Close up of tacos

United Tastes of Tacos

August 1, 2022

Tacos found fame in Mexico, but American styles provide chefs with endless possibilities and are seriously hot sellers. 

Who knows who first folded meat into a fresh corn tortilla, added salsa, and dug in? A few centuries on, that spellbinding formula remains wildly appealing with plenty of room for innovation.

Flour tortilla instead of corn? Why not?

Corn tortilla folded into a handy “U” shape and deep-fried? Sure! Taco Bell knows how well this variation on a classic taco dorado works.

Fish, shrimp, heck, even mushrooms, artichokes, or celery root elbowing meat aside? You bet.

Korean grilled beef and spicy slaw taco? Wait, what?

With no rules holding them back, tacos have morphed into symbols for cross-cultural Mex-American fusion, becoming a format for chef-driven innovation along the way. Fueled by popularity and fed by creativity, tacos are practically their own global cuisine. Here are regional ways to riff on the classics, readying them for nearly any menu style.

Breakfast: Who says this eye-opener meal can’t be folded into a tortilla? Scrambled eggs, with or without chorizo, are one option while others include charro beans and pan-crisped cheese; machaca (Mexican garlicky dried, shredded beef) with salsa roja, onions, and cilantro; and potato, egg, black beans, and avocado.

Try: Chipotle migas (scrambled eggs with bits of pan-fried corn tortilla), smoky chipotle salsa, cilantro, and asadero cheese rolled in a warm flour tortilla.

Barbacoa: Barbecue in Spanish, barbacoa is practically an art form, especially in Texas, the protein such as beef, lamb, or goat, seasoned and cooked slowly, ideally suffused with smoky backnotes. Tacos are often built with crumbled cheese, red salsa, cilantro, and always a lime wedge to offset the meat’s richness.

Try: Barbacoa blanca taco of young lamb, rubbed with paste of garlic, cumin, and oregano, and slow roasted, served in a flour tortilla with cabbage, cilantro, and lamb consommé.

K-Mex: Creating a menu for a Los Angeles-based food truck, Roy Choi stirred change by tapping his Korean roots. The cultural intermingling caught on big and 15 years later, bulgogi, marinated, grilled short ribs, kimchi, gochujang, and gochugaru are comfortably familiar nestled in tortillas. Thai and Vietnamese tacos also have sprung up.

Try: Sesame-chili shrimp taco with crisp, panko-fried shrimp, sesame-chili aioli, cabbage slaw, onions, cilantro, and sesame seeds on corn tortilla.

Crispy tacos: You want fried with that? From puffy tacos to taquitos, chalupas, flautas, and more, this is a subcategory onto itself, their popularity cemented by the irresistible draw of deep-fried crunch. Fillings often hold to tried-and-true, with taco-spiced ground beef and cheese, salsa on the side.

Try: Smoked chicken taquitos with guacamole, crema, roasted tomatillo salsa, and crumbled fresh cheese.

Sud-Mex: A sporadic offering for decades in Deep South states, Sud-Mex tacos (‘sud’ means south in Spanish) are primed for breakout, largely propelled by explosive interest in soul food fried chicken sandwiches. Regional foods such as slow-cooked greens, spicy ham hocks, and crowder or field peas just hint at Southern-accented options that find their way into tacos.

Try: Beer-battered fried boneless chicken with smoked cabbage slaw, ghost-pepper mayonnaise, and cilantro in a flour tortilla.

Quesabirria: Less a regional style than a turbo-charged trend, this is part taco, part quesadilla, all sensational. Sometimes called birria, they’re made of flour tortillas covered with melting cheese such as Chihuahua then topped with cooked, seasoned, shredded meat, usually braised beef. Folded and seared to a crisp finish on a grill, ideally in fat claimed from cooking the meat, they come out red-hued, sassy, and sensational. The final flourish, a little dish of chili-spiked braising broth for dipping, makes the whole thing pretty fantastic.

Try: Beef braised with guajillo and chilies de arbol, shredded and moistened with braising liquid in corn tortillas with Oaxacan cheese, onions, cilantro seared and served with braising liquid for dipping.

El Taco Cinco Estrellas: Sometimes called El Taco Moderno, this is the five-star luxury edition led by chefs turning humble street fare into an elegant art form. Think housemade heirloom corn tortillas, ultra-luxe ingredients such as lobster, caviar, duck confit, or foie gras, then put a great big price tag on it.

Try: Seared foie gras in a freshly made blue corn tortilla with Concord grape jam, peanuts, and chili oil.

The information provided is based on a general industry overview, and is not specific to your business operation. Each business is unique and decisions related to your business should be made after consultation with appropriate experts.

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