Gringo Tacos

Put this one in the category of articles I wish I’d written it before Sam Sifton did.

Hard-shell Tacos: What’s so wrong with them?

They get a bad rap (wrap?) as Sifton points on in his recent NYT article. The gringo taco, the Tex-Mex appropriation. The middle school cafeteria lunch.

And just back from a trip to Mexico where I spent a whole day learning Mayan and traditional Mexican cooking techniques, then ate tacos for 5 days, I feel sheepish even addressing this. But the nostalgia factor is high. My mom made theis pass-the-toppings meal at least once a week and I remember it fondly. The shredded cheddar and cubed tomato, iceberg lettuce and canned black olives. The beef juice that ran down your arm as your bit into the crunchy shell. As Sifton says, they still have their place at the family table.

Recently we stopped by a friend’s apartment to deliver their 6 pounds of frozen salmon from an Alaskan share that I introduced them to. They are both new to the country—she is from Hungary and he is an ambassador to the Netherlands. They entertain high-profile people all the time, sometimes without warning

Come in, she said, have some wine.

We sat at her counter as she poured wine and retrieved huge chunks of cheese brought back from their last trip abroad. Then he came home like the Dutch do—full of energy and cheer and without even taking off his jacket, joined us for wine. The kids were playing elsewhere and he invited us to join him later at a little-known outdoor bar run by Monks where a local musician from his country was having a show—that started at 11pm.

But first he would have some dinner, and we would join him. Oh no, I said we should get back….it’s late. We are intruding. I already made dinner at home. What are you talking about? He glared at me. Why wouldn’t you stay?

All of a sudden his wife started making tacos—hard shell American tacos with the little packet of taco seasoning that my mom used to use. She set up little bowls of lettuce, sour cream, tomatoes, shredded cheese around their too-large dinner table and told us (and the kids) to dig in. It was casual and delicious and revelatory. A piece of cheesy American nostalgia that I’ve secretly cherished for decades reignited by a family who had only been in the States for a year.

Of course, I had to make my own at home and of course, there were mixed reactions from the peanut gallery. Nate liked the shell that was like a chip and ate one with just cheese. Mack tried it but his eyes didn’t open as wide as his head, which is what he does when he loves.

Today on the heels of our trip, I stopped at the store to buy some chile peppers and stumbled on an aisle of hard shells and bottle sauces. Nope, I thought, I’m too good for that. Then I got home and read Sam Sifton’s ode—his recipe is just a slightly glorified adaption of the recipe on the back of the taco seasoning packet. Now I’m craving crunchy gringo tacos that fall apart in your hand and I don’t care if they’re fakes. Sifton eats them and so will I.