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Tacos are the most flexible of foods. They can be soft or crisp, fast-food cheap or upscale, made with wheat or corn tortillas, vegan or vegetarian, and filled with beef, pork, chicken, fish, or tender cactus pads. While most of the good ones are served in a proletarian setting (street cart, gas station, storefront taqueria), tacos are a fertile area for artisan interpretation.
At Tucson’s Boca Tacos Y Tequila, chef Maria Jose Mazon guarantees that her tacos contain no yellow cheese, ground beef, or iceberg lettuce. They are elegant little pockets, available on a choice of homemade corn or flour tortilla and nearly all of them adorned with cabbage and guacamole and accompanied by such salsas as chipotle, mango-habanero, watermelon-pepper, pickled carrots, and ginger-wasabi. Grilled octopus, squash, fire-roasted corn, and barbacoa are regular fillings, and Mazon offers every-Wednesday exotic meat night, featuring anything from silkworms to snapping turtle to elk. “If it’s already dead, I can make it into a taco,” she once quipped.
Tacos are everywhere, but no place is more taco-rich than San Antonio, Texas, where they are served for breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks in variations that range from bacon and eggs to barbacoa and beyond. In this town, no worthwhile taqueria buys its tortillas. Wheat and corn dough are rolled out and cooked on the spot and generally used to wrap the filling of choice within moments of getting lifted off a hot griddle.
San Antonio is home of the puffy taco, which is made by eliminating the griddle and briefly tossing the uncooked tortilla (usually corn masa, but wheat works, too) into a hot oil bath, causing it to puff up like a sopaipilla. A restaurant called Henry’s Puffy Tacos claims to have invented it in 1978, but it is likely that Henry’s only named a dish that in fact has been around since at least the 1950s. Deftly-made, a puffy taco seems more like air than dough, its crispness evanescent, its flavor deliciously elusive. Although a simple procedure, the making of tortillas for tacos – especially for puffy tacos – requires a seasoned hand.
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