Netflix Latin America’s new documentary series Las Crónicas del Taco (Taco Chronicles) opens with a spit of pork being sliced. Then it cuts to a food porn-esque shot of a mouthwatering taco: A soft, warm bed of tortilla spread open with flaming bits of golden meat lying on top of it.
“What do you see?” asks the Spanish-speaking narrator in your friendliest sounding Mexican accent. You are seeing the only one that won’t let you down. The taco that cares for you. A tried and true friend!”
Yes, in this food show, it’s a taco that talks to you. I have to admit this risky narration style is a bit awkward at first, but the series’ creator Pablo Cruz knew exactly what he was after with this creative choice. By having narrators who speak from the perspective of the episode’s chosen taco, the whole thesis of this documentary is demonstrated: The easy-going and inexpensive taco is the ultimate comfort food and best friend to all Mexicans, regardless of age, gender, or class.
In an interview with Juan Cabral, the show’s associate producer and a Food & Wine cook, Cabral told F&W that: “Tacos are constantly battling a fierce double standard against the other staple foods of the world,” Cabral says. “No one thinks twice before ordering a bowl of flour, water, and a couple of nice ingredients in the form of pasta and paying over $20 for it but put those same nice ingredients over corn and water in the form of a tortilla for that same price tag and people will have a fit, or worse, subconsciously dismiss them as not being authentic. But as you will see in the show, some tacos require a stupid amount of prep work and tacos evolve, just like you and me, and every other living thing on this planet.”
Through artful shots and strong narratives, the series shows the complexities and techniques of the often underestimated culinary art of taco-making, and why not all tacos are the same. In each 30-minute episode, the godly goodness of a specific type of taco is explored along with its sociocultural origins, and like any good Latino show, its sentimental value is also explored.
There are six episodes that focus on six taco types such as: Al Pastor (Shepherd style), Carnitas (Meats), Canasta (Basket), Asada (Grilled), Barbacoa (Barbecue), and Guisado (Stew). The show chronicles each filling’s (usually meat, bean or potato based) method of preparation and the kinds of toppings and intricate fresh salsas stacked upon them. We think of tacos as a fast food, but the majority of ingredients take a lot of labor and time. This Colombian-American, was floored; I simply had no idea about the wide breadth of taco cuisine. In each episode talking heads ranging from top chefs and cooking assistants to anthropologists and food editors chime in on the folklore and urban legends around each taco’s story.
Aside from the avalanche of cultural information about Mexico itself, the series is also a series of beautiful Instagram-like shots of the country, a love letter to it: from its bustling cities, pueblos, and festivals to its playful, deep, and fascinating people. The first episode includes one in many tender moments which has to do with the people interviewed, regardless of their age or education. Like the little girl in catrina makeup who says: “The best foods in the world are spaghetti and al pastor tacos.” Spoken like a true food critic.
Not All Tacos are the Same, Güey
“The al pastor taco is universal,” says Dra. Miriam Bertran Vilà, a professor of social anthropology, in the first episode. “It is what makes us chilangos.” Mexico City’s emblematic El Pastor taco is this city’s residents most beloved street food. Like what a slice of late night pizza is to New Yorkers. Hell, it’s as pedestrian as the capital’s smog suggests another cool guy with a hat and piercings also interviewed on the street.
Contrary to popular belief the Spanish had nothing to do with any of the tacos’ origins. Food writer Pedro Reyes explains the taco’s ancestors, so to speak, are actually from Asia Minor, from a region formerly known as Anatoli. Reyes references food from the Ottoman Empire, what would be Lebanon’s Shawarmas, Greece’s Gyros, and Turkey’s Doner Kebab as the tacos long lost relatives. When the Lebanese migrated to Mexico they settled in Puebla and started making “Middle Eastern tacos,” says Reyes. Once Mexico’s history of colonialism began introducing pigs, they swapped in pork for lamb and mutton and served it on flour tortillas with chipotle salsa. The adobo always contained chiles, vinegars, and spices, but today’s recipes vary from taco shop to taco shop and no one in Mexico likes to divulge their secrets.
When in Mexico City you must go to Lorenzo Boturini Street to find several legendary taco spots. These include Gabacho Taqueria, El Pastorcito, and Los Güeros, each with their loyal fan base. When you order a taco al pastor, there are four main types: proto al-pastor taco (Arab style with corn tortillas), the purist taco (lightly marinated with adobo sauce), the red trompo (tons of adobo, served with pineapple), and finally, an al pastor sorted meat dish.
Episode two’s star is the Carnitas taco, which when one takes a bite, the oil from the meat’s oil drips down one’s chin. These hail from the state of Michoacán. Episode three is about the tacos de canasta (basket) with origins in Tlaxcala. These are prepared the night before and are sold on the streets “when you need it the most.” These mobile tacos, usually found on the back of a bicycle or on a cart with wheels, are packed into baskets with paper filling and characteristic blue plastic wrap. They are different from other tacos due to their mashed up ingredients of potatoes, beans and chicharrón. They’re are served with a fresh salsa with a bit of avocado and also pickled chile peppers. Served warm and greasy, the chicharrón is always the best seller most vendors will admit. The best part about this episode is the mini profile on the taco-selling drag queen Lady Tacos de Canasta.
Episode four is about carne asada tacos from Sonora. Imagine flaming beef on a thick tortilla with touches of guacamole, onion and cilantro brought to your neighborhood in a trendy taco truck in the U.S. This is what all the gringos in Los Angeles drool over they say. A kind of safe, less experimental of taco for the debutant. Episode five delves into the world of the barbacoa taco, which will forever debunk the myth of all tacos being a fast food. This taco hailing from Mayan cooking traditions is a slow cooked banquet of meats grilled on agave leaves beneath ground level in a well for eight to 16 hours. Episode six is all about the guisado (stew) tacos for workers on the go. The stews are made with everything you can think of from all the regions. From the most intricate of liver stews to large spoonfuls of scrambled eggs, rice, lettuce and tomato stacked up high on a round delicate little tortilla.
I have to admit to a slight case of food envy; Mexican culture has invented a dish with infinite amounts of ways to pleasure the palate. To paraphrase food writer Pedro Reyes, don’t worry if you’re not Mexican, one can become temporarily Mexican through tacos.