At this very moment, we are in the throes of a taco revolution. It's not a boom, as the New York Times so wrongly declared about chicken wings earlier this month. Neither tacos nor wings have experienced a decline in popularity.
But while the advances in wing cookery have remained mostly limited to sauces and accoutrements, the taco is seeing a renaissance. No longer does it remain at grab-and-go status. It has become something chefs treat with the same seriousness they would pâté en croûte.
Carnitas taco at Taquiza.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Cases in point: Andres Tovar's Viva Mexico, revered for its carnitas; Todd Erickson's Huahua's Taqueria, with its creative offerings and lineup of house-made hot sauces; and Steve Santana's Taquiza in Miami Beach. Slated to open early next month inside the under-construction Hostelling International Miami Beach on Collins Avenue, Santana's place will make $3 four-and-a-half-inch wide tortillas by hand. He plans to import dried corn from Mexican farmers, nixtamalize it in house by boiling it with powdered calcium hydroxide that helps break down the corn, and press tortillas out of the masa.
He's not an oddity. The James Beard Award-winning Sean Brock earlier this month opened Minero in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where the vaunted heirloom-grain enthusiast is also making his own tortillas.
So too is Alexander Stupak at his newly opened Empellón al Pastor. The onetime pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne's WD~50 has been celebrated for his collection of convivial New York City Mexican restaurants.
The tortilla-making process has continued for thousands of years in Mexico and Central America. It's also common in tortillerias throughout the United States in places where there are large Mexican populations.
What's most thrilling about this is that Miami is right at the edge. We're not three years behind the trend, with some carpetbagger chef bringing it to us from up North. We have a guy in the basement of an under-construction hotel doing the same thing at the same time as some of the most celebrated chefs in the nation.
Green chorizo, catfish, and carnitas tacos at Sean Brock's Minero in Charleston.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Santana is doing it as more of a bare-bones operation than some others. But at a soft opening earlier this week, his thick mustard-yellow tortillas, bearing the strong, sweet, nutty flavor of fresh corn, were an excellent vessel for dripping carnitas, jiggly cubes of braised tongue, and the sweet, slightly funky black corn fungus called huitlacoche.
At Brock's Minero, the tacos and the setting are more gussied up. The brick-wrapped space sits a brief walk from his vaunted McCrady's and expands the scope of the traditional taqueria, rolling in doses of the Southern ingredients and techniques that earned him his reputation.
Minero's tortillas are thinner and made from white corn. Santana leans yellow, though he acknowledges that both fill your head with sweet fragrance. Brock's best is a fried catfish taco. A paper-thin fillet is crisped to a glorious crunch and topped with a piquant green tomato tartare, cabbage, and red onion. The flavors are more muddled in a green chorizo taco, where the meat misses the expected spice and potency, and in a carnitas taco, where a blend of salsa verde and chilemole overshadows the pork and soaks the could-have-been-crisp chicharrones.
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Still, the focus is on the tortilla, which has always been the most important yet overlooked element of the taco. Chefs and diners have for too long obsessed over what goes on top of the corn round rather than what's inside. It's about time tortillas receive their due.