We had crunchy tacos the other night. They’ve become a regular fixture on our home menu in the past year or so, especially since I’ve discovered several brands of taco shells that are quite low in sodium. Now, I know seasoned ground beef with lettuce and cheese in a shell made of a crunchy, pre-shaped tortilla is about the least authentic bit of faux-Mexican food that’s ever graced a plate. I happen to fancy a lot of quite authentic Mexican and Southwestern American dishes, and make some pretty good versions of them myself: posoles both red and green, chile verde, carne adovada, New Mexico-syle chicken enchiladas, even a slow-cooker version of a molé poblano using rich, meaty turkey thighs. And of course various kinds of what are now apparently called “street” tacos, with small soft corn tortillas blistered in a smoking-hot skillet or comál, filled sparsely with chicken, pork, beef, some shredded cabbage, radishes and cilantro leaves; or grilled fish topped with homemade mango salsa.
But. The crunchy taco was my introduction to what was then the American idea of Mexican food. We’re talking late 1960s here, my middle school years, at an early version of Taco Time. This was before the menus of places like Taco Time and Taco Bell were drawn up in some corporate kitchen and thoroughly focus group-tested before being introduced to the public. Those were some free-wheelin’ menus. Some of the items on the Taco Time menu I recall were of course the tacos, which I think were 29 cents each, and the crispy bean or “meat” burritos (really more like what we’d call flautas now), taco burgers (hamburgers in which the patty was replaced by a mound of seasoned ground-beef taco filling), hot pastrami sandwiches, and a big fat tamale smothered in chili topped with onions and grated cheese, which I think cost a whopping 69 cents or so.
On a Saturday afternoon my friends Mike and Larry and I would ride our bikes the two miles or so from our neighborhood to the edge of downtown, then across the river on the bridge, across the corner of the riverside park and to the Taco Time. We’d lean our bikes against the wall or slot their wheels into the bike rack but never worry about chaining them up, and go in to order our lunch. Or midafternoon snack, sometimes – 13-year-olds eat plenty and often. Once in a while we’d get one of those more exotic items off the menu, but usually we’d just get a couple or three tacos each. And order the “hot” hot sauce, which came in a squirt bottle, not little single-serve packets. In fact, you could buy it by the pint and take it home, which we sometimes did.
As we waited, we’d go plug a quarter into the jukebox and get three plays for it. Something by the Doors, the Kinks, Paul Revere & the Raiders perhaps, and, for a brief period there, they had The Beatles single of “Let It Be” that had “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” on the B-side, and we played that every time. Sometimes more than once.
Soon they’d call out our order and we’d pick it up. Then as now the tacos would be wrapped in paper, and you’d unwrap the first one, squirt a trail of hot sauce over the top, tilt your head sideways and take a bite out of the end, trying to get a bit of all three ingredients in one bite: ground beef, grated American cheese, and shredded iceberg lettuce. What a perfect taste and sensory combination! The gratifying crunch of the shell, its taste like a big plain Dorito (yes, such a thing once existed), the meat warm and mildly spiced with chili, onion and garlic powders, the blandly unctuous and finely grated cheese, the cold, crisp, icy lettuce… followed by a sip of Coke, of course.
Now, I’d have to say I use slightly higher-quality ingredients these days. My current taco shells of choice are from Trader Joe’s (I know, some of you have a thing about TJ’s, but they have a lot of tasty options that are low in sodium for those of us watching our blood pressure). I pay pretty good bucks for low-fat, grassfed organic ground beef, which I season with a mix of chili powders that are mostly grown and processed locally and sold at the farmers market. Good quality cheddar or crumbled goat cheese. A slice or two of ripe avocado. A ripe tomato and shredded leaf lettuce from our own garden. But even though they’re tailor-made, filled with organic, yadda-yadda ingredients, every time I tip my head to the side and take that first crunchy-meaty-cheesy-lettucey bite, I’m instantly back in my hometown Taco Time with Larry and Mike on a Saturday afternoon, savoring the nostalgia along with the crunch.
I bet you have some nostalgic food-related memories of your own, don’t you?