How to build better tacos at home, from the tortillas to the toppings

Neil Perry's Mexican dishes.
Neil Perry's Mexican dishes.  Photo: William Meppem

I have read a lot of fine literature in my day, full of beautiful turns of phrases and imagery. One of my favourites, though, is one you, too, may be familiar with if you're a parent: "Pantloads of tacos." Really paints a picture, right? It comes from "Dragons Love Tacos," the 2012 best-selling book written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, which is about, well, taco-loving dragons. Anyway, a good taco party, the book says, requires many tacos - buckets, pants and even boats full of them.

Sometimes, that's about how many I feel like I can eat in one sitting, especially thanks to their versatile, customisable and perfectly sized nature. Whether you're a taco-loving human or dragon, here are some tips to help make your best ones yet.

Chipotle chicken in adobo.
Chipotle chicken in adobo. Photo: William Meppem

1. Let your imagination run wild. Maria Mazon, who runs Boca Tacos and Tequila in Tucson, Arizona, says that as a chef, she wants to stay true to a concept and maintain respect for her native Mexican cuisine. But as far as tacos go, she's willing to say put whatever you want in them. "Why not?" she says. "You can wrap anything." (Cheese, though? Mazon is less sanguine about that very American addition.)

In Roberto Santibanez's Tacos, Tortas and Tamales, written with food writer JJ Goode, the chef and Mexico City native notes, "A taco, to put it simply, is anything eaten on a soft tortilla. From there, the possibilities are endless." Santibanez, who with Goode also wrote Truly Mexican, covers a wide variety of Mexican specialties and traditions. Still, he says, "the truth is that virtually anything can be taco fodder."

So don't hold back. From seafood and poultry to meat and vegetables, it's all fair game.

Smoky black-eye pea and corn tacos.
Smoky black-eye pea and corn tacos. Photo: Phu Tang

2. Consider the tortillas. As Santibanez says, "Homemade tortillas make great tacos even better," but they're not mandatory.

"Props if you have the time and you know how," Mazon says, but even she will buy tortillas at the store. She recommends shopping around to find a tortilla you like, whether that's at a standard grocery storeor even your favourite taco shop.

No matter what you use, though, be sure to warm them. Santibanez recommends heating a dry skillet over medium heat until it just about smokes and then cooking 1 or 2 tortillas at a time, flipping them often, until they're warm and pliable but not brittle or burned. That's about 90 seconds for corn tortillas and 45 seconds for flour. Mazon says she also likes heating tortillas on a grill or even the microwave. You can also place them directly on a stove-top gas burner. Keep heated tortillas warm by wrapping the stack in a clean kitchen towel.

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As to those who like to poo-poo flour tortillas? "Flour tortillas, sometimes maligned as 'inauthentic,' are in fact a staple of the North of Mexico and as Mexican as I am," Santibanez writes. "A mixture of lard and wheat flour, both of which became available after the conquest, well-made flour tortillas are incredibly delicate and delicious." If you decide to make them, the chef says safflower oil is a good option in lieu of lard.

Mazon is not enthusiastic about the hard taco shells you buy at the store. Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, however, is a fan of making his own. Start by lightly brushing corn tortillas with oil. Then carefully drape each tortilla over two bars of the oven rack. Bake at 375 degrees until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes.

3. Layer flavours and textures. When assembling a taco, "The key is balance," Mazon says. She says every bite should have tortilla, the protein (or star ingredient), salsa and acidity. "It's a layer thing," she says. "You need to have the beginning, the middle and the end." Be sure to consider heat (as in spiciness), crunch and creamy flavours and textures, too.

Tacos al pastor with barbecue corn salad.
Tacos al pastor with barbecue corn salad. Photo: William Meppem

There are many components you can use to mix and match those elements, some of which can serve multiple purposes. Think pickled jalapenos and onions (spice, crunch, acidity), guacamole (creamy, acidity) or crema (cool, tangy). Mazon likes radishes and grilled green onions in her tacos and always has lime wedges for a final hit of citrus juice.

Of course, you can't talk about tacos without getting into salsas. You'd be well-served to go far beyond the chunky red stuff you buy in a jar at the store. Santibanez's books are worth the price of admission for the salsa recipes alone, which include some you might not be familiar with, either because they're just less well-known or his own creations. Examples: a spreadable salsa with pecans and chipotle mora chiles, a chunky pineapple and jalapeno salsa and a rustic salsa made with avocados and tomatillos.

4. Build the taco of your dreams. Mazon isn't militant about the order in which to assemble a taco, although you risk a split tortilla if you put wetter ingredients on the bottom. If you're worried about propriety or mess, don't put too much in your taco. Mazon, though, says she's definitely one of those people who do. In that case, just be ready with a second tortilla you can use to shore up the first or fill with whatever fell onto your plate. "People overthink sometimes," Mazon says, "even food."

Adobo-marinated chicken tacos.
Adobo-marinated chicken tacos.  Photo: William Meppem

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