It’s the end of another busy day. The last customers are gone. Kitchen is clean. Servers are all checked out and headed towards the door. Finally, a chance to take the weight off your feet, think about something other than food, maybe peruse a little social media. And there you see them: tacos. It’s not even Taco Tuesday. Pictures of friends making them at home. Snack specials at the bar at one restaurant. A build-your-own taco bar at another.
These aren’t thin layers of overly spiced beef, buried in iceberg lettuce, with an upcharge for a dollop of sour cream, and everything stuffed into a brittle shell that shatters at the first bite. Nope, these tacos are packed with the latest trendy ingredients and flavors lovingly encased in a soft taco shell and they’re flying out the doors of restaurant kitchens. Seriously. America has a taco obsession.
The beautiful thing about tacos, for the restaurant owner, is they are not only easy to place on into a menu (being endlessly customizable), but they are also perfect for keeping food costs down. Tacos often use less-expensive cuts, cooked low and slow to naturally tenderize the meat and intensify flavors.
Pick Your Protein
Take my poblano beef braise, something I’ve been making for years. Brown a large chuck roast, then toss into a dutch oven with poblano peppers, onions, a little garlic, plus some cumin and oregano. Add a beer and enough water or stock to cover the ingredients and slip the pot into a low-temperature for for three or four hours. When done, shred the meat then puree and reduce the braising liquid. The best part, it can be done ahead of time, ready to assemble into tacos in the middle of a busy service.
Pork is another great choice for slow-cooked taco meat, either a shoulder or a Boston butt. Track your flavor profile a little further south, say Argentina, and slow roast that pork with earthy cumin and tangy citrus for an amazingly unique carnitas.
That’s the really fun and exciting part about today’s tacos that is driving their popularity; not being wedded to any one regional flavor. You can tailor yours to blend perfectly with your existing menu or to round out a missing element. You could go spicy with a little Cajun spice, or perhaps tangy like in a vinegary North Carolina BBQ.
Along with the different flavors, there’s also no reason to limit the proteins to the most obvious. Consider using some crispy bacon or whole chunks of pork belly. How about some crawfish tails to go with that cajun spice or even seared Alaskan pollock tossed with lime and cilantro? For vegetarians, try using some chorizo-spiced seitan as a meat substitute. Just about anything can go in that shell, non-traditional toppings included.
Top it Off
Sure, the traditional shredded lettuce and cheese is nearly akin to comfort food in tacos, but there are options. Slaws have become hugely popular, not just for their taste but the added crunch they bring to the dish. You don’t even have to stick to cabbage. Shredded jicama or fennel will not only add unique flavors but will pop on the menu as trendy and desirable. Substitute in sour cream for the traditional mayonnaise for an extra spark in your slaw.
Picking the right cheese, if you choose to use one, can also elevate your taco. A little crumbled queso fresco, a raw white cheese, can add just the right creaminess and offset the heat in a taco, while some melted Oaxaca will up the richness of a dish. Of, for a Philadelphia-inspired taco, melt some cheddar over some grilled strips of steak and onions in that shell, perhaps with some hot peppers to grab your diners' attention.
Which leaves us with the one item that literally binds it all together, the shell. Sure, crispy taco shells still have a place but, because of their tendency to break or absorb any excess liquids and get soggy, they’ve fallen out of favor. Soft flour and corn tortillas tend to rule today’s menus. Offering both increases appeal as well as giving you another gluten free option on your menu with the corn tortillas. Making your own might not be something you have the desire for but, if you do, there’s a little room to play. Chickpeas or cauliflower are both increasingly used as carb substitutes and both can be pressed a cooked into shells. Just be careful about moisture levels. Both can be a little tricky and take practice to perfect.
Now, how do you get these tasty little treats onto your menu? Again, there are options! Taco Tuesday is a simple one. It's devoted to tacos to increase traffic on an otherwise slow night. How about happy hour? Increase that early-evening business by offering tacos at your bar. Maybe you haven’t quite figured out how to build your small plate section of your menu. Offering four or five different tacos (one or two per order, mix and match) is an easy way to take advantage of the trend towards smaller plates with varied flavors.
Popular with diners, friendly to food costs, and easy to make. If tacos aren’t on your menu yet, they should be soon.