From a traditional Mexican dish of al pastor topped with cilantro and onions to the Texas tradition of wrapping pretty much anything in a tortilla, Houstonians can appreciate all forms of the taco.
That’s especially true during Hispanic Heritage Month, which is from Sept. 15-Oct. 15.
“To me the taco will always be simple yet beautiful. It comes down to a mix of protein and veggies, a good tortilla and a spicy salsa,” said Marco Torres, who grew up in Northside and has written taco-related features for Houstonia Magazine. “You can add cheese or avocado or fancy micro-greens, but the holy taco trinity is what I admire most.”
The traditional Mexican dish has seen an evolution in America with the addition of toppings such as sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes and yellow cheese. But Torres doesn’t necessarily see those additions as an evolution of the dish.
“I actually don’t believe that the taco has evolved beyond the already amazing flavors that have existed for centuries,” Torres said. “The taco has been here way before us and will be here long after we’re gone. It might be more popular nowadays because of social media and because of the foodie culture, but the taco has already been this awesome and this delicious.”
Lance Fegen, the culinary director for Liberty Kitchen, said that with so much diversity throughout the United States, it’s only natural that everyone will take a relatively simple dish and get creative with it.
“That being said, I am a traditionalist when it comes to ordering tacos for myself,” Fegen said. “For instance, when I drive through Mexico on my surf trips, I order what I first see at a taco stand. Maybe it’s a taco de bistec or al pastor, or perhaps something with goat, escamoles or nopales.”
He orders the tacos as they come without any adjustments. He said an environment brings as much flavor to tacos as a cook, if not more.
“I think it’s important to remember and represent tacos’ roots when developing a taco recipe and avoid going crazy for the sake of being crazy, keeping in mind that just because something seems enticing on paper, it may not work in practice,” Fegen said.
Fegan also said he doesn’t think there’s a limitation on taco toppings. To him, the “spirit” of the taco is that it’s limitless.
Fegen is familiar with sticking to taco roots and still getting creative with a recipe. For Liberty Kitchen, 1050 Studewood St., he worked months developing a version of what he called many people’s favorite fast-food taco.
“Ours are made with good ingredients,” Fegen said. “Meats by Linz ground beef, taco seasoning, white American cheese triangles, shredded lettuce, tomato and, of course, that red sauce, reminiscent of what comes in a packet.”
These tacos, which are called J’ ‘N B’ tacos, were created for the fun of it.
“I stopped taking myself seriously as a chef a few years ago,” Fegen said. “If we aren’t having fun, if we aren’t cooking food that recalls memories and emotions from our years past, then I’m not sure what we’re doing here.”
While Houston has plenty options for a more “Americanized” taco, Torres said the city is blessed with taco traditions and flavors from many regions.
“We have trompo, bistec and carne asada from Northern Mexico, suadero and pastor from Mexico City, delicious barbacoa and breakfast tacos from the Rio Grande Valley, and Tex-Mex BBQ from Austin and San Antonio,” Torres said.
Torres said people ask him all the time if he ever gets tired of eating tacos. His answer is that he doesn’t, because there’s so much variety.
“The quintessential Houston taco experience is the late-night taco,” Torres said. “A long day of work or after a concert or the club, we stopped by our favorite taco truck for a round of greasy tacos, frijoles and a Coke. It might not be the healthiest, but damn it I’m going to die happy.”