You’ve probably noticed tacos are being reinvented for us – from the hard shells stuffed with chilli and cheese of our 1980s family dinners back to something more like the Mexican original – fresher flavours atop a soft-shell tortilla.

Taco with prawn and avocado
Taco with prawn and avocado

This post isn’t just about tacos; it’s also an excuse to talk about food trucks. Because the soft taco trend hasn’t trickled down to us from chefs, it’s one that’s come from the street – and in particular, out of food trucks.

Food trucks – as distinct from your average greasy burger van – have become an icon of urban renewal in the United States.

Clusters of trucks selling affordable but original street food parked up in disused city spaces have brought in people (yes, hipster-type people) in many US inner-cities – a kind of prelude to gentrification. It’s destination dining – food you travel for: interesting, ethnic, artisan – served on the street.

[See this gallery of the 20 best food trucks in the US in Smithsonian mag].

Portland, Oregon was the birthplace of the food truck scene over a decade ago. Now there are more than 450 ‘food carts,’ and local government welcomes the role they have played in revitalising and rebranding the city. [See this food cartology pdf article on the state government site].

And when Campbell’s Soup cites food trucks as an inspiration in their bid to win back young consumers, you know the food truck idea has tipped into mass culture.

Here in Auckland we now have our own mobile taco trucks, The Lucky Taco, which opened in May, and Pacific-Mexican truck MexiKai, which has been doing festivals for the last couple of years. In April Michael van Elzen’s The Food Truck Garage moved to a permanent home in the former industrial space of the City Works Depot. These outlets share the aesthetic of the US movement with retro vans and vibrant, healthy food, and an emphasis on responsible-sourcing.

Parallel to the food truck trend has been the boom in Mexican food – the taco has featured large among US food trucks (the fresh soft-shell one that is).

The hard shell U-shaped variety of taco was an invention by Mexican-American businessmen in the 1940s. It was a way of pre-making tortillas so they would keep, and could be quickly reheated and sold as fast food, according to Jeffrey Pilcher (author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food) in this interview in Smithsonian magazine.

He says the soft-shell taco does not actually go back to time immemorial – but probably as far as the mines of 18th Century Mexico. A taco was a paper wrap of explosives that silver miners put into the ore to extract the mineral – a deft analogy for spicy filling in a soft tortilla. (A tortilla – the corn-based bread does go back to time immemorial…)

As the children of early 20th Century Mexican migrants to the US grew up they still wanted to eat Mexican food but needed to adapt it to American ingredients. So to make tacos they used hamburger mince instead of offal, iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese and tomatoes (similar to hamburger fillings).

It was this concept that was taken to the mass market in the US by the Taco Bell chain in the 1950s.

“It is hard to pin down experts and restaurateurs as to what happened to Mexican food when it crossed the border. The best explanation is perhaps the most inelegant: it got cheesier, chili-er and meatier,” according to this article in The New York Times.

By all means keep eating the crunchy Tex-Mex tacos, but get into soft-shell too, preferably standing outside in the sunshine, with a dribble of delicious meat juice running down your wrist as you cast your shadow over an old Bedford van.

Where to eat tacos in Auckland

See The Lucky Taco food truck for dates and locations.

Mexican Specialties in Ellerslie is lauded as an exotic suburban hideaway of Mexicana with its Day of the Dead decorations, extensive Mexican provisions and delicious menu (on the 3 days a week it opens for meals).
5/92 Marua Road, Ellerslie ph (09) 580 2497


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