During the last years of his life, my father lived with us in our house in Mexico. It wasn’t a great leap; getting to have one last adventure was the appropriate final act for a man who had spent his life careening from one overseas exploit to the next, and I am grateful to have gotten to spend the time together that we did. He loved Mexico in the same way that we did, with the notable exception that he didn’t particularly care for the culture, the people, or the food there.
It was a theme that had arisen again and again in his life as a sea captain, cooped up on huge boats filled with foreign crews. After being exposed again and again to exotic new lands and exciting new cuisines, all the guy really wanted was some oven-baked chicken wings and a baked potato. His First Mate would try to persuade him. “Captain,” they’d say, “you have to try some of our stewed rice that’s been boiling in bovine blood for three days! It’s a specialty of our village, and we prepared a batch just for you!”
“I would,” he’d reply, “but where I come from, only women eat rice.”
His attitude about the food in Mexico wasn’t much different. Surrounded by some of the best tacos, enchiladas, and beans I’ve ever tasted, in a land where a huge chunk of $2 meat of sometimes questionable origin can be slowly simmered for hours in aromatic spices or cooked on a vertical rotisserie until transformed into the most flavorful, tender morsel ever to grace a corn tortilla, my dad couldn’t be bothered. Often, we’d ask him to join us for a night out at a local taqueria, and he would decline, explaining that there was “nothing to eat there.” Sometimes he’d tag along anyway, just to show us how much tequila the human body is capable of absorbing while still remaining upright, but more often than not, he was happier to stay home with the beef stew he had simmered all day in the crock pot.
On nights that we cooked at home, making tacos of our own, his ears would perk up. “You’re making tacos,” he would ask hopefully, “American-style tacos?”
It was a coded term that described the kinds of tacos my mother used to cook, the kind of tacos we grew up eating in our house, that were universally adored by every member of the family. They’re instantly familiar to anyone that’s set foot in a Margarita’s or a T.G.I. Calamity’s: Seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, some iceberg lettuce, tomato, and a quart of sour cream in a crispy hard taco shell. It’s a weeknight Tex-Mex staple here in the United States that’s virtually unheard of in Mexico, and that specific preparation was the only way my dad would accept tacos on his dinner plate.
“I don’t eat food that ends in a vowel,” he’d helpfully explain.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style of taco, as long as you don’t try to pretend that it’s real Mexican food. I’m comfortable with that. My mom, a Southern California native who grew up with some of the best Mexican cooking in the country, did her best to class-up the technique, to bring it a little bit closer to Olvera Street than to Old El Paso. She taught me to fry my own shells, rather than use the dreadful, brittle, flavorless pre-packaged variety that explodes into a million shards after your first bite. She also insisted on adding fresh chopped tomato, in addition to plenty of diced avocado and cilantro. The resulting “American Style” ground beef taco makes up for its lack of authenticity with plenty of flavor and a satisfying crunch that’s as delicious and fun to eat as you remember. They always got my dad’s stamp of approval, and I hope they’ll get yours.
“American Style” Ground Beef Tacos
Makes 8 tacos
For the ground beef filling:
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 pound 80/20 ground beef
- 1 tomato, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
- Salt and pepper, to taste
For the shells and toppings:
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 8 six inch white corn tortillas
- 1 cup shredded Monterrey jack cheese
- 2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
- 2 small tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 avocado, pitted, halved and chopped
- 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
- Chopped cilantro (optional)
- Hot sauce (optional)
For the ground beef filling:
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil, about two minutes. Add onion and cook until softened and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, coriander, cayenne, and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until spices open up and become fragrant, about a minute. Add ground beef and cook, stirring and scraping pan bottom to prevent sticking. Cook until beef is almost cooked through, about five minutes. Add diced tomato, tomato paste, chicken broth, vinegar, and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until mixture thickens but is still slightly saucy, about 10 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.
For the shells and toppings:
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet to 350 degrees; about five minutes, or until oil bubbles when you dip the corner of a tortilla in it. While oil heats, line a plate with a double layer of paper towels.
Working quickly and one at a time, add a tortilla to the hot oil, and cook for five seconds on each side to soften.
Using tongs, fold tortilla over into taco shape, so that one side is sticking up out of the oil. Keep flipping shell back and forth from one side to the other every 5-10 seconds, until cooked shell begins to hold its shape.
Switch the position of your tongs so that you are using them to keep the two halves of cooking shell from folding onto one another. Keep flipping, using tongs to keep tortilla submerged in hot oil until finished, about a minute total. Transfer to paper lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
Using a spoon, divide filling evenly among shells. Invite diners to top their tacos themselves with the remaining ingredients.