A Taco Is Never Just A Taco

A platter of fish and shrimp tacos at a Rubio's restaurant in San Diego.
Adrian Florido
By John Rosman
August 27, 2013

This past month, Fronteras Desk explored the taco – the Mexican comfort food now happily devoured and transformed by Americans. We looked at a few tacos not seen on many menus. 

There’s the Navajo Taco that's folded into fry bread. The bread itself was invented about 150 years ago when the Navajo were forced to migrate from Arizona to eastern New Mexico.

And then there is the Kosher Taco, the creation of an El Paso artist who wanted to blend the taco with kosher food as a nod to the Jews who fled to Latin America, particularly Mexico, to escape persecution.

We also learned how the fish taco crossed the border and wound up on menus across the Southwest.  We ignited a brief civil war in Texas, asking who had better tacos, Austin or San Antonio?

Supreme Court judge Don Willett didn’t even want to weigh in on that one:

San Antonio Vs. Austin Tacos

A simple takeaway from our series: food is never just food. It is an expression of culture. You can look no further than the series our NPR colleagues are reporting on dumplings.

We asked our viewers to share their thoughts on the Americanization of tacos. We were curious to see how the taco evolves within it's region of consumption. Matt Federoff shared, 

I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona...so in my 45 years I've eaten a lot of tacos.

When I was young, a taco was always and everywhere a corn tortilla curved and cooked in oil until crisp. Then it was filled with loose ground beef, and garnished from there. 

In my teenage years in the 80's, when we traveled to California, you would find so-called "soft tacos" or "fajitas"...which are served on flour tortillas and are essentially "mini-burritos". As an Arizona native I did not consider them true tacos. 

The "innovation" came east to Arizona in the 90's, and now all "tacos" that one orders have the potential to be "soft" tacos. The true fried curved tacos are becoming increasingly rare. 

If you listened to our story on San Antonian breakfast tacos you might recognize a similar theme.

Restaurant owner Lucy Cristan had this piece of advice: “The tortilla makes the taco. If you don’t have a good tortilla you don’t have a good taco.”

John Marshall’s favorite taco is neither soft or fried, it's frozen.

My favorite taco is the Choco Taco from Klondike. Taco Time is a Pacific Northwest fast food chain that used to offer the Choco Taco as a postre. Choco Tacos can be found anywhere that Klondike ice cream is sold.

There may be nothing less traditional and more blasphemous than the frozen Choco Taco. For some, with each departure from the basic Mexican tradition, something gets lost. Jason T. Cisneros shares:

Living in Austin, being a Mexican American and seeing what Americans have done to the taco is just infuriating. I always pop off and do not hesitate to tell people that they are bastardizing my people's food. Authentic taco joints made by real Mexicans are far and few between here in Austin. I prefer to make my tacos in my kitchen. 

Maybe the best place to end a taco series should be Tucson. After all, our listener Eric Van Meter reminded us, "It's billed as the Mexican food capitol of the United States."

Most are Sonoran style: "street tacos" served out of food trucks all around the city. They're made on small (6") fresh flour or corn tortillas — nothing like what you buy at the grocery store. 

Simple: mostly just diced chicken (pollo) or steak (carne asada) -- best when mesquite grilled (and we have plenty of mesquite trees). Also easy to find carnicitas (spiced shredded pork), cabeza (muscles from cow head), camarones (shrimp), avocado, etc.

These are served with just the main ingredient on the tortilla, and then guests garnish them as they like from the salsa bar, which always includes pickled red onion, usually a yellow-onion/cilatro mix, pico de gallo (the diced tomato/onion/pepper mix, not the fruit cup), a green salsa, a smoked salsa, Mexican cheese (crumbled asadero) and shredded cabbage (in addition to sliced cucumbers and lime, usually eaten as an appetizer while your taco meat is grilled up fresh to order).

We're also somewhat of a border town, and have a bunch of restaurants that feature regional Mexican variations: papas (potato), spinach and walnut, etc. 

Last but not least, we have a large Asian population, and some restaurants have started doing fusion with Asian tacos 

Despite these amazing options, the best taco in town, hands-down, was an American take on the Mexican classic — the pastrami taco from one of our star downtown restaurants