Some years ago, I was telling a friend about my passion for the wonderful tacos I was discovering all over Los Angeles. When he told me he didn’t like tacos because he didn’t like the hard, toasted tortillas they came on, I was mystified. I had never heard of a taco with a hard shell. Later, I learned that some of the old-school taco places in LA serve them that way, to appeal to unsophisticated American tastes. I guess they’re tasty enough in their own right, but they are NOT the real thing.
Dave Miller recently did a piece on tacos in his great blog: Dave Miller’s Mexico. Here is his list of 5 ways you can tell if your taco isn’t really Mexican:
(The photos are from my favorite taquería in Tijuana, Tacos El Gordo… They are most definitely the real thing.)
1. If the beans on that combo plate you ordered are covered in triangles of yellow cheese or the grated four cheese blend you can get at your corner market, you won’t find it south of the border. I have never seen a Mexican variety of yellow cheese. Cheese in Mexico is usually white and if it is served on beans, tends to the crumbly queso fresco type.
2. If your tacos come with any of the following, ground beef, lettuce, tomato slices, grated cheese, yellow wax paper or even turkey, you are not in Mexico. Tacos come with onions and cilantro in Mexico. They are also made with steak and all the other parts of the cow or pig, but never have I seen a taco filled with ground beef.
3. If you can order shrimp, chicken, steak or any other type of fajitas, you won’t be finding that plate in too many taco stands or restaurants in Mexico. Sorry folks, as wonderful as fajitas can be, I’ve never seen fajitas in Mexico. I’m sure they are served somewhere in that great country, but this is a dish popularized by the Orange County restaurant chain El Torito in the 1980’s.
4. When you ask for salsa and the spiciest option you get is Amor or Tapatio bottled sauce, you certainly are not ordering your food in Guadalajara. In Mexico, we love our chiles. Habañeros, jalapeños, serranos and chiles de agua, we love them all, and expect to experience these tastes in, and on our food. Unfortunately, the American palette is not ready for this type of experience so we mostly get a tomato blend spiced up with a little bit of pepper.
5. Finally, when you walk in the door, if the first thing that greets you is a wall of sombreros or a chile in a beach chair, you can bet you’re gonna get a lot of that yellow cheese covered stuff. The derivative here is that if you see folks getting drunk wearing mariachi hats and dancing like loons, you are more likely in Papas-n-Beer or On the Border than a traditional Mexican restaurant.