By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
People on every continent and in essentially every major city in the world are likely to be able to tell you what a taco is, but they won’t have the same item in mind. The only taco characteristic on which everyone agrees is that a taco is a folded tortilla with some content in the middle. The nature of the tortilla and the quantity and quality of the “something in the middle” are subjects of ongoing, everlasting debate.
the etymology of the word “taco” is in dispute. Some contend that it is derived from the Aztec language, Náhautl; the Náhautl word tlahco means in the middle. Others say that in Spain taco means “light lunch.” Yet others adhere to a fanciful story of Mexican silver miners carrying their lunch meat, usually cheap offal, wrapped in a tortilla. The lunch looked like tacos – paper-wrapped plugs of gun powder used to blast open silver veins in the mine.
No matter what etymology you accept, there are still scores of variations in what people think the tortillas look like. In Mexico, the original wrapping was probably made from white corn masa – a kind of tortilla that is still ubiquitous here. The northern Mexican states, where wheat is grown more abundantly than corn, likely introduced flour tortillas as expedient taco wrappers. Today many kinds of tortillas are used to make tacos.
Given the abundance of yellow corn north of the border, tortillas used to make tacos in the US are not white, and often are intensely colored. Flour tortillas used for tacos can be whole wheat or flavored with spinach, nopales (cactus), tomato, basil or many other vegetables. The flour used for the tortillas might even be made from ingredients other than wheat – cauliflower-flour tortillas have recently hit the market. Such tortillas are currently being produced to meet the latest diet crazes: high fiber, gluten free, keto, carb-balanced, sugar-free and so on. Of course, the original handmade white corn tortilla pretty well met all those dietary requirements.
Some say that the corn tortilla is the only type of tortilla that should be use for a taco, but there remains an international dispute about whether the corn tortilla should be soft or a crunchy shell. Soft tortillas predominate in Mexico. But thanks (or maybe, no thanks) to the American entrepreneur Glen Bell, who founded his now multinational chain of Taco Bell fast food restaurants in 1962 (he called them
“Tay-Kohs”), some people around the world think that the crunchy taco shell must be used for an authentic taco.
Although Bell reportedly claims to have invented the hard taco shell, in 1960 we were munching down tacos made with hard shells in Los Angeles, at a bar oh-so-creatively named La Cantina, before Bell switched from selling hamburgers to tacos. The shell there was filled with ground beef flavored with onions, cumin, chili powder and other spices, topped with lettuce and fresh chopped tomato salsa; liquids ran down your arm when you raised the taco shell to take a bite. That’s how you knew it was the “real deal.”
What about the Filling?
Today, when people dispute the best filling for a taco, they rarely suggest ground beef, lettuce, and tomato salsa. Nor do they generally suggest the auténtico “real deal” offal such as entrails and lungs that would have been eaten by the Mexican workers who were using the other tacos to blow up areas in silver mines.
The driving force behind nominations for the best taco filling seems to be individual and regional tastes. In coastal regions shrimp or fresh fish – batter-fried, pan-seared, or grilled – are popular, especially when topped with shredded cabbage and a special sauce, ingredients often held as top secret by the taco maker.
In states of Mexico noted for their moles, the main ingredient of the filling – the selection of chicken, beef or pork – seems less important than the sauce that coats the main ingredient – mole poblano, coloradito, verde, amarillo … pick your favorite. Cowboy or vaquero country brings out tacos filled with almost every part of the steer, including one of our favorites – lengua, aka tongue. In areas where pigs predominate, carnitas are a commonly touted filling. And, as Julie Etra pointed out in an article in The Eye (July 2020), pork prepared pastor-style on a spit is emerging as a favorite around the country.
Are Tacos Going Upscale?
Recently, the most upscale and notable restaurants are vying for the most expensive and innovative tacos. Pujol, one of the top-rated restaurants in Mexico City, has leaped into Mexican-Asian fusion tacos on a tasting menu priced at over US$300 per person and sold at a taco bar called Omakase. There you can be served tacos filled with rarified ingredients such as lobster, Brussels sprouts, and macadamia nuts. Perhaps the most expensive taco in the world is reportedly found at the Grand Velas resort in Los Cabos, where a taco presented in a gold-infused tortilla and filled with Kobe beef, caviar and truffled cheese will set you back US$25,000 (not a typo). Our son says, “This is not a taco – it is a statement.”
You need not break the bank to find a really good taco. People who are truly taco connoisseurs vote with their feet, not their credit cards. Find a taco-truck or a hole-in-the-wall taqueria with a long line of hungry patrons waiting to be served. Get on line and listen to the disputes about which of the several tacos being prepared is the best. Order the one whose description makes you salivate the most. Or order one of each type. How many should you order? The number of tacos that can satisfy one for a meal is also a matter of dispute – some say three, some say four, some say more. At a recent taco eating contest the winner swallowed 126 tacos in eight minutes. If he had been downing Grand Velas tacos, that would have set him back US$3,150,000. Everyone would probably agree that that’s excessive. Provecho!