Tacos: The Original New World Food

The Humble Taco Is More Relevant Today Than Ever

Amy Sherman
Classic carnitas tacos in corn tortillas

A taco is simply a tortilla wrapped around a filling that is eaten by hand. But that’s just the beginning. It’s also an incredibly popular, accessible and versatile dish that transcends borders and time. The history of tacos goes back to the pre-Hispanic era before there was a Mexico or a United States. “Tacos are not only ubiquitous, they are the great equalizer. Everyone is equal when you get to a taco stand—it doesn’t matter if you’re in an Armani suit or if you’re a laborer,” Mexico City food tour operator and chef Ruth Alegria says.

As Alegria rightly points out, the word tortilla is Spanish, but corn is a New World crop, and there are records of something being served inside a corn tortilla dating back to the Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo in the 1500s. 

Originally, taco fillings found on both sides of the border often rely on affordable meats such as barbacoa, beef that’s been grilled (“asado”), and guisado, or stew. Another important style are tacos de canasta, named for the baskets in which they are transported and sold from, and are also known as street tacos. In Mexico, they are soft and moist with a wide range of steamy fillings. Street tacos are common in the U.S. too, but they are often sold from carts or trucks rather than baskets. Still, in both Mexico and in the U.S. they are inexpensive, quick to eat and convenient.

Tacos have a long-spanning history of being wildly innovative. They sometimes have fillings that originated outside of Mexico such as carnitas made from pork which came to Mexico with the conquistadors, and al pastor, which was introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants who had a tradition of eating pasture-raised lamb in bread. Al pastor is made from pork, because lamb is less common in North America, and there are no regional religious prohibitions against eating it. The crisp shell taco, while not authentic to Mexico, was popularized by the Southern California chain Taco Bell in the 1960s and took off.  In Texas, the fajita tucks grilled steak (the name in Spanish means belt and refers to the skirt steak used, which is a thin and long piece of meat) into a flour tortilla. And fish tacos, thought to be invented on the Baja Peninsula and popularized in America in Southern California, have become widely available across the country, beloved for their battered fish breading, soft corn tortilla, cabbage slaw, and sour cream-based dressing.

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These days, tacos are as diverse as the world’s population, and innovating faster than ever. Though most tacos in Mexico rely on the corn tortillas, some regional American tacos are served in flour tortillas, while others are served in vegetable flavored tortillas, and other kinds of wraps including Japanese nori seaweed, thin slices of jicama, and even Native American fry bread. Korean tacos originated in Southern California. Barbecue tacos, high-end chef-driven tacos, and native American tacos all reflect the way in which tacos continue to evolve and stay relevant while reflecting specific places and cultures. Pastrami tacos are a favorite at Tacolicious in San Francisco and at both taquerias and delis in New York City. Breakfast tacos are popular in Texas. Lisa Fain, author of The Homesick Texan Cookbook, says, “The breakfast taco, which takes a flour tortilla and stuffs it with eggs, meats, cheese, salsa, potatoes, and beans in a multitude of combinations. As the name implies, these are usually served in the morning.” Crunchy tacos are topped with Parmesan cheese in Kansas City—something you won’t find in the crunchy tacos of California.

When it comes to tacos, there are no boundaries, and the original New World food feels more relevant and exciting today than ever.

Korean Tacos from Bonchon

Experience taco excitement today at the following places:

  • Taqueria El Sol: This spot specializes in breakfast tacos filled with chorizo, potato, scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa.
  • El Tonayense: A traditional taco truck with fresh and affordable street-style tacos with seven different traditional Mexican fillings including offal specialities like tongue, beef head and crispy tripe.
  • Saucy Asian: Tacos here are filled with a choice of Korean meats such as bulgogi or soy sauce chicken and traditional condiments including fresh slaw, guacamole, crema and pico de gallo salsa.
  • Chisme: Known for vegan tacos include one made from jackfruit and another with fried eggplant, seasonal greens, red onion and peanut mole.
  • Nick’s Crispy Tacos: Famous for tacos done “Nick’s way” with a crisp and soft tortilla, and also their Baja-style fried fish taco.
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