I think pretty much everyone, Texan or not, had taco night every so often when they were growing up. I know we did. Busy moms would go to the grocery store and buy those taco packages that consisted of crunchy corn tortilla shells, a seasoning packet, and instructions to brown some beef then top the whole thing with shredded Cheddar, lettuce and tomato. I always loved it. I’ve been reading through Ted Allen’s latest book, In My Kitchen, which I highly recommend. He has a chipotle chicken taco recipe in there, which is presented as quite an upgrade from the packaged tacos he grew up eating. He called those packages, “essentially, an insult to all of Mexico in one convenient box”. I laughed out loud when I read that. I love Ted Allen. His sense of humor is a little dry, genuinely funny, with just the right amount of snark. Funny as it is, I’m not entirely sure I agree with his statement though. Crunchy tacos are a Tex-Mex phenomenon. They were never meant to be Mexican food. He is correct though, in that Mexicans would never eat a crunchy taco, nor would they ever top it with cheddar cheese. But this taco is squarely Tex-Mex, a specialty of San Antonio. So the convenient box may be an insult to the proper puffy taco, but could it be an insult to Mexican tacos? I have not resolved that issue. What I have resolved though, is that puffy tacos are supremely delicious when done correctly. The packaged taco shells are too thick and tend to be bland. They also don’t taste the least bit fresh. When you go authentic and take the extra time to fry your own shells, the results are spectacular, and make a world of difference. You get a light crunch with a fresh corn taste. They aren’t greasy or bland. It takes a little patience, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to do. And yes, they’re a little funky looking and mine never come out ideally. I just say they are rustic, that catch-all word that covers a multitude of kitchen imperfections.
I take a few extra, but very quick steps for the beef filling. I like to make sure mine is highly seasoned and very tasty. It’s not difficult, and the ingredients are easy to come by. I use organic store-bought salsa in this step.
As for the toppings, I have to be traditional here. I do use some shredded yellow Cheddar cheese, because that’s how I ate it growing up. It’s not Mexican, but it’s how it’s done in Texas and I see no reason to change it in my kitchen. I also top with some diced tomato and shredded iceberg lettuce. And yes, it has to be iceberg because that’s how I remember it!
1 lb. ground sirloin
1 medium Onion, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 1/2 tbs Chili powder
1 tbs ground Cumin
1 tsp ground Coriander
1 tsp Mexican oregano (use regular Italian oregano if you can’t find Mexican)
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup Beer
½ cup salsa, homemade or store-bought
8 small Corn tortillas
Canola or vegetable oil, for deep frying
For garnish: shredded yellow cheddar, shredded iceberg, chopped and seeded tomato, sour cream, pickled jalapeno slices
Make the taco filling first. Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil, then the beef. Crumble it with a wooden spoon or potato masher until no traces of pink remain. Next, add the onion, garlic, and jalapeno. Stir until they have softened, about 5 minutes. Now add the spices and stir to make sure the meat and veg is coated. Deglaze the pan with the beer, and stir until it’s almost evaporated. Now stir in the salsa, reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer until the texture is to your liking. I like mine to be pretty thick and saucy. While it’s expected to have some juices running down your arm whilst eating a taco, you don’t want that to get out of hand and ruin your dining experience. Turn the heat all the way to low and let the flavors marry while you prepare the tortilla shells. Stir occasionally.
Fill your deep fat fryer with oil according to manufacturer’s instructions. Test the oil with a tiny piece of tortilla you’ve broken off. If it immediately bubbles and rises to the surface, the oil is ready. If it immediately browns, your oil is too hot. If it doesn’t respond to the oil, your oil is too cold.
Place a tortilla into the oil. Take a flat wooden spatula, place it directly in the center of the tortilla and press down so the sides of the tortilla curl around the sides of the spatula. Hold it there for about 30 seconds. Release the spatula and let the tortilla continue to fry, flipping it once. The total frying time will be around 2-3 minutes per tortilla, but if yours is browning sooner, by all means take it out. Continue in batches until all tortillas are fried. Drain them on paper towels and salt lightly after each comes out of the oil.
To assemble: take a taco shell, fill with the beef, then garnish as you please. Serve immediately.