A year or so ago, in a fit of hunger after a long day of working outside, I pulled in at a Mexican-themed restaurant near my home, and for no other reason than the fact that everyone else was doing so, made like the other mutts sitting at the bar watching sports and sucking down beers: I ordered three-no-make-it-four hard-shell tacos with picadillo, guac and sour cream, yellow cheese and shredded lettuce. I dolloped hot sauce on the sour cream, red rivulets running down the white, and ate, perfectly content. I ordered a fifth and felt proud I had finished it, just as I had in middle school, crushing taco day in the cafeteria.
Nostalgia requires sadness. The word comes from Greek ones: nostos, homecoming; algos, pain. I felt none at that moment and none in the days that followed. Instead, the combination of silkiness and crunch, the taste of sweet corn and salty, warm-spiced meat, the bite of Cheddar, cool lettuce and the fire of the hot sauce left me happy, sated, at ease. I started to cook them at home.
Probably you have some notions about hard-shell tacos, those prefabricated crunch sleeves of bright yellow corn, filled with spiced ground beef. They are as Mexican as a ranch house in the Michigan suburbs. They are a taste of inauthenticity, perhaps, a heretical sham — lame supermarket Tex-Mex food, a whitewashed charade. Gringo tacos, some people call them, an embarrassment.
Gringo tacos, some people call them. But they remain well loved, in surprising quarters.
But they remain well loved — and in surprising quarters. “Hard-shell tacos served their purpose and serve it still,” the Mexican-American journalist and taco savant Gustavo Arellano told me recently. Arellano is the editor of the OC Weekly newspaper in California and once wrote a defense of the hard-shell taco. “They were the ambassadors of Mexican food at a time when there weren’t as many Mexicans spread out across the United States,” he said. “People say Mexicans don’t eat hard-shell tacos, and that’s bull. We eat tacos dorados — fried tacos. We ate them all through Lent. I could eat five of them right now.”
Aarón Sánchez, the chef and television personality who is a son of the noted Mexican cookbook author and chef Zarela Martinez, echoed Arellano when I spoke to him. “I’ve changed my position on hard shells,” he said. “I’m not dogging them. They’re just folded tostadas, and” — he paused, and sighed — “I guess they get people together as family to assemble and eat and that’s good.”
Even Alex Stupak, the fierce and opinionated chef and owner at the Empellón restaurants in New York and the author of “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations,” allowed that the hard-shell taco has its place. He ate them often as a child. “It certainly appeals to middle-of-the-road America’s favorite flavor,” he said: “Crunchy.” He wasn’t being snide, he added. We got to talking about the joys of making your own picadillo. Maybe even frying your own tortillas and draping them over a foil form to cool into a hardened U-shape before assembling? “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “No morality here.”
CreditGentl and Hyers for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Amy Wilson.
So think about long-ago taco dinners spent in the homes of friends, everyone lined up along a kitchen counter while someone’s mom spread bowls of fixings across the Formica for people to graze. (That couldn’t have been just me.) Make like the chef Derek Dammann of Maison Publique in Montreal, who loves hard-shell tacos so much he put a recipe for them in his cookbook “True North.” (“Perhaps not Canadian cuisine in its truest form,” he conceded.) Or follow the lead of the chef Alex Raij, who with her husband, Eder Montero, runs a number of restaurants in New York City. Assembling hard-shell tacos, Raij said, teaches lessons in balance and the concept of less is more. “There’s something fun about it,” she added. “It’s a great thing to share with adults and children.”
And then watch what happens. Chris Jaeckle, who was the chef at Ai Fiori and All’onda in Manhattan before he moved on to start the sushi-roll concern Uma Temakeria, told me preparing hard-shell tacos in high school made him want to become a chef. Jaeckle grew up on Long Island, a latchkey kid with a hard-working single mom and an insatiable appetite. His mother left him taco kits in the larder for after-school snacks, ground beef in the fridge. One day, browning the meat and toasting the shells and adjusting the spice blend, he realized he was actually cooking — “I was multitasking,” he said, “and it was exciting. There was something about the smell of the cumin and the oregano, and I just wanted to make it perfect. I thought: I could do this for a living.” The next day he went to his guidance counselor and said the same. “You’re crazy,” the counselor said. Jaeckle transferred to a school with a kitchen program and cooked every day. Culinary school followed.
I told Arellano about the start of Jaeckle’s career. “That is a testament to the ambassadorial power of Mexican food,” he said. “That something so humble as a hard-shell taco could get him to imagine the heights to which he could aspire.”
Here is a taste of a time when Mexican food was not as widely available in the United States as it is today, when parents and sports bars looked for food to serve children and those who eat like them, when the combination of crunch and fat and silk was divine. It still can be, if you avoid the taco kits of yore and make your own picadillo, then put it in hard-shell tacos and top how you like. For those who want to avoid prefabricated taco shells, make a form out of aluminum foil, fry fresh corn tortillas in shimmering neutral oil and then allow them to cool into shape on their aluminum saddle. Taco night. You can’t eat just two.
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola, peanut or grapeseed
- 1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 2 tablespoons chile powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika (or substitute hot or sweet paprika)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 cup chicken broth or beef broth, low-sodium if store-bought
- 12-18 hard taco shells
- Toppings: grated cheese, sliced jalapeños, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, etc.
- Place a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the oil. When it begins to shimmer, add the onion, and cook until softened and starting to brown, approximately 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the garlic, and cook for a minute or so to soften, and then the ground beef. Cook until the beef is starting to brown, stirring and chopping with a spoon to break up the meat, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Pour off excess fat, leaving only a tablespoon or two in the pan.
- Heat oven to 325. Add the chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper, cornstarch, paprika and red-pepper flakes, and stir to combine. Add the broth, stir, bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the sauce has thickened slightly, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.
- As sauce cooks, place taco shells on a sheet pan, and toast in oven until they are crisp and smell nutty. Serve a few tablespoons of meat in each taco, along with whatever toppings you like.