How do I hate thee, crispy taco? Let me count the ways.
From the tops of thy hard shell, which offered all the pleasure of nibbling a plate, to the parabola of thy U curve, which was soaked with the grease of bland hamburger meat. Thy tasteless iceberg lettuce, thy anonymous orange cheese. Thy gelatinous sour cream. And thy watery salsa, which tasted like bile kicked up from my stomach.
In my defense, I didn’t know any better. I was a teenager, it was late at night, and for some reason I craved crispy tacos, which only cost nineteen cents at Taco Bell, where I ate most of the hard-shell tacos in my life. Back in the seventies in the United States, crispy tacos were the only tacos. They were the tacos served on TV shows and lined up on warming trays at high school cafeterias. They’re the tacos that were more recently lampooned in the song “White People Taco Night,” in which a dude cheerfully sings about loading a hard-shell taco with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and sour cream: “It’s a white people taco night . . . It’s not limited to only white people / But white people love it the most,” he croons. Every time I see a crispy taco like that, I think: We’ve come so far! Mexican food is one of the great cuisines, whether it’s traditional, Tex-Mex, or Cali-style. Why are people going to Taco Bell for a Crunchy Taco Supreme? Or worse—trying to re-create one at home.
Let me make one thing clear: I love tacos—the soft ones, at least. A corn tortilla has a taste of its own and subtly absorbs the flavors of its ingredients, whether those are pork cooked al pastor, barbacoa, steak smothered in rajas, or shrimp sautéed with guajillo chile. A really good taco tells a story—where it came from, who prepared it, and what went into it.
Crispy tacos tell a story too, but who wants to hear it?
My wife, Liz, thinks I’m making too big a deal out of this. She grew up at the same time I did and loved crispy tacos then and loves them now. They hold a lot of stuff, she points out, and they’re easy to eat. “Sometimes it’s fun to eat something crunchy,” she says, adding that I like nachos and tostadas, which are crunchy. So why am I so unreasonable about crispy tacos?
Maybe it’s the years-long trauma of consuming the bland dish. The crispy taco sits right next to the bologna sandwich on the shelf of my dreadful American food memories. The thing is, Americans didn’t invent the hard-shell. Mexicans have been frying stuffed rolled or folded tacos for decades, if not centuries. Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican immigrant, actually got the patent for a machine to fry several corn tortillas at once back in 1950. But the hard-shell taco became an American institution after a Californian named Glen Bell opened a restaurant called Taco Bell in 1962, where he served crispy tacos loosely based on the recipe from neighboring restaurant Mitla Cafe (established 1937) with hamburger meat, lettuce, and orange cheese; a few years later he was franchising the restaurants and mass-producing hard-shell tacos, which soon began showing up in supermarkets. They might have been stale and tasteless, but at least they lasted longer on the shelf than soft corn tortillas.
Of course, you don’t have to buy mass-produced hard shells, and you don’t have to fill anything with boring old ground beef. You can put other stuff inside a crispy taco—it’s just that, outside of Taco Bell, Chipotle, and some old-school Tex-Mex restaurants, it’s hard to find restaurants doing that. There are only two available at Austin’s hip, new De Nada Cantina: beef and mushroom picadillo. But the restaurant offers six different soft taco varieties, including pescado a la plancha, camarones pibil, and camote. Why order a dreary crispy taco when you can have a camote taco—a homemade blue-corn tortilla with roasted sweet potato, chimichurri, and smoked black bean–and–chipotle slaw? Curra’s Grill, my neighborhood joint and my favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin, has nine different soft tacos, each of which is amazing (the carnitas will blow your mind). Guess how many crispy tacos Curra’s sells. That’s right, none.
The truth is, I don’t really hate crispy tacos anymore. Now I just feel sorry for them.
How do I love thee, crispy taco? Let me count the ways.
From the tops of thy hard shell, which, when I take a bite, feels akin to chomping into the corny edge of heaven, to the parabola of thy U curve, moistened, as it is, with the sweet juices of succulently spiced ground beef. Thy snappy iceberg lettuce, thy velvety orange cheese. And thy subtly piquant salsa, which, when all combined together, tastes, to me, like a comforting bite of Texas past.
When I was growing up in the seventies, crispy tacos were also the tacos. In fact, crispy tacos were not only the tacos, they were tacos. There were no other tacos. At least not as far as I was aware, raised, as I was, in the culinary backwater (apologies to the Golden Dragon and Giovanni’s) of Temple. I love crispy tacos now as much as I did back then. They are, after all, crunchy. And flavorful and generally faultless as a foodstuff.
Now, are crispy tacos the best tacos in the whole world? No, probably not. Are they even, among all the tacos in the whole world, my favorite taco? Maybe not. Truth be told, that distinction usually goes to the taco that’s in front of me at any given sitting. So, if I had to choose one single taco to eat before entering the great beyond, would that taco be a crispy taco? It probably wouldn’t be. But, again, maybe it would. As I said, I do love them.
Crispy tacos harken back to the simpler times of some bygone era. They’re comfort food, is what they are. They’re chicken-fried steak with white gravy. They’re spaghetti and meatballs. They’re mac and cheese. Heck, crispy tacos are a cornerstone of the multicourse Tex-Mex “regular dinner”—one crispy taco and two cheese enchiladas with rice and beans. Which is all to say, they’re both satisfying and delicious. And, perhaps even more so, joyous. Yes, joyous. Crispy tacos make me happy. And I’m not the only one. I’ve asked a lot of folks, and crispy tacos are roundly beloved. Speaking of round things, at Austin’s El Patio Mexican Food (established 1954), where, during my college days in the 1980s, I consumed more No. 3s than anyone before or after me (I once had two No. 3s in a single day), the crispy tacos are served “open faced,” or, put another way, with a homemade tortilla fried flat. But wait, is that a taco? Isn’t it a tostada? Or a chalupa? I don’t know. Whatever you call it, though, it’s a delectable treat.
Crispy tacos also make my wife, Kendall, happy. For a while there, they made her really happy. In the early aughts, when she was expectant with our daughter, she had only one real pregnancy craving: lots and lots of crispy tacos. Ground beef hastily tossed into a hot cast-iron skillet and then spiced with Old El Paso taco seasoning. Or Fiesta taco seasoning. Or Lawry’s, or McCormick, or, yes, Taco Bell. It didn’t matter. In a flash, spoonfuls of the aromatic filling would be placed into the prefab shells, then shredded iceberg, then chopped tomato, then a sprinkling of grated yellow cheese, and then, to top it all off, a few dollops of salsa. If your mouth is not watering by now, there is something seriously wrong with you.
A good husband to a soon-to-be mother, I never once complained. Alas, the cravings disappeared after Sarah was born, and, with them, the frequent taco nights (and taco afternoons and taco mornings). I miss that ridiculous plentitude of crispy tacos. I really do.
Does my appreciation for this simple dish somehow make me a culinary rube? If so, it’s a label I’ll happily own. But I’m not a culinary rube. I am equipped with a fairly sophisticated palate. For example, I also love chicken-fried steak with white gravy, spaghetti with meatballs, and mac and cheese. And bologna sandwiches! And I also love crispy tacos dorados, tacos ahogados, and puffy tacos—especially in San Antonio, the home of their founding, or at least their popularization. And I love lots of other things, too. Including the tacos I find in front of me at any given sitting—especially if they’re crispy!
Viva crispy tacos!