I admit it. I am a food snob. A nose in the stratosphere prig when it comes to food. And that sometimes presents problems. Major problems.
The first Mexican dish I ever ate was a taco. Well, OK, this taco wasn’t really Mexican. But I thought it was. I was sure it was. It said so on the box it came in.
I should have guessed from the name. El Paso is in Texas, dummy, not Mexico. But ohhhhh, did I like it. You could buy just the taco shells or a complete taco kit and, equipped with one of those Old El Paso boxes, I could boldly say, “I’ll cook dinner tonight, Honey.”
I always prepared them the same way. Because that’s what the box told me to do. Burger with an envelope of seasoning mix, lettuce, tomato, grated cheese (Medium Cheddar was my choice), and, my signature touch, hot sauce (three drops of Tabasco that accidentally became six or seven). Also, accidentally, I would always seem to break one out of every four taco shells.
Then the chains arrived in my Canadian hometown. Taco Bell and, soon after, a couple of pretenders. As a die-hard food snob, I only went into Taco Bell once; it was late, I was drunk, and it was a Mexican guy called Gil Cruz that suggested it so that made it a little more OK. And my lack of attendance was despite the fact that one out of ten Americans apparently eats at Taco Bell once a week. Glen Bell (now you know where the chain’s name came from) even claimed to have invented that U-shaped, deep fried taco in his biography.
But the crispy taco shell may have actually had its beginnings with a man born in San Miguel’s neighboring city of Celaya. Juvencio Maldonado opened New York’s first Mexican Restaurant, Xóchitl, in the city’s theater district in 1936. Jeffrey Pilcher tells the story in his book, Planet Taco:
”A technological visionary as well as a restaurant impresario, Maldonado patented the first mechanical taco fryer. On his arrival in New York, he had listed his trade as electrician, and he demonstrated technical ingenuity in his patent application, filed in 1947 and registered three years later. His “form for frying tortillas to make fried tacos” consisted of vertically stacked holders in a metal frame that could be immersed in oil and then unfolded to release the tortillas.”
In 1976, I finally made it to Mexico. Suddenly single again and in search of sun, sand and cervezas. Plus a very authentic taco.
On my second day, I headed for the back streets, where people in tank tops and cut-off jeans feared to tread. There I found my little hole in the wall and there I grazed the menu in search of my very authentic taco. But there were no tacos on the menu. And none on the menu the next day when I ventured deeper into those back streets. I was told Mexican restaurants didn’t sell tacos, street carts sold tacos. But I couldn’t find a street cart in this resort town. Not in the middle of the afternoon, anyway.
On the fourth day, I decided to change my focus from tacos to women in tank tops and cut-offs. I went into a place called Carlos and Charlie’s that was overflowing with women overflowing in tank tops and picked up the menu. It looked like a chain restaurant menu but I was safe, I was in Mexico, far from the eyes of my foodie friends. It was a long menu but down near the bottom I found the word taco, actually found it twice, one that came with steak, another with shrimp. No ground beef. Not really authentic I thought. But steak or shrimp versus burger. Even though you got three of each, I ordered both.
What I got were the limpest, skimpiest, lily-white tortillas wrapped around some imaginative innards. These weren’t tacos I thought. Tasty…but not tacos. Tacos are crispy, crunchy, with tans like those tank-topped ladies.
In the early eighties I finally learned the truth about tacos. My teacher was a guy called Barry Ashley, a New Yorker who had moved to Toronto and occasionally worked for me as a photographer. Barry opened Toronto’s first (I think) mostly Mexican restaurant called The Peasant’s Larder in a dodgy part of town where only a New Yorker might be gutsy enough to go. Barry was the big enchilada when it came to Mexican cuisine. Barry taught me the difference between Mexican food and Mexican-American food. Barry told me why he sold two different tacos but that the hard shell ones were about as Mexican as George Hamilton playing Zorro.
Food snob that I was, I don’t think I ever had a hard taco again. And you know what…I’ll bet you do know…I miss them. I even decided to do some research to see if, by chance, their origin might actually be Mexican. Maybe I could justify one little taste. Maybe even a full meal.
I checked with my two gurus of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy.
Senora Kennedy said, “…a taco is a tortilla bent in half to form a deep U shape, fried crisp, and stuffed with ground beef, iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato and grated cheese”…oh, wait a minute, I missed the first part of the sentence where she says, “To many people outside Mexico…”
Senor Bayless said, “Only on the northern border do U-shaped, hamburger-stuffed tacos show up.”
So I delved deeper to one of the first English language books ever about Mexican food, California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, written in 1914 by Bertha Haffner Ginger. And there on page 10 is an illustration and a description of a taco. If it’s not too blurry, you’ll see that, not only does it look a little like a crispy taco shell, in the description it says that it is deep fried, just like a crispy taco.
That was Mexican enough for me. Forget your foolish snobbishness I thought. I was going to have me a crunchy American-style taco. But where in San Miguel de Allende would I find one?
I have four go-to places for tacos in this town: Tacos Don Felix, Tacos Don Tequila, Taco Lab Tacolicious and Mi Bistro 300. So off went four emails. Would any of them put a crispy golden taco on their menu? To my great surprise, one of them already had.
The owner and executive chef of that restaurant told me, “When I was a kid I would go to Taco Bell and order them. I actually just had them recently but they were not what I remembered them to be as a kid.”
That chef is Donnie Masterton. That restaurant is Taco Lab.
“I love those Americanized crispy tacos dorados”, Donnie continued. “I consider the idea of the crispy taco shell as Mexican but not what they are serving at those chains.”
And what is Taco Lab stuffing in their hard-shell tacos? I think that’s the best news of all. Because they’re using the same fillings that they use in their soft tacos.
Baja-style fish, braised chicken, pork carnitas, veggie, and guajillo-braised short rib of beef. Four of five are extraordinarily good fillings (you can guess which one I left out). One of those four, the short rib, I recently named the best of all tacos in San Miguel.
“We serve a mini trio with your choice of filling with shredded lettuce, tomato and queso fresco at Taco Lab”, said Donnie.
I’m up in the land of Taco Bells as I write this. You know where one of the first places I’ll be eating when I head south again.
Taco Lab is located inside Doce 18 Concept House at Reloj 18 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open seven days a week from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. Telephone is 415 154 8317 but it’s not the kind of place you’d ever make reservations for.