The now ubiquitous taco came late to the lineup of New Mexican cuisine. The corn tortilla, of course, is among the oldest foods of this region, a staple of the Puebloan people that preceded the arrival of the Spanish. Among the tortilla’s attributes was its ability to serve as an edible scoop for meat or beans. From this elementary use, though, it took a while for an oil-softened or fried tortilla wrapped around a filling to be recognized by name. Early-20th-century, post-statehood New Mexican cookbooks promoted posole, chile, pinto beans, tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and carne adovada. But no, not a single taco.



We weren’t lagging terribly behind the taco originators of old Mexico. “Taco” didn’t appear in print as a food reference in Mexico until the late 19th century, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. In the years before tacos made an appearance in New Mexican cookbooks, I am certain that people stuffed tortillas in some fashion with local mutton or goat meat. Our cookbooks of the 1930s and ’40s document the taco, in several variations, generally made with ground beef, often with potato mixed in—a combination that tastes sublime, by the way, when made well. It has been common to season the meat with some of our chile, either red or green, ground for the former and chopped for the latter, or with a chile sauce made from either color of pungent pod.



Las Vegas native Margaret C de Baca Martinez, daughter of the second governor of the state and a home economics teacher, penned a 1939 cookbook with perhaps the first printed recipe for New Mexico tacos. Hers include a meat-and-potato filling similar to that found in our recipe, but she added red chile sauce inside the folded soft tacos, as well as more red chile and cheese on top. The author recommended serving them with beans, calabacitas, and “canned pineapple with bizcochitos” for dessert. The 1941 El Plato Sabroso Recipes, from restaurateur Eloisa Delgado de Stewart, featured tacos that were rolled rather than folded. She specified using white corn tortillas (tortillas de nixtamal blanca), dipped in hot fat. Once softened, the tortillas were wrapped around a beef-and-pork filling with onion and celery, then topped with lettuce and cheese. She mentioned the option of pouring chile sauce over the whole shebang, if one wished.



New Mexico can claim one standout role in taco history, well recognized among food historians if not among the general rank and file. It should be regarded as the taco equivalent of “the shot heard ’round the world.” Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, another home economist, in her 1949 book The Good Life, was the first to include a recipe that featured crispy hard-shell tacos.



Friends and colleagues who grew up in midcentury New Mexico reminisce about these homemade tacos with crunch, but also those that were dipped in oil to soften, then filled or rolled and oven-baked to a delectable chewy near crispness. The filling was sometimes shredded chicken, but more often shredded or ground beef, with potato or other vegetables. Georgia Maryol, proprietor of Santa Fe’s Tomasita’s restaurant for more than 40 years, remembers the beef-and-potato-filled tacos of her youth in Albuquerque’s Atrisco neighborhood. Many of the tacos she ate “were stuffed with much more potato than meat because, in the 1940s and ’50s, everyone there was poor. We didn’t eat tacos at home, because our mother was Greek, but all of our neighbors did, and they had to stretch to feed lots of mouths, generously including their kids’ friends.”



In 1979, Lucy Delgado may have made the first New Mexico cookbook reference to store-bought “taco shells,” in her Comidas de New Mexico. Delgado, a much-admired Santa Fe cook and hostess, also mentioned using the beef-and-potato filling for fried rolled taquitos. She also included a “taco sauce” recipe similar to the Norteño Salsa in our recipes.



Mexican sodas complement the cuisine at Taqueria Mexico in AlbuquerqueMexican sodas complement the cuisine at Taqueria Mexico in Albuquerque.



When I moved to New Mexico in 1980, I was a little surprised to see Taco Bell flourishing here. For better or worse, it probably helped turn on more folks to a loose version of the snack food.  The rise of the food truck in recent decades further brought tacos to the masses throughout New Mexico and all across the United States. Collectively, Americans now devour some 4.5 billion tacos annually, according to the people who track such things. We eat American-style Taco Bell versions and soft classic Mexican ones. The dish claims a national day of celebration (Octo-ber 4, if you want to get a start on your party invitation list). It is marketed with a sticky weekday promotion: Taco Tuesday. Further, the taco cracked the ceiling of popular culture with its own online emoji, and if you need any more proof, I’m sitting here writing while wearing a pair of taco socks.



In New Mexico, we prepare tacos à la Mexican classics such as al pastor (spit-cooked marinated pork) and modern mash-ups like chef-created Korean barbecue-and-kimchi tacos. You can find tacos from Albuquerque to Zuni. The taco was not born here, but hey, it got here as fast as it could. New Mexico is all the more delicious because of it.





Crispy Norteño Beef-and-Potato Tacos

Makes about 1 dozen, serving 6 to 8

Patricia Greathouse, a native New Mexican food journalist, waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about this style of taco (at left), which she remembers from the dearly departed La Cocina café in Española. The proprietor, Mrs. Martinez, took pity on Pat and told her how to make them herself. One of the secrets was Kitchen Bouquet, a bottled savory condiment that food stylists use today to make food a richer brown. You can substitute soy sauce or tamari if you wish.




  • 1 pound ground beef, preferably an 80/20 mix of lean to fat

  • 1 yellow onion, chopped

  • 1 large clove garlic, minced

  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced, about 2 1/2 cups

  • 2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet, soy sauce, or tamari

  • 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

  • Water Vegetable oil for frying

  • 18 corn tortillas Grated mild cheddar, shredded lettuce, and chopped tomato

  • Norteño Salsa or other salsa



For filling




  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook until it is uniformly browned. Break up the meat as it cooks, adding the onion when the meat has lost its raw color. When the onion turns translucent and begins to brown, add the garlic, potatoes, Kitchen Bouquet, salt, and enough water to cover the potatoes and meat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. If the potatoes aren't tender by the time the water cooks out, add a little more water.

  2. When the potatoes are tender, let the meat-and-potato mixture brown in the pan. It will stick as it browns. Turn the mixture several times, scraping up the browned bits that stick to the pan and breaking the mixture up into small pieces. When the potatoes have broken up and the filling has lots of browned flavor, add more salt if you wish. Keep the filling warm. For taco shells Heat at least 1 inch of oil in a large skillet until the oil ripples. With tongs, dunk a tortilla in the oil long enough for it to go limp, a matter of seconds. Don’t let the tortilla turn crisp. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and blot them with paper towels.



Assembly




  1. Fill a tortilla with about 2 tablespoons of filling, fold in half, and secure with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.

  2. Raise the temperature of the oil to 350°. Fry the tacos, in batches, until lightly browned and crisp. Drain well.

  3. Remove toothpicks and garnish with cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Serve with salsa and enjoy right away.



 



Southern New Mexico Rolled Beef Tacos

Makes about 1 to 2 dozen

You might call these homey rolled-style tacos “taquitos,” or, if you grew up around Clovis and Portales, “taquitas.” I call them addictive. The canned vegetable has the right texture for smushing into the beef as a binder. If you turn your nose up at the idea, you can use the beef-potato mixture described in the previous recipe. The filling can be made a day ahead. Reheat before proceeding.




  • 2 pounds ground beef, preferably an 80/20 mix of lean to fat

  • 1 small onion, diced

  • Garlic salt, or salt and garlic powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

  • 14- to 15-ounce can corn or peas

  • Vegetable oil for frying

  • 18 to 24 corn tortillas

  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups (6 to 8 ounces) grated mild cheddar, Monterey Jack, or a combination



For filling




  1. Heat a large skillet to medium high. Add the beef and cook until it is uniformly browned. Break up the meat as it cooks, adding the onion when the meat has lost its raw color. When the onion turns translucent and begins to brown, add the garlic salt, optional cumin, and the corn or peas with the can’s liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. With a potato masher or large fork, mash the canned vegetables into the meat.

  2. Let the meat-and-vegetable mixture brown in the pan. It will begin to stick as it browns. Turn the mixture, scraping up the browned bits, and break up into small pieces. When the filling has lots of browned flavor, add more garlic salt if you wish. Keep the filling warm.



For tacos




  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚.

  2. Pour about 1 inches of oil into a deep skillet or heavy saucepan. Heat the oil on the stovetop until it ripples. With a pair of tongs, briefly dip each tortilla into the hot oil. In a matter of a few seconds, the tortilla will become limp. Remove it immediately and drain it. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.

  3. Spoon 1–2 tablespoons of filling on a tortilla and roll up snugly but not tightly.  Transfer each taco to a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining filling and tortillas.

  4. Bake the tacos for about 20 minutes, or until crispy-chewy, to your taste. Sprinkle with cheese and return to the oven for several minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese. Serve right away.



 



Chicken-Guacamole Fresh-Fried Tacos

Makes about 1 dozen tacos

In case the name trips you up, it’s the tacos that are fried, not the chicken. I recommend you use a store-bought rotisserie chicken for the filling here.



Filling




  • 3 tablespoons half-and-half

  • 1 garlic clove, minced

  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups finely shredded cooked chicken

  • Pinch of ground cumin

  • Salt, optional

  • 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, optional



Guacamole and tacos




  • 1 large ripe avocado (preferably Hass variety), chunked

  • 1 tablespoon minced onion

  • 1/2 to 1 fresh jalapeño or serrano chile, minced

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon

  • 18 to 24 corn tortillas

  • Vegetable oil for frying

  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

  • Norteño Salsa or other salsa, optional



For filling




  1. Combine the filling ingredients in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, cook down until no liquid remains but chicken mixture is still moist. Keep warm, or make up to 1 day ahead, refrigerate, then reheat before using.



For guacamole




  1. Mash avocado roughly in a small bowl, leaving some chunks. Stir in remaining ingredients. Use within about 30 minutes.



For tacos




  1. Heat 1–2 inches of oil in a skillet until the oil just ripples. With tongs, dunk a tortilla into the oil long enough for it to go limp, a matter of seconds. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and blot them, if you wish, with paper towels.

  2. Fill a tortilla with about 2 tablespoons of filling, fold in half, and secure with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.

  3. Raise the temperature of the oil to 350º. Fry the tacos, in batches, until lightly browned and crisp. Drain well.

  4. Remove toothpicks and garnish the tacos right away with cheese so it melts a bit. Then add some guacamole to each and serve immediately, passing the salsa.



 



Grilled Fish Tacos

Makes about 1 dozen

In retracing taco history, I noticed that in a book I wrote in the 1990s, I thought it necessary to explain the fish taco in some detail and convince readers that this could be a good dish. Whether grilled, fried, or sautéed, fish in a taco is sublime, especially when paired with cabbage relish and a creamy sauce. A more classic Mexican style, these tacos rely on soft fresh tortillas as a main ingredient.




  • 1 cups shredded cabbage

  • Vegetable oil spray

  • 18 fresh corn tortillas, warm

  • 1 avocado, cut in thin slices



Marinade and Filling




  • 1/2 cup orange juice

  • 1/4 cup lightly packed garlic cloves, pan-roasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until lightly browned and soft, then peeled

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 pounds skinless fillets of white fish, such as grouper, mahi mahi, snapper, or sea bass



Chipotle-Lime Mayonnaise




  • 1 cup mayonnaise

  • 1 to 2 minced canned chipotle chiles with 1 to 2 teaspoons adobo sauce from the can

  • 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

  • 1 tablespoon minced cilantro, optional




  1. Prepare the marinade, pureeing the ingredients in a blender or food processor.

  2. Smear the fish with the marinade. Place in a large zippered plastic bag and refrigerate for 30–60 minutes. Don’t marinate any longer or the fish will become mushy.

  3. Fire up the grill, bringing the temperature to medium high.

  4. Mix the mayonnaise ingredients in a small bowl. Combine about 2 tablespoons of the mayonnaise in another bowl with the cabbage. Refrigerate the mayonnaise and the cabbage slaw, until needed.

  5. Drain the fish and spray on both sides with the oil.

  6. Arrange the fish on the grill and cook for 7–10 minutes, turning once. The fish is ready when the fillets flake easily and have some nicely browned edges.

  7. Arrange the fish on a platter and accompany with the tortillas, slaw, mayonnaise, and avocado slices. Let guests construct their own tacos with some of each ingredient, and enjoy right away.



 



Calabacitas Tacos

Makes about 1 dozen

Many vegetarian tacos are as simple as beans or potatoes wrapped in a tortilla. These ones rock it New Mexico style, with our best-loved vegetable sauté filling the tortillas. You can satisfy many a carnivore with these.




  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 pounds mixed summer squash, such as small zucchini, yellow crooked-neck squash, or light-green-skinned Mexican calabacita, sliced thin

  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine

  • 2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen

  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted mild New Mexico green chile, fresh or thawed frozen

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 18 fresh corn tortillas, warm

  • 4 ounces crumbled fresh goat cheese or 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded mild cheddar or Monterey Jack



For filling




  1. Warm the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the squash and onion. Sauté for 10–15 minutes, until the squash is well softened. Stir in the corn, chile, and salt. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes more, until all the vegetables are tender. Uncover and cook briefly until any standing liquid has evaporated.



For tacos




  1. Spoon the calabacitas mixture into a bowl and serve along with the tortillas and cheese. Let guests construct their own tacos and enjoy right away.



 



Norteño Salsa

Makes about 2 cups

In the mountainous north, where the growing season for fresh tomatoes is limited, this style of salsa has been traditional for generations. It can easily be whipped together, and keeps for 3 to 5 days.




  • 14- to 15-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes, with juice, “fire-roasted” if you wish

  • 1/2 medium white onion, finely diced

  • 1 garlic clove

  • 1/2 teaspoon white or cider vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon or more crushed New Mexican red chile pequin or other crushed hot red chile

  • Salt




  1. Combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, vinegar, and a small amount of chile in a blender and puree. Taste and add more chile as you wish for zip, and salt to taste. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until needed.



 



Summer Salsa Fresca

Makes about 1 cup

his style of fresh relish was the common accompaniment to New Mexican dishes in the first half of the 20th century. It was much more common than cooked green chile sauce, which gradually won over the state once frozen green chile became common as an ingredient. If your idea of salsa means tomato, feel free to stir a diced one into this.




  • 1 garlic clove, halved

  • 6 to 8 meaty roasted, peeled mild to hot New Mexico green chiles, fresh or thawed frozen, at room temperature

  • Salt

  • Splash or 2 of white or cider vinegar, optional

  • Splash or 2 of vegetable oil, optional




  1. Rub a small bowl with both sides of the garlic clove until the clove begins to disintegrate, then discard it.

  2. Chop chiles roughly and stir in the bowl with salt to taste. If you like, stir in a bit of vinegar and oil. The amount should be minimal, just enough to coat the chiles rather than turn the salsa into a vinaigrette. Serve at room temperature.



 





Twelve Great Taco Stops

Bonsai Asian Tacos. Santa Fe. This truck in a parking lot at 1599 S. St. Francis Dr. serves a revolving assortment of fanciful tacos such as bulgogi (Korean beef barbecue), plus good vegetarian and vegan offerings. (505) 316-9418; on Facebook



El Chile Toreado. Santa Fe. This stand on wheels in a parking lot at 950 Cordova Road offers terrific bang for the buck with its carnitas, chicharrones, and al pastor, plus a generous bar of toppings. (505) 500-0033



El Parasol. Six locations in Pojoaque, Santa Fe, and right next to El Paragua in Española (603 Santa Cruz Road). Shredded beef, chicken-guac, and more, in fresh-fried tortillas with zesty green or red sauce. elparagua.com



El Pinto Restaurant. Albuquerque. Traditional New Mexican tacos, folded or rolled. 10500 4th St. NW; (505) 898-1771; elpinto.com



Nellie’s Café. Las Cruces. An institution 50 years in the making. When my family visits, they always time their New Mexico trip based on stopping here. Have the shredded beef tacos. 1226 E. Hadley Ave.; (575) 524-9982



Nopalito’s. Las Cruces. Beef or chicken tacos at a beloved local institution. 310 S. Mesquite St., (575) 524-0003; 2605 Missouri St., (575) 522-0440; nopalitosrestaurants.com



Street Food Institute. Locations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Trucks belonging to a nonprofit entrepreneurial culinary program roam the cities with a rotating variety of tacos. streetfoodinstitute.org



Tacos Mirasol. Deming. Cheerful Mexican café where you should get the pork carnitas tacos. 309 E. Pine St.; (575) 544-0646; on Facebook



Taqueria Gracias Madre. Santa Fe. A truck often found at Meow Wolf (1352 Rufina Circle), some evenings at one of the Second Street Brewery locations, and, on summer evenings, off the Plaza. Al pastor, carnitas, asada—it’s all luscious. (505) 795-6397; on Facebook



Taqueria Mexico. Albuquerque. Classic soft Mexican tacos such as barbacoa, lengua (tongue), fish, or shrimp, and a wicked good crispy beef taco. 415 Lomas Blvd. NE; (505) 242-3445; taqueriamexicoabq.com



The Happy Taco. Zuni. If you are really hungry, or have a friend in tow, opt for the Paper Boy special, which gets you both tacos and taquitos. 8 Tekala Dr.; (505) 870-4406; on Facebook



The Shed. Santa Fe. Uniquely New Mexican tacos, made with blue corn tortillas filled with beef, shredded chicken, or green chile turkey sausage and oven-baked. 113 E. Palace Ave.; sfshed.com