A Snappy History of the Taco: It Happened All at Once

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Last Thursday I gave a presentation about taco history and its place in DFW’s food culture at Four Corners Brewing Co., benefiting Slow Food Dallas. It didn’t go as planned. A storm took about the venue’s power and led me to improvise. Below is what the lecture I would’ve given if Mother Nature had cooperated.

Thank you, Liz and Slow Food Dallas for having me here—at my favorite brewery, no less. Thank you, Rafael and Eduardo and the family of Taco Party, for your wonderful tacos. Those fried potatoes tacos are among Dallas’ best. And lest you think they’re “gringo tacos,” you should know that fried potatoes tacos are traditional tacos dorados (fried tacos), rolled or flat depending on the region. They’re found all over Mexico.

Fried tacos tend to have a bad reputation, stirring up chilling visions of Taco Bell and prefabricated stale, fragile shells. Glenn Bell, Taco Bell’s founder, wasn’t doing anything new or particularly special, when he opened his first fast-food crispy taco restaurant in 1962. Fried tacos are a tried-and-true variation of the reason why we’re here tonight. In Jalisco state, home of tequila, mariachi and the stewed goat preparation birria, and Michoacán, the birthplace of carnitas, tacos dorados are a common breakfast taco.

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The first recipes for tacos in the United States go back to the turn of the 20th century, and they’re for fried tacos. In the late 19th century, Indian tribes like the Navajo fried a type of flour dough disc to create fry bread, the base for Indian tacos available throughout the American Southwest and at powwows across the country. In Texas, we’re all familiar with the Tex-Mex varieties, the standard form and the San Antonio-style puffy taco. They can be mesmerizing when freshly fried. They’re also a big hassle to prepare. It’s been an issue from the start. Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican immigrant and owner of Xóchitl restaurant in New York City was the first person to patent a solution to the problem of frying tacos to order and the burns associated with the task. His form for frying tortillas, which resembles a torture device, to make fried tacos was filed in 1947 and awarded in 1950.

photo(5)I imagine Maldonado was tired of hearing cooks’ gripes and tending to staff injuries, like I heard during my first visit to Taco Wagon on Davis Street in Oak Cliff. I had ordered a crispy taco and was pleased to hear the cries of the cook who was handling the shell after frying it.

It’s fantastic to see them given the respect they deserve. Taco Party is a wonderful example of the tradition of filling tortillas with food.

Those filled-tortilla preparations go back millennia and are essential to Mexican national identity. However the idea of a codified gastronomy is a recent one and it’s not the imagined romantic Aztec warrior painted on a restaurant’s wall. It’s as mixed as the indigenous tribes and immigrants who compose modern Mexico. Tamales are ancient, pre-Hispanic noshes but their characteristic fluffiness is due to lard, introduced to Mexico with Spanish conquest. The first Mexican cookbook, El cocinero mexicano, wasn’t published until 1831. It included recipes for tamales and tortilla-based street foods like quesadillas, but not for tacos. The word “tacos” first appears in print in Mexico in reference to food in the 1891 novel The Bandits of Cold River by Manuel Payno. Tacos in that book were filled with fried goat. The term gained official sanction in the 1895 Diccionario de mejicanismos. The foundation of the taco, the corn tortilla, was used as a vehicle for other foods for thousands of years but widespread use of the term to refer to a specific food is only centuries old.

So what is the taco, the food? At its most basic it is three things: The tortilla, as I already mentioned, the filling, and the salsa.

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The taco al pastor, chile, achiote and sour orange-marinated slices of pork stacked on a vertical spit called a trompo, on a corn tortilla garnished with slices of pineapple, is considered the stereotypical taco. It’s Mexico City’s iconic taco, the subject of a majority of taco Internet memes, but not “Mexican” in origin. Europeans brought pork to the Americas. The taco al pastor was first served at El Tizoncito and/or El Huequito in Mexico City, D.F., in the 1950s, but it’s descended from the taco arabe, slices of pork or beef served on pita-like flour tortillas created by Lebanese immigrants living in Puebla, Mexico, in the 1930s. In northern states like Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, pastor-style pork tacos are often called tacos de trompo. You’ll see those advertised in Oak Cliff because there is a large Monterreyan population. Drive down Davis Street and you’ll see restaurants advertising tacos de trompo alongside a painting of the Cerro de la Silla, the city’s landmark mountain. Fito’s is among then. Tacos de trompo are found at parties and at the backyard taquerias that dot the area. The pork used though isn’t seasoned with the chile adobo of tacos al pastor. It gets a paprika rub. Of course every restaurant and family has it’s own recipe. The taco has always been a fusion food, and authenticity only exists on paper.

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Fito's #2 Tacos de Trompo, photo by Catherine Downes

So where do tacos begin?

The first tacos called “tacos,” hail not far from the northern or border states like Zacatecas, and date to the late 18th century/early 19th century, at least that’s one theory put forth by Mexican food historian Jeffrey Pilcher in Planet Taco. Others involve linguistic evolution from tlaco and tacol. The word taco translates to “plug” and was the name for the small charges of paper rolled around gunpowder the silver miners used to clear rock. Eventually the word was used to refer to the small parcels of filled rolled or folded tortillas the miners ate in the morning. These steamed breakfast tacos de mineros were an energizing foldable exterior with a dollop of meat or beans given a zap from salsa. Not much has changed.

Social upheaval like the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain, fighting the French, the Mexican Revolution itself as well as industrialization and urbanization in the form of technological advances like electrical mills and mechanical tortilla machines as well as migrations, took tacos de mineros to the capital and the rest of the country in the 19th century. It exploded in the early 20th century, despite or in spite of upper-class campaigns to remove corn from the Mexican diet because of a perception that it was poor people’s food. It backfired. The Aztecs won. All of this led to the diversity we have today. The taco overcomes

Tacografia

Tacos mineros evolved into tacos de canasta, a Mexico City breakfast favorite prepared by a vendor and placed in a basket (a canasta) to be taken to the taquero’s usual spot by bike for workers en route to their offices each morning. Between home and the selling station, those tacos steam.

Around here you can find a variation called tacos al vapor at places like Taco Rico on Clarendon Ave., in Oak Cliff.

Tacos de canasta and its cousins, tacos de guisados: tortillas filled with hearty stews, are also morning fare. Tacos are eaten at all times of the day. Tacos al pastor, for example, are afternoon and evening fare. As I’ve mentioned, in Jalisco and Michoacán, tacos dorados with carnitas are another morning staple. Between the age of mining in Mexico and the early 21st century, the breakfast taco made its way across the border to points across the United States.

Before all that, though, before an international border was created, before industrialization and revolution took the taco to Mexico’s capital, corn was the basis of the tribes and cultures that stretched from the Plains to Peru. Evidence of corn farming and tortilla making by Indians in states like Arizona and New Mexico for 1,000 years. The American military eradicated corn culture by razing tribal fields and force-marching Indians to reservations, during what is now called The Long Walk in the mid-1800s, where they were given commodity foods like flour, sugar and lard. The native people treated these components in a familiar fashion, creating a dough formed into flat discs and fried them. In the 20th century, while the Mexican taco was undergoing rapid evolution, Native Americans were topping fry bread with indigenous and European ingredients, beef, beans, tomatoes and cheese, creating the Indian fry bread taco, omnipresent at tribal gatherings. You can’t have a powwow without fry bread. It’s become a pan-tribal symbol of perseverance.

I came across a Diné (the Navajo language) reader recently with a title that translates to “It has floated to the top.” They will overcome. Again, the taco overcomes.

The fry bread taco has benefited from the rise in the taco’s popularity, which was spurred by economic downturn in the U.S. and Mexico and safe culinary tourism. Tacos are often cheap, nutritious and eaten quickly. One of the ways the taco has inserted itself into the public square is Taco Bell and fast food and fast-casual chains. If it weren’t for Taco Bell, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, and you probably wouldn’t be here listening to me. Its importance can’t be overstated.

Another avenue the taco has taken is the lonchera, the taco truck. The first one was King Taco, a converted taco truck owned by Raul Martinez, Sr. It hit the Los Angeles roads in 1974. Fleets of loncheras crisscrossed Southern California for decades before Roy Choi brought to the fore another regional specialty, Korean-Mexican tacos, from his Kogi BBQ truck in 2008.

Choi’s effort made tacos safer and more accessible for the non-Mexicans and non-Mexican-Americans to consume the treat and sparked a mobile food vending movement that cleared the path for loads of other gourmet offerings on wheels and gave aspiring entrepreneurs permission to concoct all manner of tacos.

Now there are all kinds of tacos served everywhere. But not all of them are truly tacos. The taco is so important to Mexicans, that it’s part of their DNA with a 5,000-year history that involves religion, wars, feasts, all segments of Mexican society. It needs to be treated with respect and studied in order to do it justice. That doesn’t mean only Mexicans can make tacos. But it also doesn’t mean one should throw around words like gringo tacos when tacos get fancy. Who are we to tell a Mexican chef what he/she is permitted to cook? Do you want to go into the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant and tell the staff what they’re cooking isn’t authentic? That’s racist at worst and ignorant at best. And we shouldn’t discount the efforts of non-Mexican chefs who have a deep love for Mexican food and tacos. They get creative and open a door that allows everyone to enjoy a taco and perhaps explore tacos further. Chefs such as Rick Bayless in Chicago, Lucio Palazzo in Philadelphia, Telmo Faria in San Francisco and Alex Stupak in New York come to mind. The latter doing wild things that reveal the breadth and possibilities of the tacos while remaining in the taco arena.

At festivals like Taco Madness and the Arizona Taco Festival, fancy, media-favored joints attract crowds but it’s the classical enterprises that benefit from the proximity to upmarket businesses. It’s safe for the public to try new-to-them tacos. At the North Texas Taco Festival, which I co-founded, my partners and I expected at most 2,000 attendees. We got a staggering 6,000.

So where in DFW can we enjoy some of the tacos mentioned? Aside from fry bread tacos, which are only available locally during the powwow at Traders Village in Grand Prairie in September, fantastic examples are easily available.

The tradition of Sunday barbacoa is strong. Slurp-worthy versions can be found at La Guadalupana on Hampton Road or any Mexican supermarket, butcher shop, bakery. Sanchez does it with lamb.

Tacos dorados can be ordered at Gonzalez Restaurant and Local Oak (only on Monday nights, though) in Oak Cliff.

La Jaivita on Harry Hines has tacos dorados marineros, exquisite fried fish tacos.

LaJaivita

Ssahm BBQ serves K-Mex.

Fito’s serves tacos de trompo.

Taco Rico on Clarendon Ave. has tacos al vapor.

Other northern Mexican food can be eaten at places like Sinaloan joint Los Torres.

Urban Taco and El Tizoncito—not to be confused with the chain in DF—offer lusty tacos al pastor on tortillas made from nixtamal. Nixtamalization—the process of soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution called cal or lime to separate the husk from the interior and imbue the grain with increased nutritional value in the form of niacin and other vitamins—predates Spanish conquest. It’s making a comeback of sorts after almost being eradicated by production of dried nixtamal corn flour, masa harina, manufactured by companies like Maseca.

El Come Taco has incredible DF-style tacos, including tacos al pastor. Luis Villalva who owns El Come Taco has also distinguished himself by offering rare items like chapulines (grasshoppers), and he tells me that he’s trying to get escamoles (ant larvae). Now that’s traditional!

You can pick up tacos de guisados at La Nueva Fresh & Hot near Bachman Lake.

San Antonio puffy tacos I’ve found at only one restaurant in Dallas: Oddfellows.

Taco Party of course serves gussied up renditions of traditional tacos.

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As does Revolver Taco Lounge in Fort Worth.

So where does the taco go from here?

Interest in regional specialties will increase and spread across the United States, including breakfast tacos and chapulines. An eye toward regionalism will continue to create fusion restaurants like Taqueria de Sol, an Atlanta-based chain specializing in Mexican-Southern hybridization.

Subcontinent Indian-Mexican (Indo-Mex) tacos are gaining popularity, at least in Texas. Tandoory Taco in Houston that has earned praised from Tex-Mex expert Robb Walsh. In Plano, there is Taco Twists, serving dishes like tandoor chicken barbacoa and paneer in tortillas.

American tacos seem to be influencing the taco in Mexico. I don’t just mean fine-dining chefs that trained in U.S. and European kitchens. A friend tells me that in Toluca, a city in the state of Mexico, there is a taco del taco, a crispy taco wrapped in a corn tortilla.

There will be a greater emphasis on higher-quality ingredients. This I think gets back to the regionalism that defines tacos. Already that’s evident in restaurants like Velvet Taco, on track to open a Chicago location, its third, this summer. Mi Mero Mole in Portland, Oregon, is another example. Of course there is also Alex Stupak’s Empellon and Enrique Olvera, a Mexico City chef who is opening a restaurant and a connected nixtamal mill and tortilla factory in New York. In LA, there is Guerrilla Tacos, a truck from chef Wes Avila that spends most of its time parked in front of a coffee shop and Petty Cash Taqueria. San Francisco has Tacolicious. Philly has Lucio Palazzo at Taqueria Feliz.

Across the board, though, what will probably happen is greater resistance to conformity. Diners’ perception of what is a taco will be challenged again and again.

Tacos have come a long way in a short period of time and continue to evolve. I for one am interested in seeing how it all plays out, especially if it’s tasty.

Selected References

Arellano G. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Scribner, 2012.

Escalante A. La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del taco. Trilce Ediciones, 2012.

Pilcher, JM. Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pilcher JM. ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Ralat JR. “More Than An Indian Taco.” Cowboys & Indians, Oct. 2013.

Ralat JR. “Vera’s Backyard-Bar-Que.” Cowboys & Indians, April 2014.

United States Patent Office, No. 2,506,305, Juvencio Maldonado, “Form for Frying Tortillas to Make Fried Tacos,” May 2, 1950.

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3 Comments

Filed under Dallas, DFW, Mexico City, Oak Cliff, Taco Internet, Taco Ticker

3 responses to “A Snappy History of the Taco: It Happened All at Once

  1. Pingback: Four Styles of Trompo Tacos | The Taco Trail

  2. David Garcia

    Excellent history and gastronomical detail about this humble food that is now a standard disk for astronauts who use spreads on tortillas (peanut butter being one) as tortillas don’t create crumbs. The taco has gone full circle to being the intergalactic culinary vessel that was probably originally designed by the aliens who first settled this planet or so the legend goes… Dg

  3. Pingback: Sabor a la Mexicana | The Taco Trail

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