Are You Taco-Ready?
Get Your Spice On, Because the Evolution is in Full Swing
Tacos are on a streak to the top, elevated from fast food staple to fine dining menus, and gaining a higher profile at every segment in between. Now chefs like Alex Stupak (Empelleon), April Bloomfield (Salvation Taco), and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (ABC Cocina) have joined early advocates like Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) and Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill).
While beer-braised pork tongue tacos a la Chef Stupak may not have achieved mainstream status, the appeal of the taco crosses day parts, courses, venues, cultures, even generations. We’ll explore some boundary pushing taco innovators around the country to learn how you can break into this hard-shelled gem and make it your own.
Caleb Bryant, foodservice analyst at Mintel, offered his insights on what’s fueling the rise of the taco. Bolstered by millennials, the foodie movement and a fast-growing Hispanic population, the taco is being deconstructed and reconstructed into a more authentic version of its-self. “You see it in preparation methods, like slow cooking of meats and use of ethnic spices, and in the popularity of unusual ingredients such as huitlacoche (a corn fungus) and chicharrones (fried pork bits).” Running concurrently, he says, is the international mashup of foods, an opportunity for chefs to take their food heritage and turn familiar cuisines into something new, reflected in the proliferation of Indian, Asian and African taco fusions.
“What is a taco?” muses Bryant, “but a blank canvas for a chef to show their creativity?”
Consider some of these highly individualized takes on the taco:
At Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, Chef Jose A. Hernandez Rico crafted the Asadero Taco, recognized as one of Texas Monthly’s “120 Tacos you must eat before you die.” Affectionately described as “a massive messy masterpiece of griddle-toasted homemade tortilla embracing beef tenderloin chunks with caramelized onions, poblanos, and best of all, a slab of Asadero cheese,” manager Paul Counter regards it as “our latest and most celebrated signature dish.”
At New York City’s Goa Taco, the South African chef who plied his trade in England and Australia before coming to America, infuses the menu with a real international flair. His paratha (Indian flatbread) tacos are as likely to contain spiced duck as chicken chorizo, and featured mashups include a recado rojo lamb shoulder taco with tzatziki and eggplant salsa and a tofu bahn mi taco with shitake mushroom pâté and peanuts.
Kogi BBQ in LA, featuring Korean tacos that launched both the food truck movement and Chef Roy Choi’s career. In Thanksgiving of 2008, Kogi BBQ rolled out as “the little Korean-taco-truck-that-could, peddling $2 Korean barbecue tacos on the streets of LA, setting off a flavor bomb that would shake up the foundations of the industry so that street food would never be looked at the same way,” according to the website, which is a rare case of hype living up to reality. Industry critics, devoted foodies, natives and tourists alike obsessively followed the food truck for the chance to snag the now-iconic short rib tacos — two crisp corn tortillas, double-caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish and a Napa Romaine slaw tossed in a chili-soy vinaigrette. This year, Kogi BBQ moved into its first brick and mortar home in LA, called Kogi Taqueria.
The North African taco is making its mark, thanks to chef Farid Zadi and wife Susan Park’s quick-serve Revolutionario. When the North African tacqueria started as a pop-up several years ago, the lines were already forming, and in 2015, they moved to a permanent location near the University of Southern California. The fusion makes sense historically, according to Zadi, because the Moors from North Africa ruled Spain for over 700 years, resulting in many Moorish influences in Latin American cuisines. “North Africans also absorbed ingredients that are native to Latin America into their cooking. Examples are chiles and tomatoes. There's been back and forth for a very long time so the flavors in the cuisines marry well,” says Zadi. Tacos with smoked lamb and tagine style toppings, or with seasonal vegetables, or falafel-style are sold by the thousands each week. Wait, falafels are North African? “Not really unless you count Egypt,” says Zadi, “but we make it with a blend of chickpeas, black eyed-peas and ras el hanout (a North African spice blend that contains abundant herbs, onions, green onions and garlic).”
The takeaway: you don’t need a big name to get a taco on your menu, just a willingness to try some big flavors. Even if you’re in a city like Chicago or LA, with literally thousands of choices from high end to casual taqueria, Bryant recommends hosting a fun event like a Taco Tuesday. In a more rural area or one without a strong Hispanic population, “you can do well to launch or enhance an authentic taco offering, using slow cooking methods, Mexican cheeses and corn tortillas.”