For most of my life, a taco was ground meat, a package of seasoning and hard shells from the box, with lots of cheese and maybe a little lettuce on top. And I will tell you, I have nothing against that version. But in the last few years, there has been a proliferation of Mexican restaurants in Memphis that serve what is considered more authentic Mexican food. And I haven’t looked at a taco the same way again. Real tacos, with homemade tortillas, complexly seasoned shredded meat, and a variety of fresh and unique toppings are a real revelation.
I said above that these restaurants serve what we are told is more authentic Mexican food, and I had no reason to doubt that, but no real proof either. I visited Mexico with my family as a teenager and it was an amazing trip – Mexico City, Taxco and Cuernavaca. I remember the food, particularly some very subtle and unique dishes, but I was not as adventurous then. We ate mostly at restaurants – I wouldn’t have considered a taco at a roadside stand. As far as I remember, I never tasted a real Mexican taco on that trip.
But last year, I had the great good fortune to attend Food Blogger Camp in Ixtapa, Mexico. And clearly, in the company of all those food bloggers, eating was our primary activity. The resort offered a generous buffet at every meal, and I invariably made my way to the Mexican section and sampled some amazing food. Tacos were a feature, with a lovely woman hand rolling and cooking tortillas, and a variety of meat fillings simmering away – from beef to pork to tongue to seafood – and an array of toppings to make your head spin. One day, we ventured into the town of Zihautenjo for a market tour, and just to be sure, I sampled several tacos at market stalls. I can hardly call myself an expert now, but I do know that the new breed of restaurants in Memphis do offer authentic Mexican tacos, and boy am I glad of it.
When I got home from camp, I set out to replicate a taco filling worthy of what I’d sampled in Mexico. I started with some relatively complex procedures – roasting a variety of peppers, rehydrating dried ones, charring tomatoes, marinating meats, layering complex sauces with a multitude of ingredients, many of which required a trip to specialty Latin markets. I had some great results, but in the end, realized these dishes where not something I’d put in regular rotation because of the time and effort. And though I am glad I figured it out, what I was really after was an amazing dish for a casual, anytime taco night. So this is where I ended up. Good meet, simmered in a smoky sauce quickly made from ingredients readily available. Saucy and smoky with warmth, not heat, this taco filling is a canvas for creativity in toppings. I’ve made a list of suggestions, but it is up to you and your imagination. I do make a special stop for fresh tortillas, and heat them quickly over the open burner on the stove.
Smoky Beef Tacos
4 pounds eye of round roast, excess fat removed (this may be 2 pieces of roast)
2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 (3.5-ounce) can chipotle chiles in adobo, including the sauce
Juice of two limes
1 ½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
Handful of cilantro leaves
5 cloves garlic
Fresh corn tortillas
Crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese
Finely chopped cilantro
Sour cream or Mexican crema
Diced fresh pineapple
Diced red onion
Chopped green onion
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place all the sauce ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Pour enough sauce in the bottom of a 5 quart Dutch oven to cover the bottom. Place the roast in the pan and season with salt and pepper. Pour over the remaining sauce. Cover and place in the oven and cook for 3 hours, until the meat will shred easily with fork.
Remove the meat to a bowl and shred using two forks. Return the meat to the sauce in the pot and stir to coat. Keep warm.
Heat the tortillas. I think the best way to do this is to hold them over the open flame on the burner for a few seconds until they puff and go golden in spot, but you can also wrap them in a damp towel and heat them in a low oven.
Serve the meat with the tortillas and a variety of toppings.
Will serve 8 hungry folks, with some extra meat leftover