Cover Story 47: The Taco-ization of America

01
Aug

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America loves tacos, so much that we eat 4.5 billion per year nowadays. So as we get hungry for tacos, let’s look at the factors that have helped their popularity explode in recent years.

Here’s the thing about the taco: You can buy them for cheap on the side of the road, and they’re delicious. You can buy them expensively at a fancy restaurant, and they’re delicious. You can buy them at not-at-all authentic fast-food drive-thrus, and they’re delicious.

The taco might be the most versatile yet consistent food we routinely shove in our faces. Just think about all the things you put inside of a taco — steak, pork, fish, chicken, sausage, even goat and duck. And that doesn’t include all the wonderful styles of preparation that fall under each, like carnitas and al pastor and adobada, each different and each wonderful. It also doesn’t include the more exotic cuts of meat, like lengua (tongue), cabeza (head) or buche (stomach).

We’re living in the age of the taco renaissance — where there’s a taco to fit your tastes, whatever they are. There are taco trucks, taco stands, street tacos, gourmet tacos, gringo tacos, plus good ol’ taqueria-style tacos. And while some places are better than others, you can, in 2016, find these just about anywhere in this great country.

Consider it a testament to the Taco-ization of America. In one form or another, it’s estimated that Americans consumed 4.5 billion — BILLION — tacos last year. That’s enough, according to the people behind National Taco Day, to stretch 490,000 miles, or to the moon and back. That sounds delicious.

The taco didn’t come from America. It’s roots actually trace back to 19th century Mexico. But we’ll damned if we didn’t adopt it like one of our own. It’s like pizza — which was born in Italy, immigrated to the U.S. and allowed us to send its popularity into another stratosphere.

And just like bacon, the taco’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years after it became the go-to snack of the Internet population. Tacos became not just something that were delicious to eat, but an actual lifestyle propagated by people who scheduled their weekly menus around Taco Tuesday. Tacos became something that people love to talk about even if they weren’t eating them.

With all this in mind, we wanted to trace four factors that have led to the taco becoming one of America’s most beloved modern foods. C’mon. It’ll be tasty. We’re sorry if you’re hungry afterward.

 

TACO TRUCKS

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The taco truck isn’t new, it actually dates back more than 50 years according to some accounts, but taco trucks have certainly jumped in popularity in recent years. Once an off-the-beaten path dining option that some people would call more of a guilty pleasure, the taco truck has become a sought-after culinary destination.

Inside of being afraid of taco trucks like many Americans used to be, many more now embrace them as a fast and affordable delicacy. That’s fortunate for all of us, because taco trucks often serve up the tastiest tacos in the land.

A second part of this is the rise of gourmet food trucks. Many of the “fancy” food trucks of 2016 have made taco trucks cool in the mainstream, whether they’re the old, authentic variety or the new and eclectic versions. For the former, it’s sort of like when a kid discovers all the jewels in their parents’ record collection, and see how they influence the bands you like today.

Nowadays, your favorite taco truck might be selling authentic Mexican-style tacos or it might be selling you something new and different, like Korean-BBQ style tacos. Point being: Virtually everyone has a favorite taco truck.

 

TACO TUESDAY

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It’s hard to pinpoint why or how Taco Tuesday became such a phenomenon. The origins of Taco Tuesday have been proven: A Florida restaurant named Taco John’s started a Taco Tuesday promotion back in 1982. That didn’t just slowly grow into the Taco Tuesday we know today, it was actually made fun of. But the idea of Taco Tuesday has stuck around and grown exponentially in recent years.

Taco Tuesday is many things to many people — a reason to go to a favorite Mexican restaurant once a week, a pre-planned taco night at the house or even a go-to midweek Instagram hashtag. Either way, it’s crept into our lifestyle in such a way that it was even heavily featured as a thing in “The Lego Movie.”

Think of it like this: What other days of the week have a food directly associated with them? There’s no Mac & Cheese Monday or Wing Wednesday or Sandwich Saturday? Tacos are the winner here, and it’s helped brand them into a weekly part of our lives.

 

TACO BELL

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Groan all you want, but there’s no denying that a big part of the taco’s popularity in America can be attributed to Taco Bell. No, they’re not the greatest tacos. No, they’re not authentic in any way, shape or form. And, no, you’re not exactly beaming with culinary pride when you eat Taco Bell. But sometimes it’s just a craving you have to satisfy.

Beyond that simple popularity of Taco Bell, it’s overall brand and marketing have made tacos seem cooler than a regular ol’ hamburger. Taco Bell has always been a little more whimsical than its fast-food peers, creating a vibe that tacos are a fun food to eat.

And in states where it’s harder to find street tacos and taco trucks, Taco Bell might be all some people have. Don’t settle for it, guys, and gals go find the good stuff too. But eat it when you need to, because Taco Bell must be saluted for its part in growing taco culture in America.

 

THE INTERNET

Like many things, tacos have taken on a new life in the age of the Internet. A couple years ago, the Internet straight up became smitten with tacos. Before that, you might have argued that America loved burritos more than tacos as our staple Mexican snack.

But nowadays, it’s not even close. Tacos dominate social media. Tacos are all over memes. Tacos were one of the first emojis to inspire a feverish campaign for their creation. Have tacos at your party and people will be there.

It’s strange to see what the Internet decides to latch itself onto. There are plenty of other delicious treats out there, but for some reason, bacon and tacos became the go-to, most-talked-about foods of the past decade online.

Much like bacon, the idea of tacos might be even more popular than tacos themselves. People love to talk about tacos, even if they’re not actually eating tacos. Heck, people might not even like tacos that much, but in 2016, you better act like you do or else you’re an outcast. That’s how much clout tacos have!

 

WILL WE TIRE OF TACOS?

This is a legit question. Every trend comes to an end at some point. For every peak there’s always a valley. That’s a fact of life.

So will tacos get played out? Will we start to get ho-hum about them? Will we start to roll our eyes at the next Mexican-fusion taco truck we see? Will Taco Tuesday get replaced by Tamale Tuesday?

Maybe, to some point. But let’s go back to the beginning. The things that make tacos so beautiful are their versatility. Even if you never want to look at a carne asada taco again, you might still be in love with al pastor. Or you might fiend for that exotic taco from the side-of-the-road taco cart.

The taco will lose its luster. To some people. Someday. But it’s so ingrained in our culture nowadays that it’s a safe bet the taco will never go away. And it’ll never stop being delicious.


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