Written by Kon-Tiki Taco
Taco cart catering has found a popular niche in modern special events. Taco variety and adaptability is due credit – as has always been the case.
As with the baguettes of Paris, curry sauce fries in Amsterdam and green onion pancakes of Beijing, tacos sold from carts in the Americas are “street food” that holds a certain culinary romanticism in the minds of the well-traveled gourmet.
Is it the food or is it about the outdoors? Probably both. But some consider taco cart catering to be the outdoors birthplace of the now-globally loved taco.
That may depend, however, on what you consider a taco to be. Is it the soft shell, open-ended wrap stuffed with carne, onions, cheese and sauce? A hardshell with similar ingredients? Or tacos’ larger cousin, the burrito stuffed to the gills?
To these questions, one must note that tacos are an evolving, global dish that came full flower in Mexico and the American Southwest. Tacos derive from many places – and have gone even further with adaptation.
Indeed, the most recognized contemporary form of the taco originated with street vendors in Mexico. From shops wedged into the tightest of places – or on wheels, finding the customers where they are and when they are hungry – tacos stands and taco carts are almost as ubiquitous as street lights. Many taquerias are clustered on city streets where office workers, construction workers, students and tourists can find them.
But reaching far back in history, at least to the 1700s, food historian and professor of history (University of Minnesota) Jeffrey M. Pilcher theorizes that the original “tacos” weren’t food at all but dynamite wrapped in paper and used in Mexican silver mines. Somehow the name of the little bombs morphed into the working-class foods of burgeoning Mexico City, which experienced a confluence of regional and even global cooking styles, tastes and ingredients – reportedly, Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the early 20th century introduced spiced and marinated meats as tacos al pastor ingredient. The convergence created the neat wraps we now recognize as tacos.
That Mexican dish – which Pilcher says also helped cement Mexican national’s relationship with their Aztec ancestors – began to migrate to the U.S. in the early 20th century, where the “Chili Queens” of Los Angeles, San Antonio and other southwestern American cities invented what we now recognize as the traditional Mexican taco vendors. The ingredients evolved too, moving from offal meats to the affordably available hamburger and adding lettuce, cheese and tomatoes.
When did street vendors start becoming taco caterers? As Mexican-Americans ascended economically in the U.S., many a Quinceanera, confirmation and graduation party included one or several taco stations. Construction workers from diverse backgrounds got their midday recharge from street-vended tacos near their work sites. But in fact the majority of people el Norte discovered a version of tacos from the familiar fast food chain with “taco” in its name. The “corporate taco” wrapped bricks-and-mortar around the dish, a type of legitimacy necessary for those who were less inclined toward adventurous gastronomy.
Things have come full circle today. Chili Queens still sell their excellent street foods in cities around the country. Meanwhile, gourmet versions of taco cart catering have transformed events that range from bar mitzvahs to weddings to corporate events and, yes, Quinceaneras. Along the way some pretty awesome ingredients have been inserted between the corn and flour tortillas – and why not? It’s an adaptive dish that has stood the test of time, a treat with the textures of tasty, fresh local ingredients that are easily enjoyed in the great outdoors.