The Importance of Skilled Taco Assembly

by Perette Barella

The quality of a given meal is often related to the skill of those in the kitchen. Anyone can, of course, throw a steak on a grill or in a pan and cook it. Whether it will be juicy and flavorful depends on application of proper temperatures, cook time, and spices.

Tacos are often looked down on as a food that does not require proper skill. After all, what is in a taco? Shredded cheese and lettuce, cubed tomato, sour cream, maybe some guacamole or refried beans, and meat. The meat is most typically ground beef that has been sautéed in a pan with spices which are pre-assembled in convenient packets available at the local grocery. Just add one packet per pound of beef— how hard can any of that be?

All these ingredients are placed on a small, round piece of bread ("soft shell") and wrapped into a little tasty treat. Alternately, the shell can be folded in half and deep fried to make a crispy folder in which to file ingredients; again, these are readily available pre-prepared at the grocery for those not up to toil; although they are quite edible cold, if the purchaser desires, the "hard taco" can be heated in an oven before final assembly.

The overall concept of tacos, then, seems quite simple.

The difficulty in tacos is not in compiling the ingredients, it is in the final assembly stage. Attend an event with a taco buffet and observe the behavior of the unskilled as they select ingredients for their meal, and a standard failure mode will quickly become evident. After selecting the desired shell, the amateur tacoist will invariably attempt to fill his taco at least half with meat, half with lettuce, half with tomato, half with cheese, and so forth for the available toppings which pique his appetite. Even the mathematically challenged can see the problem here: there are far too many halves going into the single taco.

The overloading causes one of two things to happen depending on the type of shell: On a hard shell taco, the massive amount of topping crammed into the shell overwhelms the structural integrity of the rather fragile hinge portion, causing the shell to utterly fail. In the soft shell variation, the hungry tacoist finds his shell to be inadequately sized for the mound of ingredients he has loaded onto it. After some messy attempts to adjust ingredient position to allow closure, the hungry soft shell eater— now driven to a famished desperation by the aroma of the meat and other ingredients— either forcibly closes the taco and rips the shell, or assembles it in a haphazard manner that does not properly encapsulate the ingredients. The latter case is perhaps the more dangerous, as the ravenous, inexperienced Mexican fanatic will undoubtedly attempt to consume the tasty morsel without considering that in doing so, the extra ingredients will escape from the rear of the shell and onto whatever clothing he is wearing.

Even the more experienced nonspecialist is defeated by the taco buffet: though he may only install one-quarter or one-third portions into his shell, the ample accessories still draw him to exceed the overall shell capacity. He may, however, save his clothes from stain by leaning forward over his plate, aware of the impending collapse or leakage of the enclosure; he is likely to have equipped himself with a fork to clean up the escaping material after consumption of the taco.

It is for these reasons that I encourage all to leave the matter of tacos, despite their simple appearance, to those who have an expertise in the rather elusive ways of Mexican cuisine.