Why Tacos Are Popular

overhead view of two authentic street tacosStand up or sit down, the choice is yours

Food historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, estimates tacos have been around in the United States since about 1905 and first became popular among children of Mexican migrant workers. These early tacos were based on rolled and fried taquitos, served with avocado sauce. They mimicked standard Mexican fare but used American ingredients that were readily available: cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, and tomato. The hard shell is distinctly American.

The taco had always been considered street food. Made up like an envelope, it’s easy to hold and relatively quick to eat, perfect for the American on the go. They can be eaten standing up, allowing social interaction. And yes, they may be messy, but that’s part of the fun.

The Taco Bell franchise, which opened in 1962 and sells some two billion tacos a year, capitalizes on this and brought the street food indoors, bringing Mexican flavors to American palates. Then the Chipotle chain. Americans demand a higher-quality taco, bringing it into a new culinary phase: high-end, gourmet tacos. But you don’t have to go to a high-end restaurant to get them. Taco trucks or specialty taco restaurants may deliver the taste you’re looking for. Americans don’t mind paying a couple extra bucks for better-tasting tacos.

Taco trucks are a treat, because tacos are best eaten just after they’re made.

Going beyond the traditional ingredients

What goes into a taco? It used to be Adobo-seasoned, ground or pulled meat (pork, beef, chicken), beans, lettuce, tomato, maybe some onions, guacamole and/or sour cream, and some sauce. Fish tacos first appeared in southern California and continue to be popular, whether made with mild tilapia, grilled shrimp, or smoked marlin. Lamb tacos provide an alternative, too. But what about grilled octopus? Duck legs? Lobster? Anything you can imagine can go into a taco.

Here are some other ingredients to consider:

  • Vegetables—Mushrooms, swiss chard, nopales (the pad of the prickly pear cactus)
  • Potatoes
  • Pickled jalapeños
  • Capers
  • Olives
  • Shredded cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Pine nuts
  • Spaghetti (for the carb lover)

There are even Korean tacos.

Experiment, too, with different salsas and their heat levels:

  • Tomatillo
  • Chipotle
  • Serrano-lime

The key to a great-tasting taco is the shell, which should be crisp and light. Consider a taco station for your next catered event and let your guests sample the wide variety of options available.