It's is hard to pin down what is great about a great taco. Is it the succulent, smoky carne asada? The tender, charred handmade tortilla? The sweet, ripe, spicy brightness of pico de gallo? More likely it's the way all those things come together.
You can find such taco greatness at restaurants, corner taquerias and taco trucks with cult followings. But the best tacos in the world might come out of your own kitchen.
Imagine a warm corn tortilla filled with thinly sliced, pan-seared duck breast, tomatillo sauce and a cherry-chile compote. Or grilled lamb sausage with watercress and harissa. Or achiote-marinated yellowtail with shredded cabbage and chipotle mayonnaise.
A terrific taco is about mouth-feel as well as flavor. There are no set rules about what goes into a taco; it's more about improvisation, maybe a happy accident, some smart calibration. A hot rush of habanero chiles, then a cool tempering of creme fraiche or watermelon salsa. The rich succulence of leftover wine-braised short ribs, then a bright, fresh celery-leaf salsa. A little crunch, a little heat, a sudden burst of flavor. A well-orchestrated taco should seem like a sudden inspiration of flavors that coalesce at the very last moment.
Start with a good tortilla as the foundation. Fresh, handmade corn tortillas, from a local source or ones that you make yourself (it's easier than you think), can make the difference between ordinary and extraordinary. Quickly heat them in a dry skillet or right on the gas burner or outside on the grill.
Although flour tortillas can be amazing vehicles if they're freshly made (they're traditionally used in tacos in Sonora, Mexico), the richer flavor and rougher texture of a corn tortilla elevate the dish. Corn's subtle dimension is a terrific backdrop for other ingredients: Shrimp works beautifully with it, as does grilled fish; cherries and corn are unexpectedly wonderful together.
Use the best ingredients, considering how their flavors will work together. The classic taco combos work because they rely on balance. The deep flavor of Cochinita Pibil (pork slow-roasted in banana leaves) contrasts with the tart note of pickled red onions. The wonderful char of Carne Asada is offset by the fresh, bright flavors of pico de gallo. Grilled wild salmon rocks with a spicy cucumber-serrano salsa verde or a garlicky aioli.
A contrast of texture and temperature is important, too. The cool crunch of shredded raw jicama plays deliciously against fat shrimp, still warm from a simmer in a rich, nutty pepita-cilantro sauce, just as the hot fried fish in a Baja-style taco gets cold crunch from raw cabbage as well as the reprieve of cool, luscious crema.
And all of it against the warm tortilla that envelops it - slightly chewy, redolent of the corn that adds yet another dimension.
Tacos don't necessarily have to be built from the ground up - you can use last night's grilled tri-tip or leg of lamb or leftover dirty rice and beans. Even ratatouille. Just think of what would take those tacos to the next level. Grilled chorizo with that ratatouille, for example, or mint pesto and julienne radishes with those thin slices of leg of lamb.
Pile tortillas high with the leftovers from a fantastic daube or roast chicken, then mix up a quick salsa from the greens in your garden and the heirloom tomatoes now loading market stalls. Doctor a jar of mayonnaise or some sour cream, or add a squeeze of lime or Meyer lemon.
The jolt and fire of one ingredient aligns with the cool notes of another, giving a balance but also creating quadrants of flavor. As the heat of chiles often operates on a kind of time release, the other ingredients you pair with them create layers of tastes and aftertastes. A cool dice of mangoes or grilled corn cut off the cob stretches out the fire of a serrano as it tempers it. A spoonful of sour cream then can offer both contrast and reprieve.
Serve and eat your haute tacos right as they come off the griddle and out of the kitchen - they're immediate food, and the alliance of textures and temperatures is ephemeral.
Speed counts more than manners. The best tacos demand to be eaten bite by bite, with no more utensils than your hands. You fold the last nub of sauced tortilla into your mouth, brazenly lick aioli from your fingers, wipe errant chile sauce from your chin.
Had enough already? We didn't think so. Just grab another - the possibilities are endless.
Amy Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Shrimp Tacos With Pumpkin-Seed Sauce
Serves 4 -- Total time: about 50 minutes
1 bunch cilantro
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 serrano chile, seeded and inner ribs removed
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and inner ribs removed
1/4 large jicama, peeled
1 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 small corn tortillas
Finely chop about 1/3 of the cilantro to yield 2 tablespoons, setting aside the rest. In a small bowl, mix the chopped cilantro with the sour cream and set aside.
In a medium saute pan over medium heat, toast pumpkin seeds until they pop and turn slightly golden, 8 to 10 minutes; do not let them brown. Set aside briefly to allow to cool.
In a food processor or blender, place the pumpkin seeds, olive oil, garlic, salt, chiles, remaining cilantro and 1/2 cup of water. Blend to a smooth paste.
Return the mixture to the saute pan, add 1/2 cup water and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes to develop the flavors. Stir frequently to make sure the sauce doesn't burn and add more water if the sauce thickens too much or too quickly. Meanwhile, shred the jicama using a box grater. Refrigerate until needed.
Increase heat to medium-high and add shrimp. Cover and cook until the shrimp are pink, about 5 minutes, stirring and turning the shrimp occasionally for even cooking.
Place a skillet or griddle over medium heat and warm the tortillas. Arrange 2 tortillas per plate, slightly overlapping. Divide the shrimp among the tortillas, add shredded jicama and 1 spoonful of cilantro sour cream. Serve immediately, with lime wedges.
Per serving: 471 calories, 32 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 24 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 185 milligrams cholesterol, 365 milligrams sodium