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The Taco Chronicles

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Tacos de canasta

I only got back from Mexico two weeks ago, but when I turned on Netflix last week looking for a different show, I saw something called The Taco Chronicles. Obviously I was going to check that out. This is a 6-part Mexican series on tacos and how awesome they are. Initially, it just made me want to go back to Mexico right away and continue to eat. In the entire month I was there, I had exactly one meal that was not Mexican food (the first, oddly). Mexico City has a huge variety of international food, but why eat it when you are in one of the top 5 food nations of the world (Italy, France, Thailand, and…..Spain? Vietnam? China? Japan?)?

Mostly, the series delivers. Yeah, sure, it’s food porn. The first episode focused on tacos al pastor and there were more than a few shots of glistening juicy meat! And there’s some ridiculousness–the narrator of each episode actually plays the taco itself and that can be pretty silly, especially when two narrators get into a conversation. All of this tends to mythologize as much as it reveals.

But you know what? Tacos are indeed awesome. And you should eat more of them! What I did like about this show was its set-up. Each focused on a different type of taco. Pastor was an obvious choice, with its legendary home in Mexico City. Other basic meat tacos included the glory of carnitas (focus on Michoacan), asada (Sonora), and barbacoa (Tlaxcala). Asada got us some discussion of flour tortillas, not common in most of Mexico, but they certainly are in the north. Some of these are pretty fun. The whole process of basically burying the lamb to make barbacoa in a huge pot in the ground wrapped in agave leaves is fun to watch.

But my favorite two were those who took a slight detour from the specific meats into styles of tacos that aren’t so well-known in the U.S. The first is the glorious tacos de canasta, literally “basket taco,” which are a cheap eat that are especially popular in Mexico City. Usually made with chicharron, potatoes, or beans, these very cheap tacos are either in tiny stalls between buildings in downtown or sold by vendors on bikes. Steamed in their own heat folded in huge baskets, they have a different consistency than other tacos but hold together thanks to the quality of the tortillas. Combined with a great spicy salsa (the show consistently goes back to the necessity of a great salsa, which unlike in the United States, Land of Mediocre Salsa, is ubiquitous with people who know what they are doing with chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, and other key ingredients), they are fantastic, cheap, and even better after a night of drinking when magical person rides up to you with a huge basket of tacos that cost about 50 cents each.

The final episode focused on tacos de guisado, or stew tacos. Basically, this is when you have the cooks who make stews of any number of kinds, from liver to zucchini, and then turns them into tacos. This leads to any number of varieties of tacos. You would never run out of different combos. Usually combined with a bit of rice or beans and of course with a great tortilla and salsa, these are a really underrated taco. Giving the U.S. side of the border some credit–and the food Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have made and developed in the United States are a critical part of Mexican cuisine–the show visits Los Angeles to talk a real fancy guisado maker, a reminder that while Mexican food is a peasant cuisine at heart, it can be made high-end too. These are awesome and it’s really too bad they aren’t more common on this side of the border, though unless you are around large numbers of Mexicans, escaping the depressing “Mexican” restaurants that most white people expect can be hard.

There are hints of a second season. I hope there is. While Netflix shows themselves are often mediocre at best, one nice thing about the service is that it provides a place for foreign productions to be seen. They aren’t always easy to find and this one was because a) everyone loves tacos and b) the popularity of food shows, but the overall possibilities with a service like Netflix are very high and even if it usually disappoints, this is one area where it has had a positive impact. And while there is much, much more to Mexican food than tacos–whole regions with astounding food such as Oaxaca really wouldn’t be covered in this show because tacos are a secondary food there, easily found but not at the core of the traditional cooking–because tacos are so popular both throughout Mexico and the U.S., it’s a great concept to get people to check out the real food of that wonderful nation.

And while the show didn’t say this, there’s no such thing as a “street taco” and Americans just sound like idiots when they say this. It is just a taco. Just because Taco Bell is hot garbage doesn’t mean that it is a categorically different kind of taco than other tacos and that it gets the unqualified name of “taco.” If you hear people saying this, you should loudly correct them and make them feel shame. And then feed them some good tacos. Unless you live in Rhode Island, which makes that task impossible.

Anyway, consider this an open thread for television. Or food. But not politics, unless they are the politics of food.

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