America is obsessed with tacos. What in Mexico is considered an everyday snack, a working lunch, a late-evening indulgence or just a tortilla with leftovers on top has become the subject of nearly unlimited variations and convolutions (many complete with an eye-popping price tag) here in the United States.
One reason for the many new branches on the taco family tree is that the taco as a culinary concept is nearly as difficult to pin down as the sandwich, making it ripe for experimentation. You can define a sandwich as anything served between two pieces of bread, but is a hot dog or a hamburger a sandwich? Probably. How about a stuffed pita or an open-faced Norwegian smørbrød? Close enough. The same goes for tacos: Plunk some meat, veggies or cheese on a corn or flour tortilla and you can call it a taco, right? Slather on some sort of aioli or crema, and so much the better (or maybe not). That’s the way it works in many new restaurants in the U.S. that specialize in upscale, outlandish or inventive taco platings, but in Mexico, tacos have a time, place and configuration based on regional ingredients, local preferences and the meal in question.
According to Vicente Sosa, a native of Yucatán, Mexico, who’s now executive chef at Que Bueno Suerte, in order to understand the taco, you have to understand the way that Mexicans eat every day. Sosa can’t speak for every state in Mexico, he says, but since his family came from Guerrero and Mexico City before settling in Yucatán, he was exposed to different regional styles while growing up. “Mexican food is not just tacos,” he explains. “But it all starts with corn. Corn is the sustainable food of Mexico.”
Corn is made into masa, which can then be made into many different foods — some familiar, like tortillas and tamales, and others far less common, like the vaporcitos that Sosa’s mother creates by rolling soft corn dough with white beans and herbs before steaming it in banana leaves. “The tortilla is a carrier — it’s like pasta for the Italians,” Sosa notes. So a meal can be accessorized with tortillas without ever approaching taco territory. But if you serve a slow-cooked stew with a side of tortillas one night, you can make tacos with the leftovers the next day.
In the small town where Sosa lived, and in many other towns throughout Mexico, home cooks don’t necessarily make tortillas from scratch on a regular basis. “Each barrio has its own tortilleria,” he says. A meal at home (as nearly all of them were) would entail a trip to the market in the morning so that food could be made during the day, then a second trip to the corner tortilleria just before the food was served to buy enough hot, fresh tortillas for the meal. Shopping was done frequently because refrigeration wasn’t common, Sosa adds; many families kept an ice chest in a wooden box for perishables like milk or ham. While Sosa’s team at Que Bueno Suerte makes tortillas every day for tacos and other dishes, the chef says that for larger events, he’ll buy them from a tortilleria, because the key to serving tacos in volume is efficiency, and you can’t be efficient if you’re making each tortilla by hand. At home, he keeps a bag of store-bought tortillas in the fridge for quick snacks — so he won’t judge you if you’re not soaking corn and grinding the kernels on a stone metate for your homemade tacos.
Outside the home, Sosa continues, taquerias generally specialize in one type of meat or filling, so you’ll find places that only serve carnitas or carne asada, and the presentations are simple, with just the meat on a tortilla and some salsa on the side; diners usually prefer something hot (the salsa) and something tangy (like a few slivers of pickled onion) to cut through the fatty richness of the meat. “But simple doesn’t mean easy, and it doesn’t mean it doesn’t take talent or experience to make,” Sosa notes. And it doesn’t mean that Sosa can’t appreciate the more fanciful things Denver chefs are doing with tacos, the liberties they’re taking. “It’s okay,” he says, “because everyone gets to be creative and do what they want.” After all, it was Lebanese refugees who nearly a century ago introduced spit-roasted shawarmas to Mexico, where they eventually evolved into tacos al pastor. Traditions change as taco lovers welcome new ingredients and techniques.
But there are also some traditions that Sosa thinks just shouldn’t be messed with. In certain parts of Mexico, tacos de canasta are made by layering folded tacos brushed with lard into baskets (canastas) made from woven agave fibers. The lard helps keep the tortillas from falling apart as they steam in the baskets, and the whole process is perfect for delivering hot tacos to hungry customers. While part of the fabric of the Mexican work day where they’re served, tacos de canasta are not something that can be imitated, and they’re rare in the U.S. “And tacos de cabeza al vapor,” another style, made with steamed beef from the cow’s head: “That has to be eaten as a taco — there’s no other way,” Sosa says.
Food writer and editor Rebecca Treon comes at the taco experience from a different angle. A native of Denver, she has lived in Argentina (where tacos are not at all part of the cuisine) and Mexico, with time spent in both Guadalajara, where she lived with a Mexican family while in her mid-twenties, and in Poza Rica, Veracruz, as a resident. “There were a lot of ingredients I was unfamiliar with and had never tried,” Treon says of the home cooking in Guadalajara, and the tacos sold from street vendors were unlike any she’d had growing up in Colorado. In this country, the term “street food” conjures an image of food eaten on the run or in a hurry, but that wasn’t what Treon saw in Mexico. “There’s never an occasion for that in Mexico. People stop and eat,” she remembers.
Many of the most basic carts and sidewalk grills where she ate had folding tables and chairs, or customers would eat while standing up — but food was seldom packaged to go, and diners would linger over their food. There were also storefront taquerias that had reputations for a specific style — carnitas or barbacoa, for example — even if they served more than one kind of meat. Treon, like Sosa, recalls tortillerias on nearly every street corner, so hot, fresh tortillas were never far away, but she usually purchased them from “a guy who would drive around on his motorcycle twice a day,” she recalls.
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No matter where or how you get your tacos, tortillas remain an integral part of them. And whether you’re in small-town Yucatán, the big city of Guadalajara or right here in Denver, tortillas are best when fresh. Commercial brands contain stabilizers and preservatives, making them good for those quick snacks at home when you don’t have time to hit the tortilleria, but if you’re making tacos for a party or family dinner, do it like Sosa and Treon, and find a tortilleria that makes fresh tortillas daily, then buy only as many as you need for the day (although leftovers go great in chilaquiles, or perhaps fried into tostadas). Pochitos Tortilla Factory, at 4421 Tejon Street, is a good bet; Sosa often buys his from Mi Pueblo Market at 9171 Washington Street in Thornton. (There are several Mi Pueblos in town, but the Thornton outpost is the most consistent.) If you’ve been bitten by the home-cooking bug, grab yourself some of the dried corn flour called masa harina (if you’re worried about GMO corn in Maseca, the most popular brand, there are several organic brands out there) and a tortilla press and make your own at home. Mix, roll, press and griddle for a surprisingly easy way to boost the flavors and textures of homemade tacos.
For a night out on the town in Denver, you could hit a trendy new taco bar for pork belly or fried-chicken tacos piled so high with non-traditional ingredients that you’ll need a knife and fork to eat it all. But for a street-taco experience where your meal comes quickly but customers stick around, head to one of the busier setups, where the food will be fresher and the people-watching top-notch. Taco Mex, at 7840 East Colfax Avenue, fires up an outdoor grill at night; a sombrero-shaped griddle keeps meats simmering in their juices around the edge while tortillas are warmed on a dome in the middle. Warm weekend nights here are perfect for a lively crowd and fresh tacos. At 677 South Federal Boulevard, there’s nearly always a line at the Tacos Marlene cart after dark, especially on Sunday nights, when cruisers hit the street and onlookers congregate for a social experience unrivaled in the city.
For a taste of dozens of taco styles and flavors in one setting, come to Westword’s Tacolandia on Sunday, August 20, at Civic Center Park. Find details and purchase tickets at westwordtacolandia.com.