Surprise! Did you know Americans ate a whopping 4.5 billion tacos last year? NationalTacoDay.com reported this figure in anticipation of the special October 4 national holiday in celebration of the taco.
Coming from humble roots, the taco is now one of our country’s best-loved foods. It even has a dedicated day of the week, Taco Tuesday. Food Network’s Chopped boasts competitions like “Taco Obsession” and “Taco Brawl” in addition to more than 600 unique taco recipes online. The band Parry Gripp’s song “It’s Raining Tacos” has 48 million views on YouTube.
Why do we love tacos? They are quick, tasty, and available anywhere and everywhere. Tacos can be both a comfort food and an elevated epicurean delight. Taquerias, food trucks, and Mexican restaurants abound from coast to coast.
The street taco started in Mexico, with three simple ingredients: tortilla, filling, and salsa, usually consisting of a meat with onions and cilantro. As our Mexican neighbors moved north, they brought customs and foods that we enjoy today.
Since then, the tortillas, fillings, and sauces have evolved and expanded. An influx of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, who brought the tradition of roasting meat vertically, led to tacos filled with lamb and eventually pork, for tacos al pastor. U.S. habits and food availability influenced American tacos, with Texas cattle and California produce making for tacos filled with ground beef and lettuce.
As the love of tacos spread around the world, different cultures added their own twists and flavors, making tacos their own. All these different taco takes are distinctive and uniquely delicious.
Though we're far from the Southern border, Chicago's northwest suburbs are spoiled for choice. My husband and I set out to try some of the best tacos in SW Lake.
After opening one successful restaurant in Glencoe, Chef Jovanny Diaz opened a second restaurant in Kildeer called Tacos Guanajuato. My husband and I sit together at a tiled table on a beautiful patio surrounded by trellised fresh flowers. Chef Diaz talks to us about the menu.
“I am always thinking of new things,” Diaz says. “I try to work with the seasons. For Lent, I created an octopus taco. Last fall, I thought about sweet potatoes. Then I looked for different seeds at the market. I then mixed the sweet potato and the pumpkin seeds with a little chili, feta, almonds, and I served it to others to try.” His sweet potato taco was requested so frequently, it is now on the menu year-round.
Diaz speaks of the love he has for the restaurant and for his food. He is looking for the best quality and “real food” that is authentic. With so many taquerias, his goal is to be unico (unique). Diaz prides himself in serving wild-caught fish, with the menu including Honduran tilapia, Ecuadorian mahi-mahi, and Norwegian salmon.
What makes Tacos Guanajuato special? “I try to connect my brain, heart, and hands,” Diaz says. “My best day is seeing customers enjoy my food.”
We enjoy barbacoa tacos, with Guanajuato-style beef slow-cooked overnight for ten hours. The tacos al pastor have large pieces of grilled pineapple to add a bit of sweetness to the pepper-marinated pork. We also sample the vegetarian tacos with grilled Portobello mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, and broccoli, topped with pico de gallo and avocado slices. We enjoy everything, including our flan with sliced strawberries dessert.
Our next stop is Tacos El Norte, a family Mexican restaurant in Lake Zurich directly across from Paulus Park. As soon as you walk in the front door, you can see friends laughing, parents leading young children, folks waiting for take-out, and employees weaving through an active kitchen.
Owner Vedrana Knopfhart says, “It is amazing the amount of joy in this restaurant.” In business for more than twenty-five years, she has seen children grow up and families expand.
“Tacos are fun. There are no rules,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it is now one of the most popular cuisines in the country. Everyone has a taco bar.”
Knopfhart stresses that fresh vegetables and quality meats cooked from scratch make a great dish. “We make it how you like it,” she says, giving the example of finding a perfect tomato, with a beautiful color and wonderful smell, to make the perfect blend for cooking.
We try a variety of tacos, including the two house specialties: the spicy Chicken a la Coca Cola, and breakfast-at-any-time Torpedo Taco served with steak, egg, onion, grilled cheese, and rice. Here, my favorite is the carne asada; my husband likes the lengua (tongue).
Our last stop is La Mula, one of Lake Zurich’s newest restaurants, a pairing between Chef Dudley Nieto and co-owners Jonathan Levy and George Diskos. La Mula has an open layout, akin to its sister restaurant, The Hungry Mule.
Levy says what makes La Mula special is cooking traditional Mexican cuisine daily with all-fresh ingredients. “Nothing is processed, nothing comes out of a bottle,” he says. “For our duck tacos, we cook the whole duck and de-bone it by hand every day.”
A La Mula specialty, the duck taco is one of Levy’s favorite dishes. He also favors their Korean taco with skirt steak, kimchi cabbage, scallions and serrano chiles.
We try the taco-of-the-week: pork belly with grilled onions, tamarind and chipotle salsa on a flour tortilla. Other specialties include Baja-style tempura codfish and a delicious “MedMex” with spit-roasted beef and lamb shawarma.
La Mula lets you pick your style of taco—American with cheese, lettuce, and tomato, or Mexican with cilantro and onion. For fillings, we sample short-rib barbacoa, carnitas pork and the “gringo” option of ground beef.
With so many local options, it's easy to celebrate tacos this October. Try something new or fall back on your personal favorite. All you need are tortillas, fillings and salsa. Give your family something to taco about tonight. Buen provecho!