A taco is a traditional Mexican dish composed of a maize or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. The fact that a taco can be filled with practically any meat, fish, shellfish, vegetable, and cheese allows for great versatility and variety. A taco is generally eaten out of hand, without the aid of utensils, and is often accompanied by a garnish such as salsa and vegetables such as cilantro, onion, cabbage, tomato, or lettuce.
The taco predates the arrival of Europeans 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 which Hernán Cortés
arranged for his captains in Coyoacán
. (Note, however, that the native Nahuatl name for the flat corn bread used was tlaxcalli
. The Spanish give it the name tortilla
A traditional Mexican taco is normally served on a flat tortilla that has been warmed up on a comal;
since the tortilla is still soft, it can be folded over or pinched together into a U-shape for convenient consumption.
- 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 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 de Cabeza or head tacos, in which there is a flat punctured metal plate from which steam emerges to cook the head of the cow. These inclue: 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 cilantro with occasional use of guacamole.
- Tacos de Cazo 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 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.
- 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 (analogous to the Döner kebab used in Greek restaurants to prepare gyros).
- Tacos dorados (fried 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 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 remain most popular in California and Colorado. In California, they are often found at street vendors, and a regional variation is to serve them with cabbage and coleslaw dressing on top.
As an accompaniment to tacos, many taco stands will serve whole or sliced red radishes, lime slices, salt, pickled or grilled chilis (hot peppers), and occasionally cucumber slices, or grilled cambray onions.
In the United States and Canada
Beginning from the early part of the twentieth century, various styles of tacos have become popular in the United States and Canada. The style that has become most common is the hard-shell, U-shaped version first described in a cookbook authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949. These have been sold by restaurants and by fast food chains. 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 Juvenico 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 or sour cream. In this context, soft tacos are tacos made with wheat flour tortillas and filled with the same ingredients as a hard taco.
Puffy tacos, taco kits and breakfast tacos
Since at least 1978, a variation called the "puffy taco", has been popular. Originating in San Antonio
, and exemplified as prepared at Henry's Puffy Taco
of that city, uncooked corn tortillas (flattened balls of masa
dough) are quickly fried in hot oil until they expand and becomes "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, opened Arturo's Puffy Taco
, not long after Henry's opened.
For home cooks, taco kits are available at grocery and convenience stores and usually consist of taco shells (corn tortillas already fried in a U-shape), cheese sauce, seasoning mix and taco sauce. Commercial vendors for the home market also market soft taco kits with tortillas instead of taco shells.
The breakfast taco, found in Tex-Mex cuisine, is filled with meat, eggs or cheese with other ingredients.