In honor of National Taco Day, a history of the humble Mexican street food (with a bonus recipe)

Fiesta time.
Fiesta time.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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In this increasingly divided world of political infighting and unrest, tacos can unite us as a nation. Today is National Taco Day and according its website, Americans ate over 4.5 billion tacos last year, enough to stretch to the moon and back. Restaurants and taco lovers around the country are celebrating the day with deals and discounts in honor of the humble, delicious, versatile Mexican street food.

In his book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, Jeffery M. Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, traces the origins of the taco back to silver mines in Mexico during 18th century. In the mines, “taco” referred to the charges used to excavate ore, in the form of little pieces of paper they would wrap around gunpowder. The first “taco” references in an archive or dictionary were at the end of the 19th century and one of the first types of tacos was called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos. Taquerías have since become a fixture of working-class neighborhoods and emblematic of Mexico’s popular street food culture.

Another theory is that the word evolved from the indigenous Nahautl word “tlahco,” which means “in the middle,” with the ingredients in a taco being in the middle of the tortilla, but that hasn’t been confirmed by etymologists.

The first mention of tacos in the US, according to Pilcher, was in a 1905 newspaper mention of the Chili Queens. Around this time, Mexican migrants were coming to the US to work on railroads and in mines. A group of women called the Chili Queens served tacos on pushcarts in places like Los Angeles and San Antonio to cater to the tastes of a new working-class population and also became popular with tourists. As the children of early Mexican migrants grew up and started to advance economically, their tastes for Mexican cuisine helped make the taco a fixture in the American food landscape.

Glen Bell started selling tacos to non-Mexican Americans in Los Angeles at his stand Taco-Tia in the early Fifties, which went on to become Taco Bell, which is now a $2 billion-a-year company with 7,000 locations. The taco has exploded American mainstream fast-food culture.

According to Quartz’s Ana Campoy, the tortilla is the key to a killer taco. If you start with a bad tortilla, you’ll have a bad taco. Take a deep dive into her investigation on what makes a truly excellent tortilla here (and here in Spanish) and if you are feeling especially ambitious today, here is her recipe for hand-made corn flour tortillas:


  • Nixtamalized corn flour. (Find one with only corn and lime on the ingredient list.)
  • Water
  • tortilla press, unless you want to pat the tortillas by hand, which is hard and time-consuming.
  • A thin plastic bag
  • A well-seasoned pan

How to do it:

Mix the flour with water in a bowl. Maseca, the brand of flour we used, calls for a ratio of two cups of flour to 1 1/4 cups of water.

Use your hands to make a smooth dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers, then form it into balls. The size depends on how big you want your tortillas. I do golf-ball size, which result in smallish tortillas.

Cut out two circles out of the plastic bag to match your tortilla press. You will use them to line the press so the masa doesn’t stick.

Put one plastic circle in the press, place the ball in the center of it, and cover it with the other circle. Close the press and push the lever—not too hard, or you’ll end up with a really thin tortilla. Peel it off the plastic circles and place it in the pan.

Medium-high heat works best. Wait until the edges of the tortilla lift off the pan slightly before turning it. Cook it on the other side for a minute or so. Turn it one last time. You’ll know you’ve mastered tortilla making if it puffs up.

Press it down a couple of times with your fingers or a spatula to let the air out. Then it’s done. Eat it fresh off the pan with a piece of mashed avocado, butter or just salt.

So there you go. Happy National Taco Day! (For all you taco lovers out there who enjoy a cocktail: It’s also National Vodka Day.)