Tacos are at the very heart of Mexican cuisine, and for good reason; but what makes a taco and, more importantly, what does NOT make a taco, is a very important distinction to Mexicans. Put something - anything - between two slices of bread and you have a sandwich, but the same isn’t true of tacos, especially if you don’t get the ‘bread’ right to begin with
Corn isn’t just a crop to us Mexicans, it is at the very heart of our culture, so much so that we sometimes even call ourselves los chicos del maíz - children of corn. Cultivating maize (as it is known in Spanish) dates back millenia and corn is generally considered to have originated in Mexico. And that's where the story of the taco begins - with the corn. It must be dried, soaked in lime, washed, and ground with warm water and a little bit of lard until a proper masa forms. Then, and only then, can you begin to think in terms of tacos. This time consuming process is the first hurdle to getting an authentic taco, and thanks to the global popularity of tacos, that process has largely been eliminated in the name of efficiency. The result of this corner cutting is billions of so-called “tortillas.”
It might be a little controversial, but I will tell anyone who will listen that hipster chefs creating “new” and “innovative” tacos of pork belly, ahi tuna, chicken fried steak, and bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers over smoked brisket have it horribly, horribly wrong. It is absolutely true that people love them, and it drives me a little insane to listen to people extoll their virtues as tacos. Call them whatever you like, but please for the love of Pancho Villa stop calling them tacos.
They’re not bad, far from it, and in fact I support these “innovators” by eating their open face flatbread sandwiches, washing them down with a craft beer, but you can rest assured that with every bite I am wishing I was at a tiny taco shop in Mexico where a tortilla lady is pressing fresh tortillas, and el taquero is taking my order of cabeza, tripas, and asada.
Growing up, I was fortunate to be able to travel to and from my parents’ little ranch in Jalisco. Those trips exposed me to local taco shops up and down the country. While I know not everyone is so fortunate, I encourage everyone, on their next visit to Mexico, to get yourself an Uber and ask your driver to take you to his favorite taco shop. If you're lucky, you’ll find yourself surrounded by locals eating tacos and drinking Corona, in what is almost certainly going to be some kind of shack. The table will be garnished with small bowls of salsa roja, salsa de tomatillo, a molcajete of Peruano beans, and fresh jalapeno and carrot pickles. Your tortilla will arrive slightly toasted with a thin patina of flavor and fat from the disco (traditionally these agricultural disks were used to cook on), topped with your choice of meat, and finished with freshly chopped cilantro and onion. If you ask, you’ll get a fat roasted jalapeno with a split bulb of spring onion cooked in the same fashion. There will probably be dogs running around begging for a morsel of meat, too.
Then you’ll know tacos.