NEW YORK—The age-old secret to the perfect taco, according to Chef Danny Mena, is balance. The balance of three ingredients: tortilla, protein filling, and salsa—nothing else.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re using chicken, mushroom, or pork. If you have the right balance of those three things it will be a spectacular taco,” he said.
With National Taco Day upon us (on Oct. 4), Mena, the executive chef at Sembrado, sets the taco record straight.
The problem with the Americanized taco is that it has too many ingredients, he said. There is no need for lettuce, sour cream, or cheese. These additions mess with the flavor proportions of the taco.
“A mistake people make is trying to make the taco look more substantive by adding everything in there,” Mena said. “The idea probably comes from the burrito, which you put as much as you can in.”
Instead of focusing on adding more ingredients, one should make sure the three key ingredients are made well.
“Some people focus too much on one item and neglect the others,” he said. The tortilla is often the most neglected of the trio.
“Having a good tortilla makes a big difference,” he said. “More and more people are beginning to appreciate the corn and flour now.”
Salsa can make or break a taco.
“Some restaurants put the salsa on for you, but I don’t do that, because people have different preferences,” Mena said.
He recalls a tortillas and taco restaurant in Mexico City that was an inspiration to his culinary style.
“I go there because I like their salsa,” he said. “But I have a friend who won’t go there because he feels that their salsa doesn’t have enough spice.”
Although salsa can be subjective, good salsa nonetheless completes a taco.
The Al Pastor
Mena’s favorite taco is the al Pastor.
It is the most common taco in Mexico City and its history dates back to when the Lebanese arrived in Mexico.
The meat is cooked on a stick. “You cannot replicate that style of cooking it in any other way,” Mena said. “It’s like slow grilling; it just won’t taste the same if it’s baked in an oven.”
“That left Mexicans with an impression of the shawarma,” he said. “Second generation Mexicans took the concept and changed it to pork tacos, with influences from the Yucatan Peninsula,” he said.
The al Pastor includes ingredients such as chilies and pineapples. Mena likes to make al Pastor tacos with soft tender pork and crispy burnt onions.
“Sometimes, I put Fanta in tacos to give it that special touch,” he said. “Mexicans like that flavor.”
But it’s not an easy taco to make.
“There is beauty in a simple taco, but there is also beauty in the complexity of an al Pastor,” Mena said.
“It’s amazing that the taco has been around for 600 years. Flour has been around since the Aztecs,” he said. “But it wasn’t until 800 years ago that it began crossing the border, and it’s about time to celebrate that.”