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.)
Tinga de Pollo (Guisados, Los Angeles)
The word guisado means "stew" or "braise" in Spanish – like the unforgettable dinners stewed stovetop by Armando De La Torre Jr.'s mother and grandmother in L.A. "It's the kind of food you came home to after school," De La Torre Jr. recalls. "Mom wasn't out on the grill cooking carne asada every day. She was slow-cooking meats and chicken to serve with rice and beans." So when De La Torre Jr. opened the Guisados taqueria in 2010 on Cesar Chavez Avenue, in L.A., he devoted the entire menu to "those old homestyle traditional meals." And nothing, of course, could be more homestyle than this classic chicken tinga, straight out of Southern California by way of the Mexican State of Puebla, where tinga remains both a Cinco de Mayo treat and an everyday staple. "I know this recipe sounds almost too simple," says De La Torre Jr., "but it's meant to be that way."
• 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
• 6 garlic cloves (4 minced, 2 smashed)
• 2 cloves
• 2 tomatoes
• 5 chipotle chilies
• ½ cup chicken stock
• 2 tsp cumin
• 1/2 tsp nutmeg
• 2 tbsp vegetable oil
• 2 white onions, halved and sliced
• Iceberg lettuce, shredded
• Salt and pepper
• 2 avocados, sliced
• 12 tortillas
Put chicken in a pot with enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add smashed garlic cloves and 2 spice cloves. Simmer until cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove chicken from water, let cool, shred with two forks.
For the sauce, set the whole tomatoes in a very hot cast-iron skillet and roll slowly around until blackened on all sides. Put tomatoes, chipotles, chicken stock, cumin, and nutmeg in a blender until smooth.
In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high burner. Add minced garlic, onions, and lettuce. Sauté 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add tomato-chili mixture, stir for 3 minutes, add shredded chicken. Simmer uncovered just until you see most of the liquid has cooked off and evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari
Serve on warm fresh corn tortillas, with sliced avocado topping each taco.