Cinco de Mayo is a few short days away, so it seems like the right time to chat about tacos. This country is completely obsessed with them (myself included). You’ll find Taco Tuesday specials in almost every city in America, and hip, street taco joints are becoming ubiquitous. This handheld, convenient food is cheap and delicious, and we’re lining up to dish it. I’m not talking about the Taco Bell-style tacos of my childhood, but rather the recent return of the traditional taco.
While those old-school crispy corn tortillas are good, I have always sort of despised how boring the top third of the shell is – it’s just so hard to get all the toppings in one bite! Not only that: If you try too hard and take a huge bite of the bottom (where all the goods are), or if you let that taco sit and it gets soggy, the whole thing falls apart. While this kind of taco is acceptable in a pinch, it’s simply not craveable.
On the other hand, these modern tacos? I can barely talk about them. They’re so good, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Give me a soft-shelled, street-style taco and I’m a happy camper. As my good friend says, tacos are a hobby. They’re my muse, my flame, and a source of never-ending leftover inspiration. Give me any edible ingredient and the ability to make a tortilla, and I’ll get you addicted to tacos. But what is it about this simple dish that has us so fanatical we renamed a day of the week after it? Synergy. In the great words of Aristotle: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Dissect the taco and it all seems so simple. But put the components together? Ah, yes. Now that’s something magical.
To start, take the humble tortilla. Corn, flour, whatever – we don’t need to get into that debate. Eat it by itself and it’s just okay. Warm it up and fill it with meat (and/or vegetables) and now we’re talking. You see, the tortilla is the vehicle to deliver all the goods, but unlike other breads it has a secret element that makes it shine. Try to eat three pieces of pita bread and you’ll have to unbutton your pants for comfort. On the other hand, could I eat three tortillas? Heck yeah I could! Easily, and with glee. That means after eating a handful of tacos, you can still leave feeling light.
Okay, next up are the fillings. What’s so great about modern tacos is there are no rules. Go traditional with carnitas or carne asada and everyone’s happy. Or, turn your favorite sandwich or pasta into a taco. I’ve made tacos from leftover rotisserie chicken, corned beef, turkey, bacon, roast beef, and lamb. You name it and you can taco it. There’s a whole world of vegetarian tacos. Roasted mushrooms make a classic meat replacement, but lentils and cauliflower work just as well. I’ve made veggie tacos with everything I can grow in a garden, so take your pick and run with it. As long as the filling is flavorful and seasoned right, you can toss it into a tortilla and call it a taco.
Then, there’s the sauce. I think this is where the modern taco trumps my childhood version. The “sauce” on that taco was sour cream – which, by the way, I completely adore, so don’t take this as a knock to sour cream. But, here’s the thing – sour cream can be kind of boring. Yes, it serves to mellow out the spicy ground beef while also providing a temperature contrast to the hot filling. But, in the end, it’s kind of basic. Today’s tacos are sauced with all kinds of good stuff: chimichurri, salsa roja, avocado crema, and the list goes on and on and on. This type of sauce gives life to the fillings, really tying the room together.
Finally (yes, I’m getting close to wrapping up), there are the textures. Soft, wrappable tortillas don’t have that crispy shell – but they don’t need to. Add some crunchy radishes, pickled onions, cabbage, or shredduce. These garnishes add the much-needed crunch into our lives. Combine that with the soft ingredients that add flavor – the salty cheeses, the fresh cilantro, savory chopped tomatoes, or buttery avocado. Each of these ingredients contrasts with the crunchy ones and leaves you feeling satisfied when you walk away.
At the end of the day, it all comes together to create a true taco experience. It’s easy to make a taco that has the whole package: crunchy, spicy, tangy, sweet, acidic, salty, and fresh. They’re so addictive that there might soon be a Tacos Anonymous (and I should be its founding member). But, before we all become TA members, embrace your dependence on tacos as you celebrate Cinco de Mayo by chowing down on a taco (or three).
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected]