On The Range: Tacos
Try to define the taco. It's like inviting trouble to sit down and hang out awhile.
According to Alison Cook, who wrote a landmark story in Texas Monthly some twenty years ago, "Taco Capitol USA," the only constant is the tortilla--and some people even argue about that. Our first encounter is often the classic, U-shaped fried corn model available on every street corner courtesy of Tacos Bell, Bueno, and Cabana.
However, in San Antonio, soft tacos have long enjoyed widespread popularity, and as Cook notes, "a rich and exuberant catalog of ingredients finds its way into San Antonio tacos, from basic carnitas to cactus pads, from esoteric offal like brains to strange New World hybrids like wiener-and-egg. Almost anything goes, including Polish sausage, chilaquiles, dried shrimp cakes, or.....chopped-beef barbecue. " Not to mention fish tacos, which I first encountered on Maui almost a decade ago, but have since become so ubiquitous that they are now a featured menu staple of many seafood restaurants.
But hang on a moment. Why are these concoctions classified as tacos and not enchiladas or burritos? Such designations seem rather arbitrary, but Cook at least tries to answer the question this way: "When is a taco not a taco, anyway? When you have to eat it with a fork, I say."
In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh notes that when diners asked for crispy tacos at a typical Tex-Mex joint back in the 1940's, the tortillas were not premade but fried to order. The most simple preparation involved frying regular corn tortillas into U shapes then stuffing them with ground beef, spices, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. More enterprising cooks soon learned to fill the tortillas with picadillo before frying, prying them apart to insert cold vegetables and salsa.
Puffy tacos were made with fresh masa. But instead of cooking them on a tomal, the raw tortillas were dropped into hot oil or lard, where they would then balloon into shape before being filled.
Homemade puffy tacos are relatively rare these days and aficionadoes will sometimes drive hundreds of miles to Meccas of Mexican cuisine like Caros Restaurant in Rio Grande City for a sample. Unfortunately, the burgeoning fast-food movement of the fifties and sixties led to the creation of pre-made shells. And in many places, Tex-Mex has never truly recovered.
Luckily, Esparzas Mexican Restaurant in Grapevine has a number of taco permutations at its location just off one of the most interesting main drags in this part of North Texas. Tacos al Carbon, soft cheese or chicken tacos, numerous seafood presentations (Enchiladas De Mariscos and Seafood Tostadas; alas, no fish tacos), build-your-own classic crispy tacos, and yes, even Puffed Tacos.
Esparzas provides a lovely patio for those who just want to drink and graze--and the residential setting is a reminder of the days when Tex-Mex was the pride of a family's home cooking, not the multimillion dollar business it has since become.
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