The taco appears easy to make just by looking at it. It is a tortilla filled with filling, perhaps some salsa or garnishes to top it off. In reality, however, there is a lot involved in making the many fillings in tacos.
To think of this portable food as merely street food is to do it a massive disservice. Mexican cuisine is not a designated UNESCO heritage of culture for nothing, and within the Mexican food category, tacos–these majestic containers of masa, meat, and spices from a large and unignorable part.
Types of Tacos
There are various types of tacos, as any Internet search will attest. I’ve arranged several tacos into categories that bring structure to the taxonomy.
Tacos and So-Called “Real” Mexican Food
‘The way my grandmother cooks it’ is frequently heard in debates about the authenticity of some Mexican food items, revealing a false notion of authenticity, at once informing and degrading the dynamic culture of what we call Mexican food.
Yet every family alters recipes to suit their personal preferences and creates their own original, distinctive Mexican cuisine. It is ridiculous to suggest that there’s this mythical family that holds the single key to what is or is not genuine Mexican food fare.
Infringing on the ‘the way my grandmother cooks it’ is a serious problem for the food industry, particularly, tacos. It relegates Mexican food to a rigid ideal that is limited to specific boundaries and bloodlines, unable to explain the numerous and tasty Mexican foods widely available now.
The taco doesn’t care a whit about borders. It cannot be hemmed in by elderly matriarchs’ biases and opinions. Coming at the end of an extensive tour of these here United States, I present my taxonomy secure in the knowledge that my stomach and tongue have enjoyed all kinds of tacos in all kinds of places served in all kinds of unique, imaginative, and tasteful ways.
So, what follows is a short summary of different United States taco styles. It’s not a complete list; it is purely descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not trying to change the world here. I merely report on what’s what and where’s where with tacos.
1. Tacos for Breakfast
Where’s this at? Denver, New York, Texas, hither and tither in California, and a smattering of other towns and cities.
Tortilla types: Sometimes corn, but more often than not, flour.
While breakfast tacos are a stand-out dish of Texas but their origins go to the South from where they came from and are still served as tacos of Gusados. This style encompasses a broad category, primarily consisting of fillings such as stews braises, and smoky food items that are distinct from each other like cauliflower fritters, mole liver, onions or eggs, chorizo, and liver within corn tortillas.
Additionally, at its earliest and most basic level, tacos for breakfast were just tacos you would eat for breakfast.
Americans in general and Texans first met breakfast tacos in the Rio Grande Valley during the middle of the 20th century. Breakfast tacos are typically stuffed with scrambled eggs consisting of one of these: bacon and eggs, chorizo and eggs, Machado (salt-beef that’s been dried and crushed) and eggs, or weenies and eggs (weenies could be sliced Vienna sausages or sliced hot dog for the less ‘hip’ gourmet).
However, there are certain exceptions. Whole bone-in pork chops can be popular as fillings to fill breakfast tacos in San Antonio.
The most popular taco is the flour tortilla which was the standard of tacos in the frontier regions of northern Mexico and in the American Southwest and Texas for decades. The thickness and size of the flour tortilla differ depending on the area. Tortillas in Brownsville, Texas, hugging the border with Mexico, breakfast tacos can be served with giant, flaky tortillas, which spill over the edges of plates.
In central Texas, the tortillas are smaller and thicker, lovingly dusted with flour that sticks to the top after it has been rolled out. Corn tortilla could be an option, particularly outside Texas, based on where one is dining or on which taco one is chomping. In many instances, people choose corn tortillas because they think corn tortillas are more authentic.
No matter what you decide to do, do not refer to them as Austin-style. There’s only one type of taco Austin can refer to as its signature taco: Migas taco. It’s a mix comprising scrambled eggs, tortilla strips fried, and pico de gallo and cheese inside the form of a flour tortilla.
The breakfast taco is a part of the menu, but this is an obscure one typically under-seasoned and dry compared to other breakfast tacos.
The terminology for breakfast tacos is somewhat complicated in cities like Laredo, where breakfast tacos were often called mariachis, although the word, which originated by a prankster chef, has fallen out of fashion.
2. Tacos for Barbecues
Where’s this at? Texas, the American South, and California; however, there are other regions across the nation.
Tortilla types: Corn and flour.
Barbacoa’s roots are in the Caribbean, in which Spanish conquistadors came across Indigenous Tainos, who cooked on a stick structure they called barbacoa. In Mexico and further north than present-day Texas, barbacoa developed into a method where a food item is made into a covered oven. After the conquest, it was lambs and goats, or cows–whatever was able to endure and benefit from the process.
In Texas, it manifests predominantly as meat from the head of cows, typically the cheeks of beef. Only one restaurant in Texas is allowed to pit-cook their beef heads, but it would be unfair to the others for me to provide it with competitive advertising by mentioning it. Sorry, Vera’s Bar-B-Que, Brownsville, Texas. 😉
While indigenous in its origins, the word barbacoa literally translates from the Spanish word barbecue in English and has been influential in the growth of American smoking meat culture and especially in Texas. In the 21st century, Texan pitmasters began replacing the traditional breakfast consisting of bread and tortillas with white bread.
They gradually began to apply Tex-Mex and Mexican cooking methods to Central Texas barbecue, creating the brisket-heavy meal called Tex-Mex barbecue. However, If you ask a Tejano (a Texan of Mexican origin) about this hottest type of barbecue, they’ll say there’s nothing new, their families have been cooking similar to it for decades.
3. Crispy Tacos for the Munchies
Where’s this at? Across the United States.
Tortilla types: Corn, with a bit of flour.
The first recipes for tacos in English that showed up at the beginning of the 20th century were based on frying corn tortillas. Even as late as 1950 when it was reported that the Brownsville Herald newspaper declared that the taco of old was fried. I prefer calling this taco an old-fashioned taco. Please don’t label it a Taco Bell taco.
Although the California fast-food chain may have done more to spread the popularity of the fried taco in America than any other chain, it did more to spread the word about the fried taco US more than other restaurants, while doing this, it took taco dorado–literally golden taco, what the fried tacos are referred to in Spanish–and transformed into a prefab packaged, mega-mart product.
The makers of the traditional taco and its freshly-fried shell are still practicing their art all over to the Southern borders across Southern California, to the Midwest, and even further and don’t provide one type of taco.
There are traditional tacos that are made from the classic U-shape shell. A good example is the taco in Kansas City made with the help of folding the tortilla in half and sealing it by using toothpicks. After the tortilla is cooked, the toothpicks are removed, and the tacos are topped with parmesan and lettuce.
There are two types of this taco: Taquitos (little tacos) and Flautas. Flautas generally are longer than tacos. They are typically filled with chicken, beef potato mash, or an amalgamation of potatoes and chicken.
4. Tacos to Remember Pre-Mexican ‘Mexico’
Where’s this at? Southern California.
Tortilla types: Different colors and a wide variety of corn.
These tacos should transport you back to when the State of Mexico was called Alta California, before the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Afterward, Alta California became plain old California, possibly the bluest state of all–but let’s not get into politics here.
The name ‘Alta-California Tacos‘ was adopted by a food writer from Los Angeles, Bill Esparza, to describe a regional Mexican food style developed by Southern California Chicano chefs, who merged traditional culinary techniques with the tastes of their younger years.
The foundation of these tacos is an archetypal Mexican corn tortilla. Blue corn, including the chalqueno Azul, is widely employed, and it’s common for restaurants to purchase tortillas from small-scale tortillerias which use the old process of nixtamalization (the preparation of grains like maize, that soaks and cooks in an alkaline solution like limewater).
These tortillas concentrate on including local ingredients caught or farmed locally. A few new trends are tortillas with ingredients that change colors when cooked, like chocolate, chiles, and even greens.
5. Tacos Cuz You Love K-Drama
Where’s this at? Los Angeles, and nationwide.
Tortilla type: Corn.
Though relatively new, K-Mex tacos offer a model for codifying the regional flavor on a larger scale. They are the K-Mex the godfather of tacos, Roy Choi, is recognized for his role in launching the food truck industry’s gourmet movement through his Kogi BBQ trucks in 2008. his use of Twitter was essential for his growth.
Social media is also why his followers witnessed the growing popularity of Korean dishes such as galbi (or galbi) in tortillas grow, which sparked others to launch similar establishments.
K-Mex food trucks and restaurants were serving Korean-style meats in tacos across the nation in just two years, and then Korean tacos became part of the canon because of customer demands. However, it was not Choi who established the position of K-Mex on the American taco menu. The chefs and entrepreneurs took advantage of Choi’s culinary skills.
It’s important to remember that the whole thing wouldn’t be possible without a community of Koreans and Mexicans living together and trading their ingredients naturally during the latter half of the 20th century. Without them, there would not be K-Mex.
6. Tacos for Modernistas (Like Fashionistas, Only More Into Food)
Where’s this at? Nationwide.
Tortilla types: Flour and corn, however, never lettuce. (Look, let’s stop messing about. A lettuce wrap doesn’t make a taco. Tacos need tortillas. Wraps of lettuce are a sad and wet food item. Stop it already!)
Everyone notices the person with the best outfit around, yet not all can wear an oversized pinstripe with two buttons. Modern tacos are usually referred to as fancy (or muy fancy) hipster tacos or, similar to crispy tacos, white people tacos. This latter term is often associated with allegations of cultural misappropriation.
There’s a problem: those elements are present, although the classification of el taco moderno, often referred to by the term chef-driven tacos, includes the previously mentioned K-Mex, Sur-Mex, and Alta California styles.
Between the avant-garde this tiny handful of innovative chefs represents and the many traditional styles adored across the nation, I can confidently say that there has never been a more exciting time to dine on tacos.
7. Tacos Because You’re From Texas, gosh darn it
Where’s this at? Gulf Coast, American South.
Tortilla types: Corn and flour.
As with Tex-Mex tacos and, like all American tacos before it, Sur-Mex tacos result from regional differences resulting from population changes and food industry and ingredient availability. While it is traceable back to at the very least the 1990s Atlanta, Georgia, and the Sundown Cafe, the taco is still in the beginning stage of evolution and codification. In this way, Sur-Mex is a Southern drawl making the most of its sweet and sweet time.
The most well-known taco from Sur-Mex is the chicken taco fried that comes with a vibrant lime-jalapeno mayo, which is the product of the successor to Sundown Cafe, Taqueria del Sol.
Since the Café’s establishment over two decades ago to help represent the South’s rising Mexican population, Sur-Mex chefs and taqueros have been able to incorporate not just elements from the most famous corn cultures in the world but have also incorporated locally sourced ingredients and applied them to create Mexican food items.
Consider albondigas in chipotle (Mexican meatballs simmered in chipotle, topped with collards lettuce) or lamb barbacoa made with ingredients from local markets and farmers.
However, the Sur-Mex taco is not simply Southern food item with a south-of-the-border spice. It also includes the food styles of the regional and immigrant communities and South Asian and Cajun, including dishes such as boudin with a strong flavor and masala tikka tacos and is expected to become representative of the region’s diverse different cuisines.