Feature photo by kevinv033

I have at times a tendency to touch upon serious topics in my writing. Whether I am writing about the Mexican war on drugs or grieving the loss of a loved one, it would seem as if I have no knack for the lighthearted. Well, that is not completely true. I have a tendency to write about things that I feel deeply about, at a gut level, and yes, “Mexican” fast food is one of them.

I tried the taco salad during my first visit to the United States. Please know I have nothing against it. In fact I find it rather enjoyable. I like the crispiness of the tortilla (tostada) bowl combined with flavors of the seasoned ground beef and – oddly enough – French salad dressing. I must admit I struggle with the Doritos version of this dish. Am I the only one who finds this ingredient choice odd?

In any case, this dish was offered to me as if somehow I would be reminded of home when I tried it. Even worse, when I said I had never tried such a thing, I received a surprised face and a “Hmm, really?” Yeah, really. I never saw a street vendor selling taco salad and the phrase, “Una ensalada de taco, por favor” has never come out of my mouth at a Mexican restaurant. Speaking of tacos, what would be of the taco salad without the infamous shell? What would be of any of these so-called Mexican dishes without the shell?

“What the heck is a taco shell?” That was exactly what went through my mind when someone said we were having tacos for dinner, and we needed to go buy the shells. Up until that day I had always associated shells with seafood: oysters, crab, and lobster – anything but a taco. I failed to see the connection. “Yes, there are hard shells and soft shell tacos” I was told. Once I saw what they were talking about I said, “Oh, you mean a tortilla! Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” See, that made a lot more sense to me. Tacos = tortillas + filling of your choice. What I did not realize is that my friends, as much as I love them, had never thought of calling it a tortilla. It was a little more difficult to explain how the “soft shell” was a tortilla and the “hard shell” was a folded tostada.

The assembling of what we think of as the quintessential taco goes something like this: soft shell, ground beef, shredded cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, and sour cream. That is the traditional American taco, and it is tasty, but please don’t call it Mexican food.

A Mexican taco is bought from a street vendor. Often adorned in stained aprons and crowns of beaded sweat, they finely chop the meat that’s seared in hot iron skillets. A Mexican taco is best eaten while standing next to vendor’s cart while holding the plate in one hand and the taco in the other. A Mexican taco comes in two small corn tortillas – steak, chicken, or pork – topped with chopped onions and cilantro. Simple, succulent, and while sans sour cream, it’s all Mexican.

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