Ahh, the scrumptious taco — a popular, portable Mexican street fare that can be crunched on the fly for a spicy, protein-packed nibble — has trickled north of the border and transformed into a mainstream, gourmet meal. So when did the taco come out of its shell?
Food folklorist Jeffrey Pilcher has extensively studied the birth of the taco and its evolution, tracing its origins to the 18th century Mexican silver mines, where little packages of dynamite were wrapped in a special paper called "taco." These explosive bundles were then inserted into rocks where they would blast them into smithereens to extract the metal. Likewise, a spicy taco with shredded chicken smothered in killer hot sauce will also explode in your mouth like an edible stick of dynamite.
Taquerias started sprouting up in working class neighborhoods throughout Mexico with regional variations of ingredients and flavors. The lively Latin American cuisine (and especially the beloved taco) filtered across the border as Mexicans migrated to the states. Decades later, Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, used an American business model to convert the taco into a mass-marketed fast food, while Ralph Rubio started his iconic fish taco empire with a single-family run stand in North County. These intrepid culinary entrepreneurs paved the way for the emergence of this cultural staple into a trendy delicacy that can range from the original shredded beef taco to the gourmet lobster iteration.
For the taco enthusiast, there are now more amalgams than possible poker hands in a 52-card deck. Starting with the wrappings, these can be soft, hard or light and crispy. The soft ones are tortilla rounds (smaller than those for burritos or fajitas) made of flour, corn (which are usually gluten-free), or a mix of the two, whole wheat, vegan flaxseed, as well as ancient grains like spelt and kamut.
The hard ones are curved corn shells that fit nicely in the palm, while the airy puffy ones are usually round cups, or boat-shaped oblongs. The Spanish tortilla is like a stiff omelet made from eggs and shredded potatoes, providing another gluten-free option, along with butter or iceberg lettuce leaves, which are also ideal for the carb-conscious.
Now bring on the fillings. Carnivorous offerings include the authentic carne asada (grilled, sliced beef marinated in a southwest spice blend, including lime juice, cumin, cilantro, paprika, and chipotle peppers), spicy chorizo sausage, carnitas (braised pork), along with beer-braised chicken or lamb. Pescavores can indulge in Maine lobster, soft shell crab, mahi mahi, sea bass, wild-caught salmon, jumbo shrimp, or diver scallops, while vegans can relish seasonal and local fungi and vegetables like sautéed mushrooms of all manners (Portobello, crimini, shiitake, oyster, trumpet), grilled zucchini, prickly pear cactus pads, and assorted peppers in a zippy tequila lime marinade.
Top off the taco with soft cheeses from Spanish or Latin American regions, such as manchego, queso fresco and cojita, or sassy Americanized jalapeno jack; shredded red or white cabbage, raw or grilled red onions, avocado slices, pico de gallo or a drizzle of a silky, spicy white sauce blending mayo, lime, cilantro and cayenne (see recipe below).
For just desserts, dip shells or tortillas in melted bittersweet chocolate, then chill to harden. Stuff with ice cream, bananas and whipped cream like a portable banana split, fresh berries and coconut cream, or grilled nectarines with a sprinkling of toasted pecans, and dollop of vanilla bean gelato or lemony mascarpone cheese.
Recipe: Do-it-Yourself Fish Tacos
• For the tacos: 8 tortillas or shells; 1 1/2 pounds mahi mahi; juice from one lime and one lemon; 2 tablespoons of olive oil; 2 sliced avocados; 1/2 cup thinly sliced cabbage; sea salt to taste.
• For the sauce: 1/3 cup mayo; juice from one lime; 1 handful cilantro, chopped; sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
• Method: In a glass bowl, whisk together sauce ingredients and set aside. Marinate fish in citrus, half the oil, and salt. Grease grill with oil, and cook on medium heat until the fish is white and firm. Or add oil to a large skillet and sauté until cooked through (about 5 minutes on each side). Cut in bite-size chunks. Start assembling the tacos by piling fish on tortillas or in shells. Top with avocado slices and cabbage. Drizzle with sauce. Serve with Spanish rice and black beans. (Serves 4)
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com