Friday, October 12, 2007


My first experience with tacos happened soon after a Jack in the Box fast food restaurant opened in my home town of Brentwood, NY in the 1960s. That was one of the first fast food restaurants in the town, and was unique because it had a drive-thru—a real novelty at the time. They also had this strange menu item called "tacos."

Today, I shudder to think of the tacos served at the place. The shells were crisp, but the meat within them soaked them to the point where they were more chewy rather than crunchy. They had meat, taco sauce, shredded lettuce, and a (tiny) bit of cheese in them. For a kid in elementary school who never tasted tacos before, they were wonderful.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I had tacos from elsewhere. Taco Bell had a place in Centereach on Middle Country Road, and their tacos didn't have the sauce in them. Instead, they had packets of sauce that you could put on your tacos if you wanted. At first, I wasn't particularly thrilled with those tacos, but they eventually grew on me, and provided a counterpoint for the ones from Jack in the Box.

When I moved to Miami, FL, one of the things I noticed was that there were many, many places to find tacos. There were chains, there were small tacquerias run as Mom and Pop places, and there were Mexican restaurants.

My favorite chain in Miami was called Taco Viva, which offered over a half dozen different taco sauces, ranging from mild to "El Scorcho." The tacos here were fresher than the ones I had in New York, and they became a regular staple of my diet. Sandra appreciated the fact that they gave her a choice so that she didn't have to endure the El Scorcho that I tended to choose for myself.

It was also in Miami that I ventured to my first Mexican Restaurant—a place called El Torito in The Falls shopping center in southwest Miami. The Falls was built in the early 1980s and is an open-air mall with impeccable landscaping (with, of course, waterfalls). I went to El Torito with a few friends. My only experience with Mexican food, up until that first visit, was the tacos. El Torito introduced me to enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas and the other wonderful Mexican food items that I have since come to enjoy.

Back to the theme of this entry, though, I found that the tacos at El Torito were different than the fast food versions that I expected. Instead of using ground beef, their tacos were stuffed—actually, overstuffed—with shredded beef. Fresh lettuce, tomato, and cheese rounded out the taco, and there was salsa at the table if you wanted to add it to the tacos. Yum!

I remember a business trip I took to San Diego where there was a Mexican restaurant between the hotel and the convention center where the trade show I was presenting at. I popped over to that restaurant for lunch one day, and ordered a few tacos. The tacos I received were massively overstuffed with tasty ground beef and fresh vegetables—probably the best taco I ever had anywhere (too bad I can't remember the name of the restaurant... sorry!).

Believe it or not, I never actually tried to make tacos myself until I moved up north to New Hampshire. I found it a bit tricky to fold a corn tortilla to that familiar U-shape, but I kept persisting at it until I came up with something that wasn't too misshapen.

It wasn't until the kids were around, and we started a tradition we called "roll your owns" for a taco meal. I browned some ground meat and added taco seasonings and spices. While I cooked, Sandra and the kids would prepare lettuce, onions, shredded cheese, green onions, tomatoes, and cilantro onto plates. We had some salsa and other toppings such as sour cream put in bowls as well. Once the meat was cooked, I put it into a bowl, and then rinsed and dried the frying panso I could put it back on the burner, add about an inch of vegetable oile, and then I would start cooking the tortillas.

I had, by now, different styles of tacos in my repertoire:

  1. Soft tacos—Fried for about fifteen seconds per side
  2. Medium tacos—Fried for about a minute per side so the taco was still bendable but had a bit of a crunch
  3. Tostada—Fried for a couple of minutes until the taco was completely hard and flat
  4. Hard taco—Fried for a couple of minutes, but after the first minute, I'd bend it and use a fork to hold the shape until the shell was completely hard

I'd cook each taco, one at a time and each made to order. In our family, the "mediums" were the most requested, since they offered a good compromise of bendability and crispness. Tostadas were also liked because they seemed to hold the most fillings (just pile it on!). Occasionally, a hard taco would be requested, and the soft tacos were almost never requested.

When everybody had their fill of tacos, I would cut the remaining corn tortillas into wedges and fried them. The chips and remaining salad ingredients, along with some salsa would be combined into a taco salad leaving no leftovers to have to worry about.

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