People consume more than four and a half billion tacos in the United States every year, and New Mexico, nestled perfectly between South and North America, captures the swirling essences of the cultures that influence one of our favorite foods.
There is a definite difference between Mexican cuisine and New Mexican tradition when it comes to the taco, but three simple elements — no matter where you are in the world — make a taco a taco. A taco is a tortilla with a filling and a salsa (sauce). These three ingredients have infinite combinations and variations that make us crave, salivate, and even dream of that perfect taco at our favorite restaurant or food truck.
Maize (corn) was first harvested more than 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. Seven thousand years later, pre-Hispanic cooks realized that if you prepared maize in an alkaline formula, you create nixtamal, and when you grind nixtamal it becomes masa, the necessary ingredient to make corn tortillas. By the time Spanish conquistadores arrived, Aztecs were eating tortillas, and more than likely eating tacos as well. Eventually, wheat was introduced, and the flour tortilla was born.
The taco filling can be created from nearly any part of nearly any animal that walks the earth or swims in the sea, and of course, for the herbivores, from endless vegetable and fruit combinations. The salsa that tops our favorite taco is often more highly regarded than the filling. Usually a salsa has elements of spice and acid, but there really are no limits when it comes to this grand finale of the taco structure. There are sweet, roasted, fresh, tomato, and tomatillo salsas, and even mole sauce and queso count as toppers for the different types of tacos you can find in the Southwest.
The hard-shell taco is an American favorite. One of the earliest mentions of this style was in the 1949 cookbook The Good Life: New Mexican Food. Restaurateur Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, made hard-shell tacos the popular default when he “borrowed” the recipe from Mitla Café, a San Bernadino, California, eatery, explains Gustavo Arellano in his book Taco USA.
Al Pastor (tacos árabes)
“Pastor” means shepherd and refers to this taco’s origin in shawarma, a dish originally made with roasted lamb. Tacos al pastor were invented in Puebla, Mexico, when a large influx of Lebanese nationals immigrated to the area in the 1930s. An upright rotisserie grill is used to cook the meat. The taco is piled high with sliced and marinated meat, and topped with slices of pineapple. Pan árabe (pita bread) was the original “taco shell.”
This may have been the first type of taco ever made. Carne asada means “grilled meat.” Cooking meat over hot coals is the oldest form of cooking, and placing the results atop a corn tortilla is not a hard next step to imagine for the early Central Americans.
Although it’s a variation of the veggie taco, the popularity of avocado tacos means they deserve a separate category. We have all watched the rise in popularity of avocado toast — similarly, the status of the “alligator pear” taco on the culinary scene has risen dramatically.
Translated as “little meats,” this type of taco is usually made with small pieces of pork cooked in fat to create morsels that are crispy outside and tender inside. Carnitas were created in Mexico, and while most sources credit Michoacán as its birthplace, many states in Mexico also claim to be ground zero for this delicious taco creation.
Shredded or grilled, smoked or fried, chicken is an inexpensive way to make flavorful tacos.
Shrimp tacos are a tradition that migrated from the shores of Baja California and the Gulf of Mexico. Ask Bubba and Forrest how many ways there are to cook this tasty crustacean! (Crispy shell with ceviche is my favorite.)
With so many different types of fish and culinary influences from around the world, fish for tacos can be battered and deep fried or raw with wasabi in a wonton shell. The slaw and/or citrus that usually pairs with fish tacos make this a light and fresh option to the taco family.
The railroads had a lot to do with the popularity of the taquito or “small taco.” The taquito was a convenient option that could be held in one hand by both railroad passengers and workers. The flauta, or flute, is the larger version of the small, rolled taco. Both taquitos and flautas can be served with or smothered in sauce.
This style of taco is believed to have originated in the Caribbean, specifically the island of Barbados, and got its name from Portuguese explorers who named it for the “bearded” fig trees on the island. Cooking meat slowly underground may have started on the islands, but as time went on the tradition migrated to Mexico, where maguey leaves were used to cover the buried meat.
Although birria is traditionally eaten as a stew, birria tacos have gone viral on social media, and it is easy to see why! The stewed meat is stuffed inside a tortilla soaked in birria broth, then grilled on a griddle until crispy.
Beef tongue can be prepared a variety of ways, allowing for a wide range of different tastes for this type of taco. While lengua isn’t commonly seen on menus, thanks to our neighbors to the south, this cut of meat has become quite popular in the Mesilla Valley.
With so many different types of tacos out there, I had to leave an option open for write-in candidates. Fry bread tacos, cabeza, tripas — what is your favorite kind of taco that does not fall into any of these categories?
Win a copy of 300 Best Taco Recipes by Kelley Coffeen!
Since our region has a selection of delicious tacos as big as the Chihuahuan Desert, our friends at Neighbors magazine and LasCruces.com want to hear from you about your favorites. Click here to find out how you can enter the drawing and tell us about your top tacos.
Written by Daniel Gonzales | Photography by Amanda Gonzales
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead