Journal of Taco-Building Science, vol. I issue 1

I’ve had two great leaps in my understanding of the best way to build a taco.

The first came in 1999, when I was on Semester at Sea and the cafeteria had a taco day for either lunch or dinner pretty much every 2-3 weeks.  It was one of the most popular menus that they produced, and people would line up around 2 corners for it.  You’d brace yourself against the wall if the seas were rough, or just rock with your knees against the gentle swells if they weren’t, and look forward to getting your tacos.  But when you got to the front, you realized what the hold up had been: everyone was trying to assemble their tacos at the buffet line.  And because, of course, everyone has their own understanding of what order the ingredients ought to  be stacked and why, traffic jams could develop as everyone tried to get the cheese or the tomatoes or what have you all at the same time.

After going through this ordeal once or twice, I realized how to circumvent the log jam and still be particular about how I built my tacos.  When I got to the front of the line, I’d fill several small dishes each with one of the components.  Then, I’d have a miniature version of the taco bar at my seat, where I could build each taco to order.  Not only that, but I eliminated the problem of taco-spillage: an inevitability if you set a finished taco on your plate.  It was a two-fer: shorter wait and better tacos, all in one blow!

My second epiphany came today as I finished my 4-taco lunch.

My order of taco assemblage has been the same for years: meat first, then cheese so it might melt over the hot meat.  Lettuce next, with sour cream following if it’s available; the two of them serve as an insulator layer to keep the liquid from the tomatoes (if they look good) and/or salsa from draining through the meat and making it chill too quickly.  Olives, avocados, and any other nice-to-have ingredients also go in the top layer.  They might be crowned with a second layer of cheese, on occasion.

Today, though, as I polished off my fourth taco, I started thinking: the delay between putting the meat into the shell and adding the cheese causes some inevitable cooling of the taco meat.  And I thought, what if the meat didn’t have to go in the shell first? I mean, seriously…we all do it without even thinking about it.  But what if we put the cheese in first?  Then, the meat would be at its hottest possible temperature when it hit the cheese, and the cheese would experience a higher degree of melting.  The melted cheese might even be able to serve as an insulator layer between the meat and the taco shell to help retard taco shell sogginess.  We have the potential to achieve a higher level of taco quality on two levels, simply through making one small change to how we stack our layers!

This is a development that I predict could rival the development of using caulk guns as sour cream squirters….

Reader Poll:

How do you stack your tacos?  Why do you follow this order?  What’s need-to-have, and what’s nice-to-have when it’s taco night in your house?

15 Responses to “Journal of Taco-Building Science, vol. I issue 1”

  1. Aurora Says:

    Though a good one for its situation, I’d have to say your first epiphany is not relevant for normal household taco building, mainly because you create way too many dishes. For a buffet, it’s definitely great.

    As for taco assembly, mine has developed over the years to incorporate (in order from bottom to top: meat/beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, avocado, salsa.

    Upon greater consideration, I think that most people put the meat first because it’s heaviest (not hottest), and cheese obviously follows. However, leaving all that loose stuff to the top just encourages it all to fall out, so I’m interested in hearing how others circumvent the over-stuffed taco issue (beyond simply making larger taco shells).

  2. jim Says:

    Four (4) taco lunch!!!!????

  3. MIL Says:

    Although I’ve been eating tacos for some 50 years, I can’t say I have anyone way that I prefer to eat my tacos (although your father-in-law would definitely tell you the “right way” to assemble your taco…and here is the reason:

    I like variety…so I have tried different ways to build my tacos over the years. Avocados next to the meat are delightful –especially when just ripe. Tomatoes on the meat and then the cheese is a good combo as well. Mix it up…makes for a change in expectations that can delight your tastebuds.

    Parmesan cheese is a nice addition to the tacos…..

  4. justin Says:

    first, i’m inclined toward soft flour tortillas, which i ultimately wrap around all the goods, so stacking order isn’t to much of a concern, but i still follow a general routine. if i’m stuck with a hard shell taco, i just count on making a mess, no matter what order i go, but again, i still follow a general routine.

    that said, i go:
    1. beans (refried)- this not only makes a good sticky base, to lessen the likelihood of meat falling out of the finished taco, but also, you have a clean tortilla to wipe off the serving spoon, to get maximum beanage, without getting, say, already-served taco meat mixed into the beanage stuck to the spoon- even vegetarians flock to taco night (it’s universal), so you don’t want to ruin their good time.
    2. meat- this is what i least want to fall out, so it goes under all the other toppings
    3. cheese- so it melts. however, if somebody else is serving their meat while i’m on step 2, i might revise the script and serve my cheese, and come back to the beef- the cheese still melts
    4. salsa- the taco bar could run out of every ingredient after this step, and i’d still make tacos as long as there is still meat, tortillas, and salsa. i like the salsa to mix into the meat. the hotter, the better
    5. diced onions, raw- not totally necessary, but with tacos, i think i prefer raw onions over onions cooked in the meat.
    6. lettuce? maybe.
    7. sour cream? hardly ever. i don’t want an ingredient that might tone down the salsa.

    * if there is guacamole, i might substitute that for refried beans on some of my tacos (i usually do 4-6 in a meal, so a little variety is in order), otherwise, i may slop a dollop on top of all the other ingredients before rolling up the taco; i figure it helps seal the taco shut.

    this is a fun readers’ poll. but now i’m craving tacos

  5. justin Says:

    oh yeah, despite my love of all things salsa, i don’t dig on fresh tomatoes, so they never end up in my taco. if they did though, i’d probably do them about the same time i do onions

  6. smathering Says:

    Well - this is one of my fave topics and I am very hungry right now so I am going to have to keep this short and sweet. Since moving to Chicago I changed up my tastes and keep it pretty simple.

    2 Corn tortillas
    meat seasoned nice and hot (i like to season mine with sriracha)
    roma tomatoes (or a nice semi sweet with a lil kick pico de gallo)
    and lots of lime to squeeze each bite.

    Sides of black beans and spanish rice

  7. Farmer Troy Says:

    For me, it is always hot protein first (meat or beans) into a hot corn or soft flour shell (shells gotta be hot so they don’t crack), and then add cheese next to make it melt.

    After that, whatever spoons are open at the family table of toppings. The usual toppings are chopped romaine, diced fresh plum tomatoes (or homeade pico if I have extra prep time and ingredients), and onions.

    Occasional toppings are guac./diced avacodo, chopped cilantro and diced jalapenos.

    My mom always added chopped green olives to her tacos . . . to me that is sacriligious . . . similiar to MIL adding Parmesan, buy hey, to each their own!!

    P.S. Don’t forget the cabbage . . . assuming you like a good fish taco . . . WAHOO!!!

  8. David Says:

    There is only one way to build a taco and that is as follows:
    1. Start with a heated taco shell (about 30 seconds in the microwave). 2. Place shredded lettuce in the taco shell. 3. Meat comes next which compresses the lettuce so you fit more in and top it with hot chilly sauce. 4. Diced tomato. 5. Sour cream. 6. Topped with grated chesse which sticks to the sour cream so as to avoid spilage. 7. Enjoy.

  9. Laura Says:

    Pfft, please.
    Whoever this David fello is, that is the stupidest way to ‘Build a taco’
    1. cook a taco in the microwavae for 25-30 seconds so it is no longer chewy but aquires a crunchy effect.
    2. Add your meat next.
    3. followed by shredded lettuce.
    4. Diceced Tomato.
    5. Grated Cheese.
    6. Lots of dobs of sour cream.
    7. With chilli sauce.

    Oh and i can’t believe people actuallly look up taco building sites, i mean come on get a life Hahaha *cough*DAVID*cough*… whoever he is :)

  10. Zoe Says:

    Ps.. Laura’s is the way to go!


  11. Farmer Troy Says:

    Microwave . . . schmikrowave!!!

    That aint real cookin’ if it involves nuked taco parts . . . Pfft!!!!

  12. Zoe Says:

    schmikrowave??! it’s a microwave
    Farmer troy … i think its time you spent some time in the city..

  13. Liam Says:

    i think chilli sause, sour cream and tomato have nothing to do with taco’s ..

    first come the taco shell, them meat, then lettuse, then cheese.

  14. jwsharrard Says:

    Hear, hear, Farmer Troy! Microwaves are handy water-boilers and butter-melters, but when it’s time to heat a taco shell, I always go for my toaster oven.

    As for my father-in-law, though, he takes quality to a higher level and fries his own taco shells fresh from corn tortillas–now that’s dedication to Taco-Building Science!

  15. Doug Says:

    I’m with you, I put the cheese on the bottom then the meat! I’m glad to see that I am not the only one contemplating taco architecture.

Leave a Reply