Everything fits in a tortilla

Tacos rank high among the world’s most popular foods. A new cookbook, Tacopedia by Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena, focuses on these delicious dishes and aims to be your comprehensive resource for all things taco. EYB has snagged an excerpt from the book, plus a link to a short video featuring the sights and sounds of tacos. You can view the video on the Phaidon YouTube channel. (Don’t forget to enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of Tacopedia.) This book is part of Phaidon’s special offer of 35% off for EYB Members. Let’s take a look inside:


Everything fits in a tortilla
Alejandro Escalante

As Mexican as mariachi music, the taco is, without a doubt, Mexico’s most popular food. Mexicans eat them so often that the expression echarse un taco, to grab a taco, is synonymous with eating. Tacos have, in fact, become so famous that they have crossed borders to become a symbol of Mexican cuisine. The taco, so commonplace and well-known, is hard to define, but we can start by saying that a taco is a maize tortilla wrapped around food. The tortilla is the vehicle, as well as a key element in itself. In its warm hospitality, it welcomes a vast array of stewed, grilled, fried meats, and other fillings, and on top, a tremendous variety of salsas and seasonings.

tacos being madeA taco, at its simplest, is a tortilla, filling, and salsa – the other holy trinity in Mexico – yet when these three elements are prepared with the proper care and ingredients, tacos can be raised to the status of haute cuisine. The nation’s contrasts are also there to see, plain as day, in the taco. Tortilla in hand, you can make a taco with a pinch of salt or fillings of the simplest or most refined kind. Likewise, for salsas, which are so varied that they are an entire universe unto themselves and are thus assigned their own section in this book. In fact, the humble tortilla has an extraordinary capacity for adapting itself to fillings of every possible kind – meat, vegetables, fruit, cheese – and anything placed in a tortilla is, by definition, a taco.

Now, tacos are part of the wider world of antojitos. As such, they are just a kind of quick bite, an appetizer or a snack; but they can also be a meal in themselves. It’s not unusual to see them served as the main course on tables across Mexico. From posh restaurants that serve international cuisine to taco restaurants that look like hamburger chains to metal shacks and street vendors – without forgetting the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall, or the bikes and vans posted on strategic street corners – the shapes and sizes of places selling tacos are numerous. What’s more, at important events like birthdays and weddings, the so-called taquizas come to the rescue, allowing the host to entertain guests with a wide range of fillings served up in pots, with tortillas ready for them to assemble their own tacos. We’ll talk about homemade tacos later on, but in truth, the real taco – its essential flavor, its exoticism – is found outside, in the streets and in taco restaurants.

The inherent complexity of the different recipes means that many of them require long hours of preparation and are real specialties that should be made only by an expert. Instead of attempting to run through the long list of tacos, let’s just say you can find almost any kind of taco out there on the street. You’ll even come across new sorts that don’t have names yet and, to top it off, you’ll hear talk of morning tacos, daytime tacos, evening tacos, nighttime tacos – somehow all classified by some unwritten, ancestral code. At the end of the day, prestige aside, you never know exactly what’s on your plate, which makes street tacos an unpredictable adventure – and not just a gastronomical, but a literal one, since some street vendors really like to live dangerously: like the taco stand perched on the sidewalk just feet from the eighteen-wheelers rumbling past, the gas tank placed a couple inches from the stove. And then there are the classic details: the plates wrapped in plastic bags, salt shakers that have acquired the patina of time through decades of use, napkins improvised from rough brown paper, and so many more. The street taco is personal and on the spot. It’s made on demand-with this topping, with that, hold the onion, extra salsa, just a little, or none at all. The taquero, or taco maker, has to be familiar with all the possibilities afforded by the range of ingredients on hand, and be able to judge by the patron’s voice the personality a particular taco will assume. The taquero is, in his particular domain, a psychologist who interprets gestures and glances: the young lady and the well-dressed gentleman get two very different tacos, despite ordering the same thing. Being a taquero is something of a show, like being a bullfighter. From the get-go, there is a persona: you have to look like a taquero to stand out from the crowd, and have the voice and presence to go with it. Taqueros have ended up with a uniform of sorts – the apron and the cap. However, the rest is a sham. Mustache, military-style cap – these can be done without. Getting the lingo down is a must, though, together with the coordination and memory required to keep on top of all the orders: doradito, well-fried; sin cebolla, no onion; pura maciza, all lean meat; sin verdura, no greens; con copia, double tortilla; and dos-tres, not too much, not too little – all terms that a taco chef needs to know inside out to make it right.

tacosEating street tacos is a performance, and the interaction seasons the taco fillings, making for a blend of taste and circumstance. In these places you’ll find, side by side or each to its own, the traditional and the picturesque, the humble and the decadent, the sordid and the rowdy, all the time aware that whatever you eat is “at your own risk.” The list of ailments you could acquire eating at some less-than-hygienic places on the street is a long one. Moctezuma’s revenge is not just for foreigners. Whenever it does happen, regret always comes too late, and the problem is not so much in the first fall-but in going back for more. In any case, what separates one taco stand from another is flavor, much more than quality or nutrition-hence the urban legend of dog meat tacos. To be sure, every Mexican suspects (almost entirely without foundation) having been served dog meat at least once. And while some unscrupulous places may use meat of the cheapest sort, and this has a bearing on product quality, in the end, it is the patron alone who decides exactly where and what to eat. In that sense, there’s complete freedom. Street tacos are eaten with your plate in your lap, sitting on empty plastic paint buckets or wooden crates, or often just standing, preferably leaning against a wall or lamppost. For the average Mexican, tacos are just something to eat on the way to somewhere, as a snack-even if it ends up passing for lunch or supper. At taco stands, it’s not unusual to see groups of people engaged in a kind of dance or ritual, with gestures and movements that reveal, to the trained eye, the quality of the tacos being served. Naturally, the number of people around a taco stand is itself a good indicator.

Tradition dictates that the taco connoisseur be accorded the proper deference: this individual becomes “the guide” or “the one who knows.” This honor rewards wide-ranging knowledge of the field and commands awe and respect, since it implies experience: “I’ve been there before, and I had this, and this…” Such tales endow them with an aura of courage, like that once accorded to Aztec heroes. A taco might be greasy and it might be spicy, but it’s always a gamble, and, with a bit of luck, a delicious surprise. It’s a traditional morsel prepared on the spot, and eaten by hand in surroundings that radiate an air of constant celebration. Above all, we head to the taco stand with the knowledge that this – at long last – might be the one with that rare delicacy, or that sought-after, perfectly spicy salsa with the authentic, local flavor that no taco worthy of the name could do without.

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