On Wheels, the Street Taco Melting Pot

Posted: Apr 21 2014

"So what's your favorite taco?"  It's become almost like a "what's your sign" question these days.

No official date of entry has been recorded, but the street taco’s arrival is evidenced by the fact that street tacos can be found on just about any menu regardless of your neighborhood or price point.  I'm talking everybody from McDonalds to your fancy 4 star restaurant serving lobster tacos. 

So what is it about this re-imagining of the old taco standby that has captured the culinary imagination of kitchens, chefs and customers alike?  That’s easy – street tacos fit every eating occasion – light appetites, foodie appetites, frugal appetites, group appetites, and bottomless appetites.  The street taco is imminently adaptable. 

But, where did it come from?

The Genealogy of the Street Taco?
Ahh, that’s an interesting question.  As with any origin story, there are many conflicting points of view.  No, I’m not about to go deep into a centuries-old genealogy of the taco.  That wouldn’t really enlighten the current ascendance of this “so hot right now” food item.  Instead, we can start much closer, such as the menus that feature the street taco.   For one, we can gather that the street taco derives from “the street.” That may be taking things a bit literally, but I consider this a key component. 

I mean - it’s not called the cul-de-sac taco, or the high-rise taco is it? 
No, it’s called the street taco. 

The inference is clear, this is food from “the street;” its authenticity is as inalienable as a food from the people who live and work in the everyday world.  It’s the food of simple life that doesn’t require lots of fuss or lots of money. 

But what streets? 

Again, you need only look to your favorite street taco slinger.  Usually, you’ll find a modifier apelled to its name - Mexico City street tacos, Veracruz street tacos, beachside street tacos are a few I’ve come across recently.  So while the locations conflict, the general sense is that this street taco craze comes from some part of Mexico, either real or imagined.  Not a border town, mind you, but from the deep recesses of the country’s interior.  This ain’t no Tex-Mex,  Cali-Mex, New-Mex hybrid.  Don’t be mistaken, the street taco is an authentic culinary experience exported from an "Other: place south of the border to a Cheesecake Factory menu near you. 

How did the street taco cross the culinary bridge between the barrio and the ‘burbs?

"Roach Coach" Goes Mainstream
By hopping aboard and hitching a ride on the food truck – another transplant from the barrio (and other blue collar constructions sites).  No longer just thought of as the “roach coach” and purveyor of day-old (to put it mildly) sandwiches and hot dogs to blue collar workers on break, the food truck has gone mainstream.  According to IBISWorld, the food truck and cart business has grown 8.4% since 2007 to be a $1 billion industry.  Need more evidence?  Look around your town and you’ll undoubtedly see festivals and summertime block parties bellowing about the presence of food trucks as part of the fun to be had.  And in those food trucks you’ll find, among the gourmet offerings, street tacos handed out in little paper bowls filled with chopped onions, cilantro and green, red and brown sauces and salsa of your choosing.

Together, the food truck and the street taco successfully have charted paths crossing socioeconomic and culinary maps.  And in their wake, they are rejuvenating hearts, minds and taste buds to the infinite possibilities to be found in forgotten or "Other" sections of town.  I for one, love the crossover mainstreaming success of the street taco. 

During this time of tense immigration “reform” measures across the country, it’s heartening to see the widespread embrace of the street taco among most socioeconomic groups - and ethnicities! -- a food representing the myriad variations of Latino flavors that embody crossover success.  

Liza Trevino

Follow Liza Trevino @GenX_texmex

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