At the counter of Tacos Apson, a cinder-block building across from Pueblo High School on South 12th Avenue with a sign showing an electric guitar inside a taco, the costilla de res almost seems like the subject of a bet. This isn’t the most adventurous taco on the grilled-meat dominated menu; in fact, if you’re a vegetarian, you’re better off not Googling the huevo becerro criadillas listed. The costilla de res is a bold statement of a dish. One beef rib, Flintstone-ian in nature, grilled to a light char, bone-in, placed on top of two tortillas.
How did we get here? Not just to a humble temple to flame-kissed beef, but to the taco? When Tucson was selected as the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States, the taco wasn’t specifically mentioned in the application, but the wide variety of menu items in this city where something’s wrapped or atop a tortilla is so vast – served at both the most luxurious resort and on a card table aside a food truck – there’s definitely a long-standing connection between Tucson and the taco.
There’s no particular story detailing when the first taco popped up in Tucson and frankly, there isn’t a definitive origin story for the dish at all. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press), believes the taco might date from 18th-century silver mines in Mexico. Regardless of its obscure nature, the taco isn’t likely an ancient dish, it’s probably a product of the industrial revolution, when culinary traditions from throughout Mexico merged in major cities, creating a popular food culture that has continued to evolve today.
Lebanese immigrants to Mexico brought the vertical rotisseries they used to cook lamb for shawarma. The children of those immigrants used that tool to cook pork with a cut pineapple on top in the 1960’s (according to Pilcher) and we now we have tacos al pastor, a dish you can find on many Tucson menus including from a cart named Polo’s at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet on weekends to add to the (delicious) collision of cultures.
Andi Berlin, a food writer for the Arizona Daily Star, embarked on a journey to eat 100 Tucson tacos over the course of an extended summer in 2015 and in the process had the opportunity to eat everything from ahi tuna to fried pig cheek in taco form. Following her odyssey traveling on a metaphorical raft of tortillas, her insight was that:
Above all, tacos are a symbol of who we are as Tucsonans. We live in a multiracial city immersed in the Southwest, with a thriving food culture and some of the most eclectic restaurants in the country. We are creative people and proud of what we do, because —guess what? — it’s absurdly delicious.
And it’s true. Tucson isn’t just a city with Native American, Mexican and European settler influence (although there’s certainly a lot in the mix from those groups), but there’s a thriving refugee community, generations of those with Chinese heritage, plus more cultures than I could really count (come to Tucson Meet Yourself held in September each year to see Tucson’s wild and surprising diversity in action, plus there’s lots of food). So, when you hear there’s a taco on the menu at a local sushi place, that’s not terribly shocking. This is the evolution of the taco and our tastes in general as well.
The best part is that we, as people who enjoy delicious, adventurous food, get to be part of that evolution while enjoying the process on our plate. Not just at Tacos Apson, but also at James Beard-award winner Janos Wilder’s restaurant, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, which has a slow-braised beef cheek taco on its splendid bar menu. Or a bit further east from DK+C at Hotel Congress’ Cup Café, where pork belly stars in Mission Street Tacos with a jicama slaw.
The collision of worlds and influences to create something new and magical happens at Tucson’s resorts when Danny Perez from JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa heads to La Estrella Bakery to buy tortillas made in the back of their busy 12th Avenue shop by two generations of the Franco family since 1986. On the other side of town at the equally luxurious Loews Ventana Canyon, Chef Ken Harvey has short rib tacos on the menu at the Flying V Bar and Grill topped with a habanero mango salsa.
Then, of course, there’s what we call the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food where there are seemingly countless places to get a great taco and experience Tucson’s south-of-the-border influences in full force. Taqueria Pico de Gallo has a handmade corn tortilla that will ruin you on whatever you’re buying at the grocery store forever and the carne asada holds up its end of the bargain as well.
The lure of the west for ages was that it offered you an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to discover something new, to live freely. And while it sounds a little trite to apply those values to tacos, they’re there when Maria Mazon at Boca Tacos y Tequila puts caviar on a taco paired with her amazing salsas or when you’re grabbing a taco al pastor on a street corner in the midst of a great night out with friends old or new.
Tucson certainly isn’t the only place in the world you can get a taco, but it might be where you’ll find the best ones. It’s absolutely a city where you’re not just eating, you’re learning something, expanding your horizons. That’s what Tucson’s all about, it just also happens to be reflected on a plate all over town, often with pickled onions on the side.
For more on Tucson and the taco, www.best23milesofmexicanfood.com.
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