It is difficult to dislike tacos, but did you realize there is more to the layers of meat, toppings, and tortilla than meets the eye? Although there are numerous varieties of tacos, the humble street cuisine can be traced back to a single country: Mexico. According to Smithsonian Magazine and taco historians such as Jeffrey M. Pilcher, the “taco” originated in silver mining in Mexico during the 1700s. “Taco” was the term for the charges used to extract ore from rock faces; the taquito, a small taco enveloped in a corn-based tortilla, resembles the tacos from the mines (according to Uno Casa).The first written use of “taco” appeared in the late 1800s as “tacos de minero” — tacos for miners.
Over the years, the definition of a taco has evolved to accommodate the ingredients and flavors introduced by migration to and from Mexico, as well as a shifting preference for flavors and textures. Here are some of the most common varieties of tacos sold by taco trucks, Mexican taquerias, and anywhere else.
Accidentally created, puffy tacos have since come to define the San Antonio taco community. In the early 1900s, Maria Rodriguez Lopez, a grandmother from San Antonio, spilled the skewer she was using to flip the tostada while she was frying it. Maria left the skewer in the oil for longer than intended, causing the dough to swell up around it. Eventually, the tacos, which were known as “crispy tacos” prior to the 1970s, became a staple at Ray’s Drive Inn, the establishment owned by Maria’s family.After some possession disputes, the puffy taco became synonymous with the San Antonio taco culture.
The key to creating puffy tacos is using fresh masa, not masa harina. The exterior of a taco made with fresh masa is crisp and snappy, while the interior remains soft and velvety. The puffy taco is made with ground beef or poultry for protein, avocado, and lettuce and tomatoes for vegetables. Moreover, the secret to a puffy taco is to consume it immediately after preparation so that it does not deflate or become too soggy.
1. Fast-food taco (hard taco)
The taco with a hard shell, also known as the fast-food taco, is an Americanized rendition of the traditional Mexican dish. Instead of being baked or fried, tacos in Mexico are almost always prepared with maize and left soft. Tacos dorados, which are soft tacos packed with a filling before being fried, are the ancestors of hard tacos, which are typically baked or deep-fried into a stuffable U-shape design. In the 1930s, George Ashley created a taco fryer that could cook more than 600 tortillas per hour (per MEL Magazine).Eventually, he began marketing metal taco molds for making hard tacos at home, which was one of the earliest examples of frying the taco shell separately from its contents.
After observing Mitla’s Cafe in San Bernardino, California, the proprietor of Taco Bell, Glen Bell, was inspired to engineer a mass-produced hard taco (dubbed the “crunchy taco”). Bell eventually opened hundreds of restaurants in the United States and around the world, selling the same crunchy firm taco with nearly any filling.
2. Tacos árabes
According to Eat Mexico, the first tacos árabes were created in the 1930s in Puebla, Mexico. The tacos árabes recipe resulted from the economic migration of Lebanese residents to the Mexico City area. Instead of a marinade, the original recipe for spit-roasted lamb called for a salt-based compound. These tacos are served on a flour tortilla as opposed to a maize tortilla, similar to the Lebanese lamb shawarma served on pita bread. Over time, the synergy between Lebanese and Mexican cuisines grew, particularly after taco vendors began adding Mexican lime juice and chipotle salsa.Tacos árabes are also regarded as the basis of tacos al pastor.
But some things have remained the same, such as the addition of a spicy chipotle salsa in lieu of the traditional blend of caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger used for shawarma. When Lebanese immigrants arrived in Mexico, there was a shortage of seasonings, so they altered their cuisine.
3. Tacos al pastor
The ancestors of tacos al pastor are tacos árabes. In addition to the substitution of succulent pork shoulder for the traditional lamb, al pastor tacos have evolved to include a sweet pineapple garnish. The pineapple imparts a distinct tang to the pork and provides a bit of respite from the salt, oregano, cumin, garlic, and chipotle powder in the pork’s spice blend.
Typically, the pork for tacos al pastor is prepared by spinning pork shoulder on a trompo — a rotating piece of metal that maintains the meat juicily tender on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside. Using a knife, the meat is shaved narrowly before being tossed onto a soft tortilla and served with cilantro, lime, and pineapple cubes. This taco’s distinctive flavor is derived from the fat that drips down the pork shoulder as it roasts, so you should not expect to find any other cuts of meat in a traditional taco al pastor.
4. Tacos de barbacoa
Barbacoa is a Caribbean-style meat preparation that traditionally involves wrapping flesh in leaves and burying it for several hours in a hot stone pit. Eventually, this method of preserving and cooking meats found its way to Mexico, where the meat was coated in sauces comprised of chili peppers, spices, and chocolate, which became known as molé.
Barbacoa can be prepared with cattle (the most popular option in the United States), goat, lamb, or mutton. Due to the nature of slow cooking, barbacoa typically utilizes large cuts of meat with connective tissues, which can break down over time and imbue the meat with flavor. The meat is typically rubbed with dried guajillo, Mexican oregano, and ancho chile peppers, but each barbacoa chef may add his or her own twist. Tacos de barbacoa are typically served with minced white onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice.
5. Tacos de birria
Birria is the epitome of succulent and flavorful. In contrast to barbacoa, birria originated in Jalisco, Mexico, and is prepared by submerging traditionally goat-based meat in a thick sauce containing adobo, onions, tomatoes, and chiles. The tacos are made by soaking the tortillas in the adobo liquid, flat-frying them, and filling them with the delectable beef stew. Birriras are typically served with a side of cooking liquid and a garnish of finely minced onion and cilantro.
The taco was introduced to Tijuana, Mexico by Don Guadalupe Zárate’s taco establishment, which substituted beef for goat and increased the amount of broth. Until the 2000s, when Mexican-American brothers Omar Gonzales and Oscar Gonzalez, along with Teddy Vasquez, carried the birria recipe to Teddy’s Red Tacos in Los Angeles, the tacos were consumed for breakfast. Their menu included both the traditional birria taco and quesabirrias, which are birria tacos filled with queso.
6. Tacos de cabeza
According to Legal Nomads, tacos de cabeza were the result of Spanish influence; both beef and pork were introduced to the New World by the Spanish conquistadors. The term “cabeza” refers to anything associated with an animal’s cranium. Typically, the flesh is divided into the “maciza” (solid meat) and the offal (soft meat). Eyes, tongue (“lingua”), cerebellum, sweetbread, and beef intestine (“machitos”) are examples of offal. Together, these two meat portions are referred to as “surtido” (per Legal Nomads).
Typically, tacos de cabeza are made by steaming the animal’s head overnight and shredding it in the morning; the shredded meat can also be reintroduced back to the cooking liquid (consommé). Beef is typically simmered with achiote (annatto), peppercorns, and avocado leaves before being wrapped in a tortilla with minced cilantro and raw onions.
7. Carna asada tacos
Carne asada tacos begin with thinly sliced, marinated beef. This Mexican method of preparing meat is typically prepared with skirt or flank sirloin, both of which are relatively inexpensive and simple to slice. Before being grilled and rested, the sirloin is marinated in a mixture of jalapeo, garlic, lime juice, oil, vinegar, and cilantro. Mesquite is an integral element of the perfect carne asada flavoring. The mesquite tree is a prevalent source of firewood in Mexico and the Southwestern United States due to the wood’s ability to impart dark, smoky flavors to meat. Upon completion of grilling the carne asada, the sirloin is sliced thinly, placed on a corn tortilla, and topped with fresh lime wedges, avocado, salsa, and cilantro.