The Gringo Taco

Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the latter part of the 20th century, they were one of my favorite foods. If you grew up here too, you’ll know what I mean (unless you’re family was actually Mexican). They were ubiquitous. You loved it when your mom made them, and if you were staying the night at a friend’s house and you asked what his mom was cooking for dinner, you were ecstatic if he said that magic word: “tacos.” But not just any tacos, gringo tacos.

The gringo taco, updated

That’s not what they were called at the time, of course. They were just tacos. But having put a lot of time, travel and taste between myself and those halcyon days, I see them for what they really were. If there’s one feature, more than anything else, that distinguishes the gringo taco, it is the preformed corn taco shell. I’ve traveled extensively in Mexico, where I’ve never seen its like. I don’t think it was ever a tortilla. In fact, it’s referred to as a “shell,” which manages any expectations that it may actually be a tortilla. So when I discovered “taco shells” at Trader Joe’s, I thought it was perhaps time for a trip down memory lane.

The formula for the gringo taco, which puts it squarely into the comfort food wheelhouse of the average suburban American kid, was always the same: crisp preformed corn tortilla shell, ground beef, packet of taco seasonings, grated mild cheddar and shredded iceberg lettuce. Optional additions included diced tomato and mild taco sauce. I made them one night for the kids, and not surprisingly, they were delighted. I guess by this point it’s a collective cultural memory.

One recent evening, however, I was thrown a curve. I had the taco shells in the cupboard, picked up the ground beef, and prepared to go to work. But suddenly I realized I had no lettuce. And my choices were two: make a 30-minute roundtrip drive to get a head, or improvise. Recognizing an opportunity to merge the nostalgic foodstuff of my childhood with the glorious authentic tacos I’d eaten in both Mexico and across Los Angeles, I chose the latter.

Here, then, is my upscale update of that crispy taco of your childhood — a revision you’d feel comfortable serving to your ol’ pals from the neighborhood and your new fancy foodie friends alike! Enjoy!

*   *   *

Gringo tacos
serves 4

1 lb ground sirloin or other lean beef
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
8 taco shells
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 avocado
2 tbsp. sour cream
juice 1/2 lemon
1 cup grated cheddar or colby jack
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
salsa of your choice

Make your green sauce. Mash the avocado in a bowl, add lemon juice, sour cream and salt to taste. Continue mashing and stirring until smooth, and add a tablespoon or two of water to thin. (It should have the consistency of a thick sauce, and not chunky like guacamole.)

Drizzle a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet, and sweat the onions over medium heat. Add the ground beef and cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until browned (about 20 minutes). Add salt, garlic powder, cumin and paprika and cook another 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

Compose your tacos: place a couple tablespoons of the beef into your taco shell. Add shredded cabbage and drizzle with a tablespoon of green sauce. Add cheese on top, and then drizzle with a tablespoon or so (to taste) of your favorite salsa.

Serve with margaritas or a Mexican lager.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 02:53:53

    Those preformed taco shells are Shiloh’s favorite! And who wouldn’t admit that a bit of crunch in a tortilla goes a long way. Tacos are the best…especially when made with fish 😉


  2. paul
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 05:09:30

    That yellow box offered exotic tastes of a faraway land for this kid growing up in a B/W TV land in the middle of a new U.S. Army base every year where retreat sounded at 5 PM daily and the world and everybody in it (uniformed or not) stopped and stood at attention, stoically gazing toward where we thought that American flag being lowered, folded and put to bed for the night was. Dinner was merely minutes away. A first encounter with something other worldly–“gringo” tacos.


  3. Andy
    Feb 07, 2012 @ 18:42:29

    Love, love, love them!


  4. glennis
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 03:47:21

    Ah, the best Gringo Taco is from Titos!


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