sourced shrimp with chipotle chile powder, cumin, and lime juice, then pop them on the grill to develop a deep char. Spoon into warm corn tortillas and top with a fresh avocado-corn-tomato salsa for a taste of coastal Mexico. Get our Grilled Shrimp Tacos recipe.
This super-tasty recipe contains an inspired shortcut: a precooked rotisserie chicken from the market. Take the meat from the bones and toss with Mexican adobo sauce, then spoon into warm corn tortillas. Get our Adobo Chicken Tacos recipe.
In this version of the classic American taco of the late 20th century, seasoned ground beef is the heart of the filling for crispy shells. Lettuce and shredded cheese are the inevitable garnishes. Get our Crispy Ground Beef Tacos recipe.
A North American hangover cure, these are soft corn tortillas covered with warmed refried beans, grated cheddar, Greek-style yogurt, hot sauce, and the star of the affair, runny-yolked fried eggs. Get our Fried Egg Breakfast Tacos recipe.
Vegetarian tacos filled with sautéed portobello mushrooms and fresh poblano chile strips. They’re seasoned with cumin and dried oregano, spooned into soft corn tortillas with a quick pico de gallo–like salsa of diced tomato and cilantro. Get our Mushroom and Chile Tacos recipe.