The Mexican snack is storming the UK, with a slew of new taquerias serving up fillings as diverse as aged cheeseburger and cardamom ice cream. Stylist examines the cult of the taco
Words: Lizzie Pook
Illustration: Andrew Joyce
It’s 11.30am on a Thursday and the production line at Breddos Tacos in London’s Clerkenwell, the capital’s latest street food to bricks-and- mortar sensation, is in full swing. With just half an hour to go before the doors open, harried sous chefs are chopping, braising and frantically blanching as head chef Nud Dudhia barks orders at them. “That’s way too big,” he snaps, pointing at a cabbage resting on the grill. “These need to be neater,” he orders, nodding at a pile of deep-fried tostadas. There are already people outside and queues on a Friday night can extend down the street some 20-people strong.
In the prep kitchen sits the prized tortilla machine. It looks a bit like an oversized industrial toaster from a Holiday Inn, albeit complete with volcanic stones imported from Mexico. Into it, the chefs trickle corn which has been soaked overnight in lime juice to remove the husk. The corn then goes through the grinder, ending up as a masa dough that is rolled out to breathe before the tortillas are pressed, blanched and wrapped in cloth to retain the heat. “We make about 700 tortillas a day,” Dudhia tells me. “It takes our chef, Ed, three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening to prepare them. We also go through five pork bellies, 30kg of beef short rib and 10kg of chicken thighs a day. That’s a lot of chicken thighs...”
Forget the Old El Paso kits of your childhood – modern tacos are the cult foodie trend of 2017. Even Noma’s renowned chef René Redzepi is opening up a six-week pop-up in Tulum next month in partnership with Copenhagen taqueria Hija de Sanchez. Breddos, which started life in 2011 as a street food truck before opening their restaurant in December, is just one of a multitude of taquerias popping up across the UK (a Mexican wave, if you will...). While high-street chain Wahaca has gone from strength to strength since 2007, the new generation of taquerias are moving on from Baja fish tacos to serve cornflake- battered avocado at Taco Queen in London’s Peckham and Pork-a-Cola (pork soaked in Coca Cola) at The Bearded Taco in Cardiff. We’re now eating tacos for breakfast, tacos for brunch (try Corazon’s sautéed tortillas in salsa roja, with eggs, crema, onion and grilled hanger steak the next time you’re in Soho – they are delicious) and tacos for dessert (cardamom and black sesame ice cream tacos at Liverpool’s Xiringuito). Another Soho hotspot, Temper, serves an aged cheeseburger taco and in Borough Market, El Pastór serves roast squash tacos with queso fresco and pumpkin seeds. “The US fast food industry led to a commercialised misrepresentation of Mexican food but its true wonders are now beginning to cross the Atlantic,” says chef Nicholas Fitzgerald who was behind the launch of El Pastór.
Historically, tacos are thought to pre-date the Spanish explorers of the 16th century, with indigenous people folding ground cornmeal around fresh fish. But the first official references to ‘tacos’ didn’t arrive until the late 19th century, when the snack became popular among silver miners.
Traditionally, soft tortillas – not hard shells – are served with most meals in Mexico, but there is an art to perfecting the ultimate taco. “The preparation that goes into making one £3 taco is exactly the same as goes into a £14 dish,” Dudhia tells me. “The foundation of any Mexican food preparation starts with salsa – spices and chillis are toasted over the fire and ground into pastes of varying chunkiness.” Getting the flavours right is a balancing act. “Every bite of a taco should be sweet, spicy, salty, umami and sour. If you’ve got fatty pork belly, you have to think about what you can add to wipe the fat from your palate,” he says. “You’re going to want something sharp, acidic and vinegary like pickled onion or a zingy pico de gallo and finish with a bit of coriander to lift the whole thing and give off floral notes.”
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Ensenada, in the Mexican state of Baja California, is said to be the birthplace of the Baja fish taco some 50 years ago (although indigenous Mexicans were obviously eating their own version for much longer than that). This is disputed by taco lovers in San Felipe, however, who claim the tacos originated there first.
Sonora is the birthplace of tacos de cabeza (cow’s head), which are stuffed with everything including tongue, eyes and lips. They also claim ownership of the carne asada (the classic taco filling) – thin slices of meat grilled over mesquite coals, with salsa, onions and lime.
n the 1800s, miners from the Guanajuato region coined the phrase ‘tacos de minero’ (‘miner’s tacos’) in reference to the paper pouches they used when mining silver, which were stuffed with gunpowder, rolled up and stuffed into the walls of the mines.
In the state of Nuevo León, famous for its steak, marrow is scooped out of roasted bones and smeared over corn tortillas – a trend that has been picked up by fine dining restaurants in Baja California and Mexico City.
Tacos actually pre-date the Europeans in Mexico by quite a while (some believe they originated between 1,000BC and 500BC as a kind of edible spoon). Some anthropologists believe early inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico ate ground cornmeal wrapped around fish from the lakes.
The meat you’ll most likely find in your taco depends on the region of Mexico you’re in. In the northern states, barbacoa (meat slow-cooked over an open fire) is often made with goat (cabrito). In Central Mexico, the preferred meat is lamb, while in the Yucatan region in the south, they favour cochinita pibil (pit-style, slow-cooked pork).
Tacos are generally meaty, but there are a few traditional vegetarian options. Tacos de papa are filled with fried potatoes, and you’ll also find squash blossoms or cooked cactus in some varieties. One of the most famous veggie options, however, is filled with ‘huitlacoche’ – corn kernels that have been infected by a fungus that turns them black. Often referred to as ‘Mexican Truffles’, they’re quite rare but can sometimes be found in Oaxaca and Mexico City.
It’s not unusual to find edible insects on the menu in Mexico. Grasshopper-stuffed ‘tacos de chapulines’ are hugely popular in Oaxaca. And you may also find ‘tacos de gusanos del maguey’ on some menus – ‘gusanos’ being butterfly worms that live on the maguey plant, a type of succulent.
Your ultimate DIY taco kit
If you’re going to make them at home, stock up on these essentials
Recommended by cult foodie Anthony Bourdain, this new taco bible has recipes for everything from tortilla dough to salsas to margaritas and over 10 different types of taco fillings. Taqueria by Paul Wilson (£16.99, hardiegrant.com), out 4 May
Having a good blender is a must to construct the perfect taqueria- style salsas to top your tacos. Get this easy-to-use machine for your kitchen table-top. Tower Vitablend, £24.99; wilko.com
Soft versus hard tacos? The debate starts here
Gareth Watkins, Stylist’s production editor says:
With tacos, as with life, it’s what’s inside that counts. The 24-hour marinated pork pibil, the smoked sweet potato, the chipotle salsa hit. And to convey those flavours from the table to your slavering mouth you need a vessel that is at once unobtrusive yet with a delicate flavour all of its own. That supporting actor is the soft taco. Hard shells get in the way, snapping off in gum-endangering shards, spilling ingredients and getting all up in your grill. No, it has to be soft.
Natasha Tomalin-Hall, Stylist’s art director says:
I don’t care if they are inauthentic or cause taco purists to sweat profusely under their collars. They’re damn good. And the way the sweet taco sauce seeps into the delicate crispy membrane to create that chewy, crunchy texture sensation? Holy guacamole, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven. And no, that’s not the tequila talking. The next time you find yourself reaching for that limp, lifeless tortilla: don’t. Embrace the hard shell. You’ll never look back.
Taco: a perfect science
So how exactly (and we mean exactly) do you make the ultimate taco? Stylist checks in with the experts...
“Twelve centimetres across is our tried and tested size; 10cm tortillas are too messy and everything will fall out,” says Dudhia. “You shouldn’t be able to fit everything in your mouth in one go. Instead, you should be able to fold the taco once, pinch it at the bottom and upend the contents into your mouth like a shot. There shouldn’t be any mess and you should be able to polish it off in two bites. No knife and fork.”
“Always make sure the taco looks half full when building your ingredients,” says Thornton. “The filling should be two heaped tablespoons in size,” adds Isitt. “It might not look like a lot but there needs to be a clear edge around the circumference of the tortilla.”
Top your filling with beans, salsa and queso fresco. “Leave a 1.5cm gap at the edge so this doesn’t ooze out,” says Beth Thornton of Cielo Blanco.
“Sour cream is inauthentic,” says Isitt. “Crema is the real deal and can easily be made at home: mix a cup of double cream with 1 tbsp buttermilk, add salt and leave it to thicken for 24 hours.”
“Fill the middle 4cm of the tortilla with your garnish – diced pickled onions or a few coriander leaves,” says Harry Isitt, founder of Holy Taco supper club.
“Always finish tacos with a squeeze of lime,” says Breddos’ Nud Dudhia. “It gives that fresh lift at the end.”
What to drink
A margarita is the ideal taco companion, but what else can you wash it down with?
Jarritos Mexican Cola
“Mexican cola has a cult following in the US,” says Dudhia. “It’s made with raw cane sugar, which is relatively healthy, and is delicious with all types of tacos.” £1.66, mexgrocer.co.uk
Michelada (AKA The Mexican bloody mary)
“For something different, ask for a michelada,” says Thornton. “It’s beer (preferably a Mexican brand like Modelo) poured over lime and hot sauce with a salted rim.”
“The smoky notes of mezcal complement slow-cooked pulled meats,” says Glenn Evans, head of food development at Las Iguanas. “Take time to sip and savour rather than down it in one as you would a tequila.” £38.99, ministryofdrinks.co.uk
“My favourite taco filling”
Those who make tacos for a living reveal how they like to stuff theirs – feeling hungry?
Founder of Cantina Carnitas (cantinacarnitas.co.uk)
“I love a steak and eggs taco. Take a carne asada taco (with marinated beef steak) and rub the meat with cumin, garlic, lime, salt and pepper. Then serve it with diced onion, scotch bonnet salsa and fresh guacamole, all topped off with a poached egg. It makes an awesome all-day breakfast.”
Brand manager of Cielo Blanco (cieloblanco.co.uk)
“I’d be hard-pressed to choose an all-time favourite, but at the moment I’m loving our superfood version. Mix together cooked quinoa, pomegranate seeds, coriander and palm hearts and serve them in a baby gem lettuce leaf instead of a tortilla. Crisp and delicious.”
Founder of Holy Taco Supper Club (holytacolondon.com)
“The first tacos I fell in love with were Baja fish tacos. Deep-fry thumb-sized pieces of flaky white fish (I use tilapia because it’s sustainable) in a light beer batter, then top it off with a sweet and spicy pineapple habanero salsa and pickled red cabbage for crunch and colour.”
Founder of Wahaca (wahaca.co.uk)
“I love cochinita pibil, slow-cooked pork shoulder marinated in citrus, oregano, scotch bonnet and achiote (an earthy red spice). I was just in New York for a research trip and am excited to be launching a buttermilk fried chicken taco in a few weeks’ time – it is going to be insane.”
Opener photography: Chris Middleton, from Taqueria by Paul Wilson (hardie grant, £16.99)
Illustration: Andrew Joyce @ handsomefrank.com