Hot take alert: They're great!
There was no denying it. The day simply felt different. There was a palpable electricity in the air. Every first Tuesday of the month it pulsed. The kids talked louder in the hallways, where they'd gather waiting for class to begin. It was Taco Tuesday! Finally a reason to get excited about school hot lunch.
This was rare. School-cafeteria lunches were usually mundane, and the ones they served at Burns Park Elementary in Ann Arbor, Michigan, were no different. There were the occasional good days: pizza and burgers. Sloppy Joes, maybe. But mostly we'd suffer through the slog, knowing that Taco Tuesday was getting closer and closer with each passing day. We stoically choked down whatever meals they passed off on us in the meantime. And waited for that sacred holiday to arrive once more.
I love tacos. In fact, I've never met anyone who doesn't. Even in Ann Arbor, where they weren't what anyone would confuse with authentic, the school tacos were sublime. My favorite. Hard shell. Beef. Cheese. That was it. We kids went wild for them. (I actually think they simply served the leftover Sloppy Joe meat in taco shells, which I readily admit sounds unappetizing. It wasn't.) We would dream about them.
Something about the light in my eyes on those first Tuesdays must've been obvious to my mother, who inevitably asked what was up. When I told her, we began having taco nights at home, too. I was sort of amazed how easy they were to make, that you could buy the pre-packaged shells at the store all ready to be filled. My mom would cook the meat and add a packet of taco seasoning, which, when it hit the pan, filled the kitchen with a zesty and intoxicating aroma—if they made cologne out of the stuff, I'd wear it. On taco nights at home, we'd add lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and black olives, which I know offends some foodies, but I thought added a cool kick.
Through my humble first experiences making tacos, I came to realize they were the perfect food. They were so utilitarian. They contained all of the major food groups and could fit easily in your hand. Come to think of it, that's also an apt description of a sandwich, too, but I like tacos better for one reason: texture.
It's a genuine high. I can honestly say anytime I'm eating a taco, there's nothing else I would rather be doing.
With hard-shell tacos, the pleasure is in that first bite, turning your head sideways (or not), the whole thing falling apart right in front of you, but not caring at all. The shell is brittle, and the meat is hot and tender. The cheese is a little bit melted, and the lettuce and tomatoes are still cool. It's a genuine high. A real, true case of food-borne happiness. I can honestly say anytime I'm eating a taco, there's nothing else I would rather be doing. I get taco tunnel vision. There's nothing else I could improve about those precious moments, except adding more tacos.
There's not much you can do to mess them up. The ingredients of the standard taco I had growing up are so straightforward, and even in the (very rare) bad taco experience, you still find consistency, a symmetry.
Now, I should mention here (though it's fairly obvious) that I'm talking about the kind of basic three-to-six ingredient taco hard-shell taco I found in the Midwest of my youth. I, of course, have had incredible tacos that barely resembled these in my lifetime, be it tender, juicy carne asada with raw onions and chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime served on delicate, buttery flour tortillas from a truck in Los Angeles or potato-and-egg breakfast tacos with salsa verde in Texas that brought a tear to my eye. "Real" tacos, for lack of a better term, are their own world, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I was confusing these handcrafted, labor intensive works of food art with their rich and complex flavors with the basic foodstuff I've described above. I love them all.
But the ones I truly fell for, the ones that stuck with me, are the kind that I got so excited about early on. The kind you can find on any menu at Taco Bell, which serves the best tacos I've ever had. Some may cringe when they hear that (and many do), but you love what you love, and much of what makes us feel good are the things that left a deep impression on us on first encounter, and that you learn you can rely on time and again.
Beyond taco Tuesday in school or taco night at my home, Taco Bell was where it was really at. When I was growing up, fast-food places all offered basically the same things. They were all burger joints. Which is what made Taco Bell seem like a heaven-sent anomaly. They served the stuff we'd come to love, made it better than everyone else, and sold it cheaper. Growing up, I could get a hard-shell taco at Taco Bell for $.49 cents. And it packaged them in a way that encouraged you to get as many as you possibly could, tightly packed into a neat row, individually wrapped. I could eat a dozen without even noticing.
My love for tacos culminated a few years ago, when out of the blue, I received a personal invitation to take a private tour of the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California. While there, I got to learn about the entire history of the company—from its first walk-up restaurant that opened up the street in Downey in 1962 to the 6,000 location global enterprise it has become—preview its upcoming new concepts and promotions, and best of all, taste test every new item coming to its menu. I actually got to try the Doritos Locos taco before it hit the restaurants. And if that wasn't enough, I was given full, unrestricted access to the test kitchen (along with a hair net and gloves). It was one of the greatest days of my life.
Tacos, like music and kittens, are one of the simple joys in life that prove the world isn't an entirely bad place. It's a challenging place. It's intense. But it's also a delicious place. Just thinking about tacos helps me maintain a more optimistic outlook. And anything that can do that is magical.
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