Ask five different taco chefs why the humble Mexican street snack is suddenly getting so much better and you'll get five different answers. For Julian Medina of Manhattan's Toloache, it's due to a generation of Mexican-born chefs learning new culinary techniques abroad and then applying them to the flavors of their childhoods. Joel Fried, of Tacodeli, in Austin, cites sheer exhaustion with cheese-saturated Tex-Mex: "People had no idea what a rich cuisine Mexico has," he says. Joe Hargrave, of San Francisco's Tacolicious, points to the economic crash of 2008, when the already food-crazy nation began hungering for simpler pleasures. Whatever the reason, people across the country have raised their expectations of what a taco can be, and every major city now has at least one great chef combining first-rate ingredients with deep respect for Mexican tradition. And since no one's trying to fancify them beyond recognition – tacos are tacos, after all – even today's finest tortilla fillings remain well within the reach of the home cook. From classically simple stewed chicken to a modern take on sautéed shrimp, these five recipes work whether you're cooking for one or hosting a big taco night beside the grill in the backyard. (All recipes make 12 tacos.)
Acapulco Shrimp Taco (Toloache Taqueria, NYC)
Julian Medina grew up in Mexico City but came up through the culinary ranks in New York City under Richard Sandoval at Maya. Now, with his own mini empire of six restaurants throughout Manhattan, Medina gets to showcase the flavors and food memories that inspire him. Among his signature dishes is this far-from-traditional version of the Acapulco-style shrimp tacos from his childhood. "I remember being on vacation with my parents, eating these on the beach with a fresh corn tortilla," he says. Medina's version is a chili-sauced shrimp, with hearts-of-palm pico de gallo, and a spicy tamarind hot sauce. "It's just so many different flavors and textures in one bite."
• 1 cup tamarind paste
• 1/4 cup plus 3 tbsp sherry (or white wine) vinegar
• 2 cups, plus 2 tbsp canola oil
• 1/4 cup water
• 1 tbsp honey
• 1 tbsp sambal oelek red chili paste (or any red chili paste)
• 1 lb canned hearts of palm, diced
• 2 tomatoes (1 diced, 1 quartered)
• 1 red onion, diced
• 1 cup cilantro (1/2 chopped)
• 2 tbsp lime juice
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1 tbsp onion, chopped
• Kosher salt
• 1 serrano chili
• 5 garlic cloves (1 whole, 4 minced)
• 1 canned chipotle pepper
• 2 tbsp vegetable oil
• 1 1/2 lbs medium shrimp, deveined and quartered
• 1 cup Chihuahua cheese, shredded
• 12 tortillas
For hot sauce, blend tamarind paste, 1/4 cup sherry vinegar, 2 cups canola oil, water, honey, sambal oelek. Salt to taste.
For pico de gallo, combine hearts of palm, diced tomato, diced red onion, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 2 tbsp lime juice, 2 tbsp vinegar, olive oil. Salt to taste.
For tomato-chipotle salsa, preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a roasting pan, place quartered tomato, chopped onion, serrano, garlic clove, and vegetable oil. Season with salt, cover with foil, roast 30 minutes. Transfer to a food processor, add 1/2 cup cilantro, chipotle, and 1 tbsp vinegar, pulse to combine. Salt as needed.
Heat 2 tbsp canola oil over medium-hot burner. Add shrimp, toss until pink. Add minced garlic, toss; add cheese, toss; add chipotle salsa. Simmer to heat.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari
On each tortilla, place several shrimp, topped with pico de gallo, and a drizzle of tamarind hot sauce.