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.)
Poblano Rajas with Roasted Corn (Pinche Taqueria, Denver)
"My goal was to use foods strictly native to Mexico but with a modern twist," says chef Kevin Morrison of his effort to break into the saturated Denver taco scene. Pinche Taqueria's vegetarian tacos, typical of central and southern Mexico, where people can't always afford meat, have really set it apart. For his green chili tacos, Morrison tempers the intense heat of the chilies with sweet roasted corn, an ultra-Mexican addition that also happens to evoke Morrison's childhood visits to a farm in southwestern Michigan.
• 4 poblano chilies
• 2 ears of corn
• 1 can chipotle chilies in adobo
• 2 cups whipping cream
• 4 oz Cotija (or feta) cheese
• 4 oz sour cream
• 12 tortillas
Roast the poblanos. "Just set the whole peppers directly on a grill or on a burner grate of your stove, over a high flame," says Morrison. "Let them char all over, so the skin really gets black." Remove poblanos from heat, let cool, peel off charred skin. Remove stem, pith, and seeds; cut chilies into strips.
Shuck corn and set cobs directly on a medium-hot grill. Rotate until all kernels have browned. Cut kernels off cob.
Mince 2 chipotles fine, then add to a saucepan with the poblano, corn, cream, and salt and pepper. Simmer.
Crumble Cotija on top. "Sour cream or crema tones down the heat," says Morrison. "And fresh-squeezed lime brings it all together."
Taco Upgrade: Make Your Own Crema
Mexican grocers sell the tangy cream known as crema in your local taqueria, but you can easily whip some up yourself by stirring buttermilk into regular sour cream, giving it a pourable consistency.
Lime zest, lime juice, salt, or chili powder are high-impact additions.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari