A taco is a traditional Mexican dish composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. A taco can be made with a variety of fillings, including beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, and cheese, allowing for great versatility and variety. A taco is generally eaten without utensils and is often accompanied by garnishes such as salsa, chilli pepper, avocado, guacamole, coriander (cilantro), tomatoes, onions, and lettuce.
The taco predates the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. There is anthropological evidence that the indigenous people living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate tacos filled with small fish. Writing at the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo documented the first taco feast enjoyed by Europeans, a meal which Hernán Cortés arranged for his captains in Coyoacán.
There are many traditional varieties of tacos:
- Tacos al pastor/de adobada (shepherd style) are made of thin pork steaks seasoned with adobo seasoning, then skewered and overlapped on one another on a vertical rotisserie cooked and flame-broiled as it spins.
- Tacos de asador (spit or “grill” tacos) may be composed of any of the following: carne asada tacos; tacos de tripita (tripe tacos), grilled until crisp; and, chorizo asado (traditional Spanish-style sausage). Each type is served on two overlapped small tortillas and sometimes garnished with guacamole, salsa, onions, and coriander (cilantro). Also, prepared on the grill is a sandwiched taco called mulita (little mule) made with meat served between two tortillas and garnished with Oaxaca style cheese. “Mulita” is used to describe these types of sandwiched tacos in the Northern States of Mexico while they are known as Gringa in the Mexican south and are prepared using wheat flour tortillas. Tacos may also be served with salsa.
- Tacos de cabeza (head tacos), in which there is a flat punctured metal plate from which steam emerges to cook the head of the cow. These include: Cabeza, a serving of the muscles of the head; Sesos (brains); Lengua (tongue); Cachete (cheeks); Trompa (lips); and, Ojo (eye). Tortillas for these tacos are warmed on the same steaming plate for a different consistency. These tacos are typically served in pairs, and also include salsa, onion, and coriander (cilantro) with occasional use of guacamole.
- Tacos de camarones (shrimp tacos) also originated in Baja California in Mexico. Grilled or fried shrimp are used, usually with the same accompaniments as fish tacos: lettuce or cabbage, pico de gallo, avocado and a sour cream or citrus/mayonnaise sauce, all placed on top of a corn or flour tortilla.
- Tacos de cazo (literally bucket tacos) for which a metal bowl filled with lard is typically used as a deep-fryer. Meats for these types of tacos typically include Tripa (tripe”, usually from a pig instead of a cow); Suadero (tender beef cuts), Carnitas and Buche (Literally, “crop”, as in bird’s crop; here, it is fried pig’s esophagus.
- Tacos de lengua (beef tongue tacos), which are cooked in water with onions, garlic, and bay leaves for several hours until tender and soft, then sliced and sautéed in a small amount of oil. “It is said that unless a taqueria offers tacos de lengua, it is not a real taqueria.”
- Tacos de pescado (fish tacos) originated in Baja California in Mexico, where they consist of grilled or fried fish, lettuce or cabbage, pico de gallo, and a sour cream or citrus/mayonnaise sauce, all placed on top of a corn or flour tortilla. In the United States, they were first popularized by the Rubio’s fast-food chain, and remain most popular in California, Colorado, and Washington. In California, they are often found at street vendors, and a regional variation is to serve them with cabbage and coleslaw dressing on top.
- Tacos dorados (fried tacos; literally, “golden tacos) called flautas (flute”, because of the shape), or taquitos, for which the tortillas are filled with pre-cooked shredded chicken, beef or barbacoa, rolled into an elongated cylinder and deep-fried until crisp. They are sometimes cooked in a microwave oven or broiled.
- Tacos sudados (sweaty tacos) are made by filling soft tortillas with a spicy meat mixture, then placing them in a basket covered with cloth. The covering keeps the tacos warm and traps steam (sweat) which softens them.
As an accompaniment to tacos, many taco stands will serve whole or sliced red radishes, lime slices, salt, pickled or grilled chillies (hot peppers), and occasionally cucumber slices, or grilled cambray onions.
Beginning from the early part of the twentieth century, various types of tacos have become popular in the United States and Canada. An early appearance of a description of the taco in the United States in English was in a 1914 cookbook, California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook, by Bertha Haffner Ginger. The most common type of taco in the US is the hard-shell, U-shaped version, first described in a cookbook, The good life: New Mexican food, authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1949. These types are sold by restaurants and by fast food chains, while kits are readily available in most supermarkets. Even non-Mexican oriented fast food restaurants have sold tacos. Mass production of this type of taco was encouraged by the invention of devices to hold the tortillas in the U-shape as they were deep-fried. A patent for such a device was issued to New York restaurateur Juvencio Maldonado in 1950, based on his patent filing of 1947 (U.S. Patent No. 2,506,305). Such tacos are crisp-fried corn tortillas filled with seasoned ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and sometimes tomato, onion, salsa, sour cream, and avocado or guacamole.
Traditionally, soft-shelled tacos referred to corn tortillas that were cooked to a softer state than a hard taco – usually by grilling or steaming. More recently, the term has come to include flour tortilla based tacos mostly from large manufacturers and restaurant chains. In this context, soft tacos are tacos made with wheat flour tortillas and filled with the same ingredients as a hard taco.
The breakfast taco, found in Tex-Mex cuisine, is a soft corn or flour tortilla filled with meat, eggs, or cheese, and can also contain other ingredients. Some have claimed that Austin, Texas is the home of the breakfast taco. However, food writer and OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano responded that such a statement reflects a common trend of “whitewashed” foodways reporting, noting that predominantly Hispanic San Antonio, Texas “never had to brag about its breakfast taco love — folks there just call it ‘breakfast'”.
Indian tacos, or Navajo tacos, are made using fry-bread instead of tortillas. They are commonly eaten at pow-wows, festivals, and other gatherings by and for indigenous people in the United States and Canada.
Puffy tacos, taco kits, and tacodillas
Since at least 1978, a variation called the “puffy taco” has been popular. Henry’s Puffy Tacos, opened by Henry Lopez in San Antonio, Texas, claims to have invented the variation, in which uncooked corn tortillas (flattened balls of masa dough) are quickly fried in hot oil until they expand and become “puffy”. Fillings are similar to hard-shell versions. Restaurants offering this style of taco have since appeared in other Texas cities, as well as in California, where Henry’s brother, Arturo Lopez, opened Arturo’s Puffy Taco in Whittier, not long after Henry’s opened. Henry’s continues to thrive, managed by the family’s second generation.
Kits are available at grocery and convenience stores and usually consist of taco shells (corn tortillas already fried in a U-shape), seasoning mix and taco sauce. Commercial vendors for the home market also market soft taco kits with tortillas instead of taco shells.
The tacodilla contains melted cheese in between the two folded tortillas, thus resembling a quesadilla.