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.)
Slow-Roasted Pork with Salsa Verde (Tacodeli, Austin)
"When I moved to Texas from Mexico City at age 10," says Roberto Espinosa, "Taco Bell was high Mexican cuisine." After training in a high-end Cancún restaurant and moving to Austin, Espinosa decided to fix the problem by opening his own place. Tacodeli is now the hottest taqueria in a taco-crazed city. Espinosa and his chef, Joel Fried, set their menu apart with things like Texas gulf shrimp and sashimi-grade ahi. This classic carnitas tastes great the day it's made, Fried says. "But you can also cook it the day before and then crisp it up at the last minute in a hot skillet, taking it to a whole other level."
• 1/4 cup orange juice
• 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp lime juice
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 2 tbsp tequila
• 1 tbsp paprika
• 1 tbsp chili powder
• 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
• 1 bay leaf
• 9 cloves garlic
• 3 1/2 lbs pork butt or shoulder, bone in
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 lb fresh tomatillos
• 2 jalapeños
• 1 yellow onion
• 1 cup cilantro
• 12 tortillas
For the marinade, put orange juice, 2 tbsp lime juice, olive oil, tequila, spices, and 6 cloves garlic in a blender; pulse until a paste.
Step twoSlash pork butt all over with 1-inch crosshatch pattern. Rub with marinade, season with salt, set in a Dutch oven, and refrigerate 2 to 24 hours.
Remove from refrigerator 4 hours before cooking. Add 1/4 cup water, cover, roast at 350 degrees for 2 1/2 to 3 hours (until it can be pulled apart easily).
For the salsa verde, place dehusked tomatillos, jalapeños, onion, cilantro, 1/4 cup water, and 1/4 cup lime juice in a blender; pulse until smooth.
Taco Upgrade: How to Find the Right Tortillas
Corn tortillas, not flour, are the traditional go-to for authentic tacos. Most national brands are loaded with preservatives and gluten; good tortillas contain only corn, salt, and lime, and almost every city in the U.S. has a tortilleria or a Mexican grocer that makes fresh corn tortillas daily. To heat, place in superhot skillet for 30-45 seconds each side (no oil). Serve wrapped in a clean kitchen towel to trap moisture.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari