Everyone’s abuelita prepares “real” Mexican food.
This is the Abuelita Principle, a term I coined to describe an argument I often hear when debating the legitimacy of certain Mexican foods. It points to a fallacy of authenticity that simultaneously informs and undermines the dynamic culinary culture that we know as “Mexican food.” “Abuelita” means “little grandmother,” a term of endearment for elderly matriarchs, but in this context it also stands in for “authentic Mexican cook,” and so the Abuelita Principle is both true and not true: true in that every family tweaks recipes according to their tastes, creating a new, distinct Mexican food that changes with the home address; not true in that the kind of authenticity it espouses is limited and ignorant of history.
Abusing the Abuelita Principle has serious consequences, for the cuisine in general and for tacos in particular. It offers a cramped view of a gastronomy that is kinetic and expansive. It restricts Mexican food to an imaginary, rigid ideal, one confined to specific borders and bloodlines, one that cannot account for how diverse and delicious Mexican cuisine is today. If we were to apply the Abuelita Principle rigidly, tacos al pastor, one of the most famous Mexican dishes, couldn’t be called authentically Mexican. Setting aside the fact that pork isn’t indigenous to the Americas, or even that tacos al pastor were invented in the mid-20th century, the Abuelita Principle would necessarily exclude the Lebanese immigrants—or Iraqi immigrants, depending on who you ask—behind the creation of spit-roasted pork tacos árabes on pita-like flour tortillas in Puebla, which evolved into the pineapple-topped tacos that everyone loves today
The taco does not recognize borders; the taco doesn’t accept the limits of a finite toolbox, nor does it recognize the iron rule of elderly matriarchs. I know this because I’ve travelled the continent, I’ve visited 38 cities, eaten at more than a thousand taco spots, and listened to countless taqueros, cooks, and scribes to chronicle the stories of the tacos native to the United States and the people behind them, how they connect to Mexico, and how they might be developing in the future. The culmination of this work was my book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, published by the University of Texas Press in the spring of 2020. The book’s main section outlines several stateside taco styles, all of them dominated by fried tacos—crispy delights that remain the most commonly consumed tacos by Americans—but there are others. Some began as regional specialties now available across the United States; others will forever be anchored to their geographical area.
I’ve put together a list of brief summaries of a range of taco styles that exist in the United States. This is not an exhaustive list, and it isn’t prescriptive; think of it as a snapshot of the current taco moment in this country, but remember that tacos are always evolving and expanding, and while I won’t vouch for any one style’s “authenticity,” there are probably some abuelitas out there making tacos exactly like the ones described below, and will be for some time to come.
Region(s): Texas, with outposts in California, New York, Denver, and a handful of other cities
Tortilla(s): Mainly flour; occasionally corn
Although breakfast tacos are an iconic food of Texas, their roots reach south across the Rio Grande and into northern Mexico, where they originated and continue to exist as tacos de guisados. This Mexican style is a wide-ranging category consisting mostly of fillings like slow-cooked stews, braises, and homey dishes that can be as distinct from one another as mole, cauliflower fritters, liver and onions, or chorizo and eggs in corn tortillas. Moreover, at the earliest and the most basic, breakfast tacos were simply tacos that you ate for the first meal of the day.
Breakfast tacos as Texans and Americans know them, which were first served in the mid-20th century in the Lone Star State’s Rio Grande Valley, are generally stuffed with a scrambled egg-based filling: the aforementioned chorizo and eggs, bacon and eggs, machacado (dried and pulverized salt beef) and eggs, or weenies (sliced hot dogs or sliced Vienna sausages) and eggs. There are, however, exceptions—whole, bone-in pork chops are a popular filling in San Antonio.
The most commonly employed tortilla is the flour tortilla, which has been typical of tacos served in the borderlands of northern Mexico, the American Southwest, and Texas for centuries. The size and thickness of the flour tortilla varies by region. In Brownsville, Texas, on the US-Mexico border, breakfast tacos are served in large, flaky tortillas that spill over the sides of platters. In central Texas, the tortillas are smaller, thick, and dusty with flour clinging to the surface after being rolled out. Depending on the restaurant or taco spot, corn tortillas might be an option, especially outside of Texas. In many cases, the use of corn can be attributed to the misconception that a corn tortilla is “more authentic.” As we say in Texas, bless their hearts.
Whatever you do, please don’t call them Austin-style. (I’m looking at you coastal media elites parachuting in for SXSW.) There is only one taco Austin can call its signature taco, and that’s the migas taco. It’s a mixture of scrambled eggs, fried tortilla strips, pico de gallo, and cheese in a flour tortilla. In the pantheon of breakfast tacos, it’s a minor one, and usually under-seasoned and soggy. Breakfast taco nomenclature is also slightly complicated by the city of Laredo, where breakfast tacos were once commonly referred to as “mariachis,” although the term, the origin of which involves a prankster cook, is falling out of favor.
Crispy Tacos (taquitos, flautas, tacos dorados, fry bread tacos, San Antonio-style puffy tacos)
Region(s): Across the United States
Tortilla(s): Corn, with some flour
The first English-language recipes for tacos, which date back to the turn of the 20th century, call for frying a corn tortilla. As late as 1950, the Brownsville Herald newspaper declared that the traditional taco is fried. I prefer to call this style of taco an old-fashioned taco; please don’t call it a Taco Bell taco. While that California fast-food chain likely did more to popularize the fried taco across the US than any other restaurant, in doing so, it took the taco dorado—literally “golden taco,” what fried tacos are labeled in Spanish—and mutated it into a prefab, boxed, megamart commodity. Makers of the old-fashioned taco, with its freshly fried shell, continue to practice their craft everywhere from the Southern border to Southern California, to the Midwest, and beyond, and they don’t just offer one style.
There are the classic old-fashioned tacos made with the familiar U-shape shell. One example of this is the Kansas City-style taco, which is prepared by folding the tortilla and sealing it with toothpicks. Once fried, the toothpicks are removed, and the tacos are garnished with lettuce and grated parmesan. Then there are the rolled variety: taquitos (little tacos) and flautas. Flautas are generally longer than taquitos, but are usually stuffed with beef, chicken, mashed potatoes, or a combination of chicken and potatoes.
Taco ahogados (drowned tacos) are a subset of these rolled tacos, but served submersed in a red or green salsa, and they’re especially popular in El Paso, home of Chico’s Tacos. At the nearly 70-year-old restaurant, the signature tacos are served drowned in a thin tomato salsa and topped with a pile of brilliant orange, shredded processed cheese. Taquitos ahogados are also the signature taco at Cielito Lindo in Los Angeles and have been since 1934, where they’re served blanketed in a salsa verde.
Puffy tacos, which came out of San Antonio, Texas, start with raw corn masa that’s deep fried and crimped as it inflates. They’re best when served with ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomato, and cheese. In Texas and Whittier, California, the first family of puffy tacos are the Lopezes. One branch owns Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio. The other owns Ray’s Drive Inn and Arturo’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio and Whittier, respectively. Lopez family tacos are light and almost buoyant, with a crispy exterior and a chewy interior.
There is one non-corn exception to crispy tacos: the fry bread taco. It developed from the forced displacement by the US government of the Indigenous people of the Southwest in the 19th-century, who were imprisoned on military forts and provided with the (often putrid) commodity foods of lard, flour, and cheese. They created frybread, a fried, fluffy, flour-based flatbread that is traditionally topped with chili beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and shredded cheese. The dish is a staple of powwows and community fairs across the West, and is as much a symbol of colonialism as it is of perseverance.
Barbacoa and Barbecue Tacos
Region(s): Mainly Texas, the American South, and California, but also found across the country
Tortilla(s): Corn and flour
Barbacoa’s origins lie in the Caribbean, where Spanish conquistadors encountered Indigenous Tainos, who cooked on a stick framework they called barbacoa. In Mexico and as far north as what is now Texas, barbacoa became a technique in which an ingredient is cooked in a covered earthen oven. Post-conquest that meant lamb, goats, cow—whatever could withstand and benefited from the process. In Texas, that has manifested mostly as cow head meat, usually beef cheeks. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville is the only restaurant in the state that’s permitted to pit cook their beef heads, a grandfathered-in exception to health regulations prohibiting the use of brick- or earthen-walled pits. Cooked above mesquite burned down to coal overnight, the meat is ever-so-slightly smoky with a predominantly roasted beef-like flavor. In the US, other barbacoa is prepared in steamers or pressure cookers, and it’s traditionally served as a special weekend meal.
Although Indigenous in origin, the word barbacoa literally translates from the Spanish to “barbecue” in English and was influential in the development of American smoked meat traditions, especially in Texas. It was in the Lone Star State in the 21st Century where pitmasters replaced the typical accompaniment of white bread with tortillas. They next began to apply Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking techniques to brisket-heavy Central Texas barbecue, creating what’s now known as Tex-Mex barbecue. But ask a Tejano (a Texan of Mexican heritage) about this trending style of ’cue and they’ll tell you there’s nothing new about it: Their families have been cooking like that for decades.
Region(s): Los Angeles, nationwide
Although relatively new, K-Mex tacos offer a template for the codification of a regional style on a national scale. The K-Mex taco godfather, Roy Choi, is credited with jump-starting the gourmet food truck movement with his Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ trucks in 2008, and his leveraging of Twitter was crucial to his success. It’s also via social media that his followers saw the popularity of Korean preparations like kalbi (or galbi) in tortillas take off, inspiring others to open similar businesses. Within two years, K-Mex restaurants and trucks were slinging Korean-style meats in tacos across the country, and suddenly Korean tacos were wedged into the canon due to customer demand. But it wasn’t Choi who cemented the K-Mex in the American taco pantheon; rather, it was the entrepreneurs and chefs who were quick to capitalize on Choi’s cooking. And it should be noted that none of this would have been possible without the communities of Koreans and Mexicans living side by side and naturally trading ingredients in the late 20th-century. Without them, there wouldn’t be K-Mex.
Region(s): Gulf Coast, American South
Tortilla(s): Corn and flour
Like Tex-Mex tacos and, really, all American tacos before it, Sur-Mex tacos are a regional variation born from population shifts, as well as industry and ingredient availability. Although it can be traced back to at least 1990s Atlanta, Georgia, and the Sundown Café, this taco style remains in the earliest stages of development and codification. In that way, Sur-Mex is a Southern drawl—it’s taking its sweet, sweet time.
The most emblematic Sur-Mex taco is the fried chicken taco with a creamy and bright lime-jalapeño mayo from the successor of Sundown Café, Taqueria del Sol. Restaurateur Mike Klank and executive chef Eddie Hernandez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, established the Sundown Cafe 20 years ago as a way to reflect the growing Mexican population of the South. Since then, Sur-Mex chefs and taqueros have gone on to integrate not only elements of the world’s greatest corn cultures but have also taken locally sourced ingredients and used them to make Mexican dishes. Think albondigas en chipotle (Mexican meatballs stewed in chipotle with collard greens) and lamb barbacoa prepared with components from area farmers and markets.
But the Sur-Mex taco is more than just Southern dishes given a south-of-the-border kick. It also incorporates the cuisines of immigrant and regional populations as distinct as South Asian and Cajun, with offerings like bold boudin and tikka masala tacos, and promises to eventually be fully representative of the region’s many cuisines.
Region(s): New York, Los Angeles, American Southwest, Miami
Tortilla(s): Corn, flour, and crunchy
There would be no Latinidad without Jewish immigration to the New World, which began during the Spanish Inquisition and has been informing Latin American cuisines ever since. Many of these early immigrants were referred to as conversos (the converted) or crypto-Jews, as they publicly professed to be Catholic while secretly practicing their faith. Many of them settled in what is now the borderlands of the US and Mexico. We wouldn’t have the Northern Mexican specialty of sweet and gamy mesquite-smoked cabrito (young goat meat) al pastor without Jews. Jewish immigrants living alongside Mexican immigrants and Chicanos in East LA in the early to mid-20th century also led to the creation of pastrami tacos and burritos. Using pastrami in Mexican dishes is typical of Deli-Mex food, but kosher spins on tacos can take myriad forms. This style of cuisine came to prominence late in New York, mainly in the last ten years or so, with tacos like a pastrami with a smoked mustard seed salsa on a flour tortilla at Delicatessen Taco in Brooklyn. However, there is one problem with this kind of taco, in my view: a pastrami taco can’t be perfected without a rye tortilla.
Region(s): Southern California
Tortilla(s): Different types and colors of corn
Put on those ruby red zapatos and say, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home wrapped in an heirloom corn tortilla,” and you’ll be transported to a time when Alta California was the name of the state of Mexico until the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After that, it was just regular ol’ California. But the name was used by Los Angeles-based food writer Bill Esparza to describe a regional Mexican cuisine developed by Southern California Chicano chefs, who blended classic culinary techniques and the flavors of their youth.
The base of this cuisine’s tacos is the heirloom Mexican corn tortilla, typically sourced from Masienda, a Los Angeles-based purveyor of masa harina. Blue corn, such as chalqueño azul, is commonly used, and it’s also typical for restaurants to source tortillas from artisan tortillerias that use the ancient nixtamalization process. Those tortillas are topped with native ingredients farmed and fished from Southern California, as in the spicy chorizo tacos with sunchokes and date palm mole served at Taco Maria in Orange County, California. Some newer trends include the infusion of tortillas with color-changing ingredients, such as chiles, chocolate, and greens, and the growing popularity of Santa Barbara uni as a filling.
El Taco Moderno
Tortilla(s): Corn and flour, but absolutely not lettuce*.
*A lettuce wrap is not a taco. Tacos require tortillas. A lettuce wrap is a sad, wet heresy.
Everyone notices the best-dressed person in the room, but not everyone can pull off a double-breasted pinstripe suit. Modern tacos are often dismissed as fancy (or “muy fancy”) “hipster tacos” or, in the same manner as crispy tacos, “white people tacos,” the latter appellation often paired with charges of cultural appropriation. Here’s the thing: Those elements exist, but the category of “el taco moderno,” sometimes also described as “chef-driven tacos,” includes the aforementioned K-Mex, Sur-Mex, and Alta California styles.
The category also refers to a smattering of chefs, predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American, who are using high-quality ingredients, classical technique (both Continental and Mexican), and flair to push the boundaries of what the taco can be. Among them are Carlos Salgado at Taco Maria; Silvana Esparza Salcido at Barrio Cafe in Phoenix; and Regino Rojas of Revolver Taqueria and its spinoffs, Purépecha Room and La Resistencia, in Dallas.
Between the vanguard this small handful of forward-looking chefs represents and the many established styles that exist and are celebrated across the country, I can say with some confidence that there’s never been a more exciting time to eat tacos.