Tacos are a food known all over the world – and not just on Tuesdays. Since they are a regular component of so many restaurant and family dinner menus, it’s no surprise that tacos come in all shapes, sizes, and culinary fusions. In fact, it is estimated that Americans alone consume 4.5 billion of them every year.
People assume they know the origins of this hand-held delicacy and tout their favorite local joint’s tacos as “the most authentic.” Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the tacos they are eating today won’t “fold up” to the originals. So, what is original? Historians today speculate on when tacos truly originated and how they developed into the cross-cultural food we know and love.
As we embark on this journey through the history of the taco, we hope you will develop a new appreciation for this international comfort food. Let’s answer the burning question: “Are tacos Mexican?”
Where Do Tacos Come From?
Tracing the origins of tacos is a complex undertaking because the taco itself has two primary components: a tortilla and the delicious fillings inside. The origins of the taco and the tortilla are interconnected but slightly different.
Scientists have discovered evidence that around 1500 BC, corn was ground into a fine powder similar to flour which could then be used to create a flatbread-style food. This may have been the first tortilla.
These flatbreads were then used as a vessel to scoop other foods to prevent burns from the heat transferred from hot stones or other cooking vessels.
While tortillas have long been used to hold a variety of food items, the origins of tacos as we know them today likely began in 18th-century Mexican silver mines. The term “taco” was used to describe a component of the explosive charges used to extract the ore. Specifically, the taco was the paper that was wrapped around the gunpowder so it could be inserted into the holes that were carved into the rocks.
As the taco’s popularity grew among miners, news of the dish began to spread throughout the working class. Tacos soon became an easy commodity for women to sell in Mexico City. Because the city was a place where people gathered from all over Mexico, vendors combined their own regional foods with hand-held tortillas.
This led the area to become Mexico’s taco mecca, and eventually, people would return to their own towns and cities to create their own versions of the taco. By 1908, Cuautla became the first city on record to advertise tacos containing sausage, chorizo, pork rinds, mole Verde, and many other ingredients. These would eventually evolve into the familiar taco varieties of today.
Tacos in the USA
The reason the Cuautla-style tacos are so familiar to us today is that the early 1900s were a time when Mexican people were regularly traveling to work in the United States. The men would come to work jobs such as miners and railroad workers and bring their families with them. Often, their wives would push carts in the streets of Texas cities like Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio, selling Mexican foods like chili con carne and tacos. These women came to be known as Chili Queens, and they often get the credit for the invention of Tex-Mex cuisine.
The invention of Tex-Mex inevitably leads us to the mainstream tacos you likely know from some of the big chains across the country. As Mexican families in the US began eating more diverse foods, many people still added a Mexican flair. They would use what was regionally available, including ingredients like ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. While these tacos differ from the authentic style served in Cuautla, they are a chief reason tacos are so popular today.
Are Tacos American?
As we’ve demonstrated, neither the taco nor the tortilla is an American invention. However, in some ways, the tacos Americans have come to know and love from popular chain restaurants or even in their own homes are very Americanized. The history of this particular taco is built on cross-cultural influences that develop into a variety of flavor profiles and tap into the unique ingredients of a particular region.
As mentioned, American tacos are considered Tex-Mex, not Mexican, which in itself is a fusion of regional cuisines. So, while tacos may not be American in their origins, the Americanized version of the taco was created with the same authentic process as its ancestor.
What Is a Real Mexican Taco?
Authentic tacos can also be tricky to achieve at home. Many of the prepackaged seasoning packets you can find at the grocery store give you a flavor that you may associate with Mexico, but the reality is that these, too, are an Americanized approximation. Many of the Mexican spices used to create authentic flavors are derived from peppers that aren’t grown in the United States. That means most of what we consider tacos in the US are someone’s best attempt at recreating this tasty treat.
Authentic Mexican tacos tend to have most of the following characteristics:
- Authentic Mexican tortillas are made from corn, rarely flour
- Mexican tacos will never be hard-shelled
- Mexican tacos are typically topped with cilantro, cabbage, and white onion
- Cheese and sour cream, though delicious, are not typically found on a Mexican taco
- Believe it or not, the spicy taco is not traditional in Mexico
- The meat in an authentic taco will be marinated in cumin, oregano, paprika, lime, onions, and chiles and then dusted with salt and pepper after stewing, frying, or grilling.
In fact, most taco sellers in Mexico will have their own flavor profiles based on their region of influence. Some of the most popular types of tacos in Mexico are named by the cooking vessel used to create them, the technique used to cook the meat, or simply the meat itself.
- Asador – These are tacos that use meat that is cooked on a griddle.
- Cazo – The copper pot used to make the fillings for these tacos (usually cuts of beef) gives it its unique name.
- Cazuela – This type of taco is more about the vessel in which the food is cooked. The clay pot used to cook the meat is known as a cazuela.
- Tacos al Carbon – This is simply a taco that incorporates meat cooked over charcoal which infuses it with a smoky flavor.
- Al Pastor or Abobada – This type of taco includes meats (typically pork) that are cooked over a vertical rotisserie. The style was adopted by Mexicans after Lebanese immigrants began sharing traditional cooking styles of their culture.
- Carne Asada – This taco is made from marinated skirt or flank steak, grilled over a mesquite fire.
- Birria – Originating in Jalisco, Mexico, birria is meat marinated in adobo and stewed or braised in a flavorful broth. While the traditional cut of meat is goat, beef has also become popular.
- Pollo – Flavorful pulled chicken is an easily accessible protein throughout much of Mexico.
- Camaron – Many don’t think of fish when it comes to Mexican food, but in Baja California, shrimp and fish tacos are easily available. Fish is traditionally grilled or fried, while shrimp tacos include cooked shrimp on a bed of cabbage and topped with lime juice.
- Bug Tacos – Yes, you read that correctly; bugs are a useful source of protein in many regions of Mexico. The most common insects used include stink bugs, giant winged ants, and grasshoppers.
- Vegetarian – Beans are a staple in Mexico due to the climate and soil. These can become the foundation for great vegetarian-style tacos made from pinto beans, garbanzo beans, rice, and chile slices.
- Breakfast Tacos – Sure, the US created the breakfast burrito, but Mexican breakfast tacos are typically much simpler, often containing scrambled eggs and chorizo.
Get the Best Authentic Mexican Food in America at Backyard Taco
At Backyard Taco, we want you to experience tacos the way they were meant to be. That’s why we offer our customers an experience that brings the old-world flavors of Mexico to your table. With authentic Mexican meats and toppings served on corn (or flour) tortillas, we try to bring you Mexican food the way it was intended to be eaten.
Since 2005, we have been sharing the flavors of Mazatlan, Mexico, with everyone in the Valley area. As the popularity of our food grew, we moved from our backyard and opened the doors of the first Backyard Taco. Come visit us and learn about how our flavors are complex, but our dishes are simple, the way they were always intended to be. Bring your friends and family and stop into any of our Backyard Taco locations to experience “Mexcellence” today.
Dr. Tyler loves tacos! He is one of the owners of Backyard Taco, and can sometimes be found moonlighting there at night or on the weekends.
Dr. Tyler Robison is an alum of Mesa’s Mountain View High School. He graduted from Brigham Young University before being accepted to the “Top Ten-nationally ranked” University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he earned his Doctorate in Dental Medicine and a Master’s Degree in Oral Biology. He graduated with honors in the top ten percent of his class. Dr. Robison continued at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, where he received a second master’s degree in dental science and his orthodontic certification.
Dr. Tyler enjoys serving in his community. He is a provider for the Smile Back Foundation, which offers scholarships for free dental treatment to underprivileged East Valley students. He is also a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve and served during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2008.
Dr. Tyler Robison’s favorite pastimes include spending time with his family on the lake, at the beach, or on the slopes. He is an avid and crazy snowboarder! He has three incredible sons and one sweet daughter: Caden, Jace, Crew, and Bliss.