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.)
Bistec Adobado with Grilled Green Onions (Tacolicious, San Francisco)
Joe Hargrave's aha moment came in a Mexico City taqueria, when he realized the place was built around just six amazing tacos and a few great salsas. "But it was all exactly what I wanted to eat," he says. Back home, Hargrave closed his struggling Spanish eatery and, within a year, opened a simple taqueria, just like that one in Mexico, called Tacolicious, in San Francisco's Mission District. "Telmo, our chef, grew up in Portugal and in a Mexican neighborhood in San Jose," says Hargrave, "so he's steeped in the classics." His ultratraditional bistec adobado boosts grilled beef flavor with a quick sauce of vinegar, spices, and chilies. "We use flank steak," says Hargrave, "but skirt or tri tip are also good; you want a cut with some chew."
• 1 tsp cumin seeds
• 1/3 cup apple-cider vinegar
• 1/3 cup water
• 2 dried ancho chilies*, stemmed and deseeded
• 2 dried guajillo (or New Mexico) chilies, stemmed and deseeded
• 1 dried cascabel chili, stemmed and deseeded
• 2 tbsp canola oil
• 1/4 medium yellow onion, chopped
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled
• 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp kosher salt, or to taste
• 2 lbs flank steak
• 1 big bunch green onions, root ends trimmed
• Lime wedges, chopped onions, and cilantro for serving
• 12 tortillas
*Don't be intimidated by the exotic-sounding chilies – many are available at Whole Foods or even Walmart, and all can be found at your local Mexican grocer.
Toast cumin seeds in a skillet over medium heat for 1 minute, then grind in a spice grinder (or substitute 2 tsp preground cumin and skip the toasting).
Heat vinegar and water in a pan until hot. Pour into a bowl with the ancho, guajillo, and cascabel chilies. Let stand 15 minutes.
For the adobo marinade, put 3 tbsp oil in a pan over medium heat, add onions and garlic, sauté until browned, place in a food processor. Add chilies and their soaking liquid, cumin, black pepper, and salt. Puree to a thick, smooth paste. Pour into a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
Place beef and adobo in a large ziplock bag, massage to coat all sides. Refrigerate 2 to 12 hours, the longer the better.
Remove steak from refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before cooking. Grill over medium-high heat 5 to 7 minutes per side.
Set aside to rest covered for 10 minutes.
Rub green onions with oil, grill until soft and slightly charred, 2 minutes. Season with salt.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari
Cut steak into small pieces against the grain. Season with salt and pepper, serve with green onions, cilantro, chopped onions, and lime wedges.