Since April 2022, mother-and-son duo Cecilia and Adan Pacheco have been serving smash burgers, tacos with silky barbacoa, and smash burgers with chorizo mixed into the ground beef patties at their pop-up restaurant, Pacheco Taco N Burger, in Grand Prairie. Earlier this year, friends and family flooded Adan’s DMs with videos of people making smash-burger tacos.
In the videos, creators cook ground beef patties smashed flat on commodity flour tortillas. The resulting crispiness of the tortilla and charred meat adds a wonderful textural experience. Each taco is often finished with a slice of American cheese, onions, pickles, and a ketchup-mayo sauce before being folded and devoured.
“It was popular on social media, I know,” Adan Pacheco says. “So, man, I thought I’d try.” But on his first attempt at what seemed like a natural fit for his menu, he didn’t like the result: the greasy patty wreaked havoc on the integrity of the flour tortilla. He vowed to move on.
But social media seemingly hasn’t. On TikTok, #smashburgertaco and other similar tags have a combined 626 million views. And earlier this month, Bun B and chef Mike Pham of Houston-based Trill Burgers appeared on Good Morning America to make their version of the trend with mac and cheese as the topping. If we follow the trajectory of viral food trends (need we be reminded of beef birria?), we’ll eventually see smash-burger tacos on restaurant menus. But, as always, context is critical, especially when it comes to popular yet misperceived foods. Smash-burger tacos aren’t unprecedented phenomenons. In fact, their roots go back to the early 1900s.
The idea of placing formed ground beef in a tortilla is old, and the first stateside recipes for tacos that we know of require frying. One hails from the California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, by Bertha Haffner Ginger, published in 1914. But no social media creators I’ve seen mention of the history of this specific taco and its original name: the taco dorado.
Isidro Salas, a native of Aguascalientes, Mexico, is one of my frequent taco traveling buddies. He is also a podcaster and social media critic. Salas quickly slammed users showing off their smash-burger taco skills as a classic case of cultural appropriation. He just as quickly backed off when he learned about the long regional history of the taco. “I’m glad to have been wrong now that I know its history,” Salas admits. Still, he acutely feels the sting of erasure when regional food traditions are ignored, especially since he grew up working on his parents’ taco truck. “What got me upset is that creators with huge followings renaming them as Big Mac tacos or smash-burger tacos or whatever are erasing history and tradition.”
Salas is referring to such tacos as the Pattie Beef Taco at Micha’s in Tucson, Arizona. The taco, a whole ground beef patty in a tortilla, has been on the menu since cofounder Artemisa “Micha” Mariscal opened the restaurant in 1976. (I wrote about the taco and the aforementioned recipes in my book, American Tacos: A History and Guide.) Closer to Texas, there are taco burgers and tortilla burgers at New Mexico Beef Jerky Company, in Albuquerque, and at New Mexico–based chain Bob’s Burgers (no relation to the animated TV show), established in 1963.
In his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano covers the history of the old-fashioned Mexican hamburger popular in Colorado and New Mexico. It’s a simple dish—a burger with all the fixings, including chiles, wrapped in a flour tortilla.
The hamburger taco is an old favorite in Mexico City. For more than thirty years, taquero José Antonio González has made tacos de hamburguesa at his eponymous Mexico City taqueria, Don Toño. They’re his specialty, and customers arrive early because the tacos sell out fast. Some days Don Toño garnishes the tacos with a habanero guacamole, and on other days, he serves them with a salsa de águila (“eagle sauce”) of chile de árbol and tomato or a salsa based on seasonal fruit.
The pioneering taqueros behind L.A.-based Evil Cooks—those of the ice cream trompo and flan taco fame—have been serving McSatan tacos since the COVID-19 pandemic. Inspired by Don Toño’s tacos de hamburguesa and the McDonald’s Big Mac, co-owner Alex Garcia says the off-menu item begins with a ball of ground beef pressed thinly in a tortilla press and slid onto the plancha, where a slice of American cheese is added. A pinch of queso blanco is placed next to the sizzling burger, and a nixtamalized corn tortilla is plopped atop the cheese until a costra forms. The final combination is capped with caramelized onions, bacon slices, and a tart salsa verde.
I visited Pacheco Taco N Burger this month and asked Pacheco if he could make me a smash-burger taco. He hesitantly agreed. The one he served me was on a white corn tortilla, which held up to the beef and heavy-handed sauce made with ketchup, mayo, pickles, and spices. Pacheco was excited to learn the history behind the burger taco during a postvisit phone interview. “I want to improve on it,” Pacheco said. “I thought it was something somebody just made up, honestly. I’m going to put it on the menu for sure, now that I know it’s traditional.”
For the most part, though, the burger taco is most commonly cooked at home. Rio Grande Valley native Joseph Gomez, owner of Con Todo in Austin, grew up with burger tacos. “I’ve eaten burgers with tortillas a lot of times growing up,” he says, “both on flour and corn; sometimes in gorditas.” Arnulfo “Trey” Sanchez III, owner-pitmaster of Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q, in Grapevine, says he makes them for his family when he runs out of hamburger buns. “Normal patties were too thick, so we just made them smaller and thinner,” Sanchez explains. “I just may have to roll out a Vaqueros version for taco night, though.”
Chef-taquero Jorge Ortiz’s grandmother made them as a treat when he was growing up. “Always with Kraft cheese,” Ortiz says. Earlier this year, he paid homage to his childhood snack when his El Tiger Taqueria, in El Paso, partnered with neighbor Star Burgers & Fries to create a glammed-up burger taco. The dish was composed of a nixtamalized corn tortilla, garlic aioli and cheese from Star Burgers, and onions, cilantro, salsas, and a sprinkle of chicharrones from El Tiger. But customers will never see it on the regular menu. “It was for fun,” Ortiz tells me.
While TikTokers continue to rack up views with the viral smash-burger taco, the Mexicans and Mexican Americans who pioneered the food are largely ignored. The burger taco has been here a long time, and it deserves recognition. But as it inevitably makes its way to taquerias, will it be the margin-boosting media darling beef birria was? I doubt it. Will it become a craze devoid of connections to its past? It already has. But that could change if the businesses benefiting from their sales want to change it. I hope the people making these creations and selling them use better tortillas, though. Every taco deserves a good tortilla.
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