We’re heading south of the border today and discussing one of the most delicious meals you’re likely to find in North America: Mexican street tacos. And given that we Americans eat 4.5 billion tacos every year, it’s clear that we could all use a little education on the food we’re stuffing ourselves with.
A Brief History of Mexican Tacos
Nobody really knows where the first taco came from. The are records of taco-like meals being eaten as far back as the 15th century, but people didn’t start calling the meal a “taco” until sometime around the 18th century. At that point, the term “taco” described a type of dynamite contraption used in Mexican silver mines, for which strips of paper were wrapped tightly around measured amounts of gunpowder.
Seeing a similarity between this and the way a tortilla wraps around its contents, someone made the connection that taco would be an acceptable name for the entrée. The name stuck, and we never looked back.
The Workman’s Lunch
The taco’s history as a must-have meal in Mexico is actually quite similar to the sandwich’s history in America. For years, tacos were the Mexican worker’s lunchtime meal of choice, as they were an inexpensive and simple way to grab a bite during breaks. (This was quite similar to how American construction workers would bring sandwiches with them in their lunch pails.)
Plus, tacos were an easy way for poor laborers to reuse leftovers from the previous day’s meals, making them the perfect option for those on the go. Eventually, families of workers started preparing tacos ahead of time and bringing them to the workers in the field. This practice expanded over the years, and gave rise to the street taco trucks that we know today.
What Makes Street Tacos Different?
So, we know where tacos came from—but what’s the difference between a “street” taco and the good ol’ American tacos that we know and love?
Let’s start by looking at the ingredients. Typically, the American tacos we see here in the states are served in either a hard, crunchy shell or a soft flour tortilla. They may be filled with meat, beans or rice and are garnished with cheese, lettuce, tomato or onion.
Conversely, street tacos are very simple. They’re generally small, served warm in hand-sized corn tortillas. They’ll be filled with some type of spiced meat and garnished with little more than some onion, cilantro and maybe some hot sauce.
You won’t find any of that rice, beans and cheese nonsense in authentic street tacos, and indeed, many people don’t even consider the American version to be a “true” taco. And they’re right. With so many ingredients, American tacos are actually more similar to burritos than street tacos.
By their design, street tacos are meant to be snacks that are eaten quickly on the go. Most authentic street tacos are sold by vendors from small taco carts rather than full-service restaurants for this very reason.
This is in stark contrast to a typical American taco meal, which usually features multiple larger tacos with extra sides of rice or beans. Of course, there are plenty of taco trucks and street vendors in America that try to replicate the authentic street taco experience, but unless they’re handing you a small item you can down in a few bites, they’re missing the mark.
Now You Know the History of Tacos
Now that you know the history of tacos, you’ll be ready to educate anyone who says they’re in the mood for authentic Mexican. And if you’re ever south of the border, you definitely need to try one for yourself. You might be amazed at how different a true Mexican street taco is from what we have here.