Monday, October 26, 2009

Zen and the Art of Taco Making

There are a thousand stories in the naked kitchen and this is just one of them.  Tacos. An institution in our household. A word that can stand alone, unsupported by characterization, chronicle, delineation, or depiction (, but as a writer, I of course cannot leave well-enough alone.

There is a plethora of tacos - that perfect union of bread, salad, meat, dairy  and spice - the only dish I know that can compete with the hamburger for universal utility, but my tacos are the best. I love my tacos. If they were a man and I were single, I would marry them.

I should first establish that I'm talking about what might be characterized as a "crispy" taco, made with fried corn tortillas, not "soft" tacos, which are traditionally made with flour tortillas. Some day I will tell you about my eternal quest for the perfect chorizo, or about my fish tacos with mango salsa, but today, the topic is the traditional crispy taco.

When I make crispy tacos in our house the world seems a better place and the cares of the day disappear. That is because I make an exceptional taco. It isn't fancy-smancy. In fact, the ingredients, with a few funky exceptions, are pretty predictable, tortillas, meat, spices, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, but there is just some unidentifiable alchemy that happens when I make them. I have one friend to whom I can text the single word, "tacos," and I know she will drop everything and appear at our door, that rather pitiful look of "need" in her eyes, like a crack addict close to the score.

Taco making is actually an important two-step process. There is the preparation of the taco ingredients, and then there is the construction of the actual tacos. The preparation of the ingredients is a critical building block that predictably determines the end product, and is really more about ingredients than preparation. Being a taco-maker from way back, I'm in a constant evolution of taco-revelation, always suspecting there is an improved version just over the galley gully.

I should warn you that I'm not one of those purist that must grow the corn, grind it, pat the meal into tortillas, and fry them. I'm one of those "easy-ist and best tasting-ist" gals.

First, there's the taco shells. Angie's Restaurant on East 7th Street in Austin, TX, makes the best crispy tacos I've ever laid a lip to, next to mine that is. Her tacos are superior because she makes the corn tortillas herself and fries them in lard, and although I can virtually feel my arteries shutting down as I eat them, they are divine! I guess if I had a fry-baby, I might try that at home, but I made a conscious decision years ago not to invest in any kitchen equipment that would encourage frying, so I've deferred to what I think is the next best thing. Taco Bell taco shells.  Yes, I said it, and I'm not ashamed. Please believe me when I say that not all taco shells are created equal, and Taco Bell taco shells are the ones - just be sure to cook them in a 350 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes or they'll taste raw, which is not good.

Next is the meat. I tried doing the ground turkey for years in an effort to improve our diet, but you know, some dishes just need to be left alone in their efforts to end our lives. Taco are one of those dishes. Who wants to live to the bed-wetting, thousand-mile gaze, slack-jaw and drooling age of 80 anyway. So get the 80% lean beef and forgetaboutit.

Seasoning the meat is really important so I leave that to the experts - again, Taco Bell.  I'm not a seasoning wimp, I can spice till the cows come home, but I have yet to create a better taco seasoning than Taco Bell. Only change I recommend is that you use two packages of the Taco Bell seasoning per pound of beef, rather than the one they recommend. Doubling up doesn't make it hotter, it just gives the meat a deeper, richer flavor.

Pico de gallo is something I think we all come out of the womb knowing how to make, and I honestly don't think any particular pico recipe is a deal-breaker, so do your thing on the pico, just be sure to use lots of fresh limejuice.

We subscribe to overindulgence at our house, so there's the sharp cheddar cheese and sour cream. Yes, I tried the reduced fat cheese and sour cream, but it's like taking a shower in a raincoat. Get the good stuff and diet some other time.

Moving on to the construction of the tacos. This is where it gets really controversial - each taco-consumer convinced that their construction technique is the Nirvana de Tacos. My taco construction execution has migrated over the years as practice has perfected, but each person has a belief in his or her own personal taco construction that borders on obsession. I proselytized with my hubby for years to convince him that one should put the cheese in the taco shell first, then the meat, so that the meat would melt the cheese, and once he latched on to that theory, he clung to it like a bad religion, but more recently, I've found that I like what the meat does to the bottom of the taco shell, so I've gone back to the meat then cheese order of business.

What comes next in your taco construction is, not unlike an orgasm,  somewhat difficult to describe. There's the option of the lord-help-me sour creaminess enveloping your oral orifice first, or the voodoo of fresh lime, cilantro, onion, pepper and tomato (pico) exploding on your taste buds. Or, if you really love sour cream, as do I, mix your pico and sour cream together - holy cats, we're talking some seriously messed up eating here, but it is legal, so enjoy. I do however, love the layers of flavors, the first bite where each chew is a new discovery of texture, taste and tang!

Also, although my hubby would disagree (he of depravity and wanting, who constructs up to eight tacos at a time), I recommend that you only construct two, maximum of three, tacos per trip to the taco bar.  However, I'm not clear as to whether this is a reflection of my psychosis of wanting to get into my tacos quicker, or a science-based recommendation, so use your own best judgment here. I will say though, that the magic of the ingredients seems to wane after about three tacos, or is that my appetite. Oh well, whatever.

So, at the risk of leaving out some defining detail about the Zen of Taco Making, I'll close by saying that if you would like to be added to the "tacos" text alert, please let me know.

Yo Quiero Taco Bell, Yo No Quiero Lunes!



  1. So funny, I even overlooked the low-class use of Taco-Bell ingredients!

  2. I know - it took me years to even admit that I used Taco Bell ingredients!! Ha! SueAnn

  3. Made me hungry for tacos at breakfast time!


  4. You, my dear SueAnn, should be a food writer. No, wait, you ARE a food writer. I have never heard the lowly taco described in such a tantalizing manner! And don't worry about Taco Bell - just proves you're a very smart gal. Charlena P. S. Yo quiero Taco Bell!

  5. Dear Charlena: JS is back in Austin and asking me a lot about you - and so surprised that we managed to hook up! The Internet - gotta love it.

    I am always so flattered when you like my writing, Charlena - I know this was a silly post, but fun for me. Thanks for the feedback! SueAnn