Ask Americans to describe a taco, and you’ll get a variety of answers—each one more mouthwatering than the previous. You can enjoy a taco with carne asada (sliced grilled beef) and corn tortillas in East Los Angeles. In Dallas, it might be a flour wrap with pit-grilled pork known as al pastor (“shepherd style”). A Memphis taco could come with albondigas (meatballs!) and collard greens. Really?
It’s true. The American love affair with the taco has brought adaptations of the dish across cultures and preferences in the Great American Melting Pot.
José R. Ralat is the Taco Editor (yep, that’s his actual job title) at Texas Monthly. He’s written a book exploring how this simple dish has spread and transformed. Ralat traveled the United States researching the evolution of the taco. He recorded his findings in American Tacos: A History and Guide.
“No one owns the taco,” Ralat says. “It’s a living food, and I wanted to see how it is changing as we change.”
The taco is a creation of “the encounter.” That’s the meeting of Spanish and indigenous American peoples. That meeting led to the corn tortilla coming together with meats, beans, and greens. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, some ethnic Mexicans became Mexican Americans. The taco north of the new border evolved based on available resources. One example: The Mexican Americans in Texas had access only to yellow cheese. Switching cheeses gave birth to what we refer to as “Tex-Mex cuisine.”
Next door, isolated New Mexico residents used red and green chiles in their tacos. California’s diverse population added its own flavors. Some tacos there incorporate an Asian palate.
Some taco creators say they try to stay true to traditional taco orthodoxy—but no one seems to agree on just what that is. Ralat says the strongest advocates for original traditions come from Texas, the heart of Mexican Americana. “San Antonio does its best” to remain authentic, Ralat says.
The history sparked Ralat’s interest, but he enjoys the diverse epicurean results. He’s tracked the taco through demographic upheavals and mass migrations. He found Indo-Mex tacos in Houston. There, Indian restaurants offer snack-sized versions with potatoes and curry called aloo tikki tacos. In both Oregon and Florida, he stumbled upon K-Mex tacos with Korean fried chicken or bigeye tuna sashimi. Jewish-influenced kosher tacos exist in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn combined its famous brisket into a green salsa taco. “Deli-Mex” is what some dub that melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.
No matter your heritage, there’s a taco for you. “The taco is Mexico’s gift to the world,” Ralat says. “And the world is responding,” with a robust “¡Buen provecho!”