Tacos are not classy. They are a workingman’s food made by and for the weary laborer. They are a quick fill up, stuffing as much flavor into as small a vehicle as possible.
Tacos may very well be one of my favorite things to eat and certainly stand out as my favorite street food. This was not always the case. During my years in Albuquerque, the taco was something I never gave the time of day. The weird outlier on a combination plate, the ugly duckling, the kid without a date at the prom. My idea of a taco was a processed hard shell tortilla fried a millennia ago, bland and ominous ground beef topped with the obligatory tomato, lettuce, sour cream and yellow cheese. Something you get out of a school cafeteria, just looking at it making you cringe in your seat and wish you brought a lunch from home.Sounds as bad as I remember it as I am sitting here writing it.
That taco, the one I am describing folks has literally nothing to do with tacos. It is a Tex-Mex bastardization of the good stuff, an oversimplification, a fraud. Move out-of-the-way you crunchy bastard, you are cramping my style.
My time in Mexico City enlightened me to what a taco could be, what a taco should be. It has driven me to the pursuit of taco obsession, of finding the perfect bite, the perfect ratio of meat to freshly steamed tortilla.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s talk components.
The taco is simple but something that should be treated with the utmost respect. In Mexico, the street vendors lives depend on the deliciousness of their product. One piece out of place, one bad tortilla, the whole stand could fold and the dreams of taco glory along with them.
Key word here is the word tortilla, not shell. The outside should not be crunchy, come out of a box or be ready-made for you. Don’t waste your time with that stuff! If the place isn’t making their own tortillas or at least getting it from a tortilleria, then they are simply messing up out of the gate. Like Usain Bolt trying to run in Timberland boots.
The tortilla should be steamed but not to wet, the perfect vessel to get all the goodness to your mouth in one go while also not falling apart in the process. The tortilla is the flavor protector, the safeguard for everything good. If the tortilla fails you, you end up running home to change your battle stained clothes, your freshly pressed shirt turning into a salsa crime scene.
I am a very big proponent of the blue corn tortilla, the heartier and tastier alternative to your regular yellow corn variety. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a street vendor prepare their own tortillas right in front of you. It takes precision and time. A piece of fresh ground masa, a mixture of pulverized corn and lard, lovingly rolled and flatted by work weathered hands. Each move of the cook in a rhythm. The sound of the tortilla crisping on the plancha, the smell, the steam that fills the air. The process is almost spiritual, passed down from generation to generation, the ultimate connection between Mexico’s past, present and future.
In Mexico and on the street you have a lot of options here. What you see upon walking up to a righteous to goodness taco stand is some sort of arrangement of meats all cooking together in their own fat. The sizzle, an intoxicating siren’s call beckoning you in. Many places serve up various kinds of sausages and animal parts but in Mexico, the pig is king. You’ve got chorizo, the spicy Spanish sausage, brain, tongue, intestines, carnitas, pork chops and other delightful pig parts all simmering together in a pork based hell broth. The flavors meld into a cacophonous meat symphony, only finding clarity wrapped up in tortilla and covered in salsa.
Although you have all the options at your disposal, Al-Pastor remains the king of all things taco. Al-Pastor is very similar to Doner Kebab, a rotating spit piled high cooking stacks of marinated pork meat. The flavors all coming together, drenched in the pineapple juice and spices precariously rotating atop. The Al=Pastor spins gloriously above all else, reminding Mexicans and ex-pats alike how good food can really be.
The impressive part of Al-Pastor is the skill of the chef required to properly dispatch the beast. In one fail swoop the chef will hack off a piece of the pineapple on top and seamlessly launch the meat into a tortilla simultaneously. It is an incredible feat to watch. Just as the hands of the tortilla lady move with time-honored precision, so does the blade of the Al-Pastor-man. He stands as the gatekeeper for lunches around the city, the guru, the shaman, the dog-whisperer for the taco realm.
This should be simple. A fresh squeeze of lime, fresh minced white onions and cilantro, simple. With the salsa you too have options. No matter what you choose, whether it is rojo or verde make sure to taste it before you slather your entire lunch with it. It’s a bad call to go in blind and can leave you in a precarious position. I once had to miss a conference call with my boss as i sat there, sweat dripping down my brow, in pure agony as I battled the spiciest taco of my life. Being a funny man, he exclaimed that he had once been there himself, pitied me and we moved on with business, although many might not be so forgiving.
The taco is not to be messed with and a true testament to Mexican food as a great world cuisine.
For a good taco in the US, you have got to head to a Mexican market, it is imperative.
Easy Chorizo Tacos
- 1 pound of Chorizo
- Blue Corn Tortillas
- 1 cup minced onions
- 1 cup minced cilantro
- Limes, cut into 4ths
- Salsa of your choosing
- Tajin ( A Mexican Spice Blend)
To begin, start frying up your chorizo. It may be your prerogative to add some onions to it during the cooking process, this is something I would do. Don’t add any spices to the meat, it is gonna be good on its own.
Once the chorizo is done you have two options with the tortillas. If you have an electric stove turn it to about medium temp. Put your tortilla directly on there, leaving it until it is just charred on both sides. If you are not into charred tortillas, take a stack and wrap them in moist, not wet paper towel. Steam for about 20 seconds in the microwave.
Once your tortilla is ready, fill it up starting with meat and then the chopped vegetables. Top with salsa a splash of lime and tajin and dig in!