June 27, 2014

ta·co
ˈtäkō/
noun
  1. a Mexican dish consisting of a fried tortilla, typically folded, filled with various mixtures, such as seasoned meat, beans, lettuce, and tomatoes.

But honestly, this can mean different things to different people. It's probably safe to say that most Americans think the only choices you need to make when it comes to tacos are 'crunchy' or 'soft'. Some have been clued into 'puffy tacos' - which as I understand it are uncooked corn tortillas which are fried till they expand - and California or Baja-style tacos, which usually include a fried flour shell. 

There are all kinds of crazy variations out there also (tacodilla, anyone?), which run the gamut from amazing to borderline travesty. But for the purposes of this post, I'm talking about traditional Mexican style tacos, for the most part. That means... THIS.

Now THAT's a taco. (Al Pastor Los Portales).
These are also tacos. (Shrimp and Fish @ Mariscos Los Willy's)

History

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, a meal which Hernán Cortés arranged for his captains in Coyoacán. It is not clear why the Spanish used their word, "taco", to describe this indigenous food. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

Street Tacos

For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about traditional or street tacos. That means corn tortillas. Made from corn, water and lime (calcium oxide). More on that process here, if you're interested.

And while this post is meant to be an introduction, there is SO MUCH MORE information out there. And a lot of that information can be reviewed at The Serious Eats Guide to Taco Styles. Information on the differences between griddled, fried, braised or simmered fillings, plus salsas, specialty tacos and much more information than you probably didn't know you even wanted to know about tacos.

What you do need to know though, when visiting a new Taqueria (a Mexican restaurant specializing in tacos) though, are the food-related words. So the intent here is to help provide some guidance for places that might not offer English menus (or speak much English). 

I'm a firm believer in that you can go a long way in the world just knowing food words in other languages. (Or at least that's all the multilingual communication I aspire to right now...)

Taqueria el Paisa. Some of the best in town!

Sometimes there are chips too. Try to share.

Fillings

Fillings can really be anything. And let's just say that if you're really opposed to trying new things, this probably isn't going to be in your wheelhouse. But if you go in with an open mind, just know you're going to taste some pretty amazing things. Also worth noting, there are lots of animal parts in the fray here. So vegetarians, be aware of that. 
  • carne asada (grilled steak)
  • cabeza (beef head)
  • sesos (beef brain)
  • lengua (beef tongue)
  • cachete (beef cheek)
  • suadero or 'rose meat' (tender beef cuts).
  • ojo (beef eye)
  • trompa (beef lips)
  • chorizo (Mexican sausage)
  • tripita (pork tripe / offal)
  • buche (pork stomach)
  • al pastor (pork marinated with pineapple)
  • carnitas (slow-cooked pork)
  • pollo (chicken)
  • pescado (fish)
  • camarones (shrimp)

Accompaniments

Tacos show up on two overlapped small tortillas, usually with onion and cilantro. Limes are typically made available to squeeze on some additional juicy goodness. Sometimes sliced radishes or pickled chile peppers make an appearance as well. Occasionally - but more rarely - you'll see some grilled onions or cucumber slices. Shrimp and fish tacos usually break the rule of 'cilantro and onion' and include some kind of slaw instead (see above).

Tacos may also be served with salsa or guacamole, depending. Sometimes pico de gallo makes an appearance. Sour cream, cheese, lettuce, and the like are not included or needed. 

If you're counting calories, you can ditch one of the corn tortillas and save yourself 50 calories, but then you run the risk of compromising the structural integrity of your taco. Nobody wants that. 

Aqua Frescas

The first Tour de Taco we did back in 2012 introduced me to Horchata. My taco tour immediately also became an 80 oz. horchata tour. 

And now  I can't believe I lived on this earth for so long without it. So keep these words in mind also, and try out some new beverages to wash down all that taco goodness. Aguas Frescas (fresh waters) involve blending fruits, cereals, flowers, or seeds with sugar and water to make light non-alcoholic beverages.

Many types are self-explanatory (watermelon, for example). Here are some others worth a try.
  • Horchata - made with rice and cinnamon
  • Tamarindo / Tamarind - a pod-like tree fruit
  • Jamaica / Hibiscus - made from hibiscus flowers
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