Gringo – GriNG-go
(in Spanish-speaking countries and contexts, chiefly in the Americas) a Gringo is a person, especially an American, who is not Hispanic or Latino.)
Smith Family Taco History
Somewhere along the timeline of my life, between lets say, pizza and lobster … tacos became my absolute favorite food. I mean c’mon, they’re so delicious and diverse.. and most of the time pretty healthy too.
Nowadays we have fish tacos, shrimp tacos, veggie tacos along with old staples like chicken, pork and beef tacos. Yum!
My earliest memories of tacos, (or really anything Mexican food-like) was my parents 1980 “Divorce Vacation”. I was 9 years old and my parents were on their way to the metaphoric town of Splitsville.
My Mom told me years later when I was an adult that they pretty much knew the marriage was over but decided to take my sister Kelley and I (at the time 5 years old) on one last BIG vacation to Southern California. Specifically, Disney Land, Knottsberry Farm, Universal Studios Hollywood and that sort of thing.
This was a big deal for a kid from Canton, Ohio.
Up until that point we had only taken one big trip to Florida when I was about 6 and a few local trips around the state camping with the Grandparents and Atwood Lake Resort which was only about an hour away. Hardly what you would consider a big vacation.
California, now that was a big deal. My first flight on an airplane. Back then my Dad smoked. I remember the ashtrays on the armrests. Crazy, boy have times changed right? You can’t even smoke outside an airport in 2018 much less anywhere near a plane.
Of all the things mi familia did on this trip, the one thing that stands out in my memory was the food we ate. Well ok, the other thing I remember is getting the crap scared out of me on that Jaws ride at Universal Studios and my sister crying incessantly on the plane because of her ears popping… but really its the food I remember most.
By 1980 the extent of my Mexican food expertise consisted of the first bag of Doritos I ever ate when I was about 7, and it made me throw-up. True Story.
If you happen to be from Northeast Ohio (please let me know in the comments!) you may remember Don Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant. It’s the first good one one I remember in or around Canton. I believe it was also around before the first big chain pseudo-Mexican places like Chi-Chi’s or even Taco Bell in that area.
California was a whole new world of cuisine for me. They seemed to sell tacos and burritos EVERYWHERE. The sights and smells were something this kid from Ohio had never experienced before.
I remember my first actual sit-down meal in a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood. I don’t know if it was my parents first ever Mexican meal but I’m going to ask my Dad asap. (I need to call him this week anyways). If you’re reading this Dad I know I don’t call enough. 🙂
I do know for certain that this was to be my first Mexican meal. Of course as a kid I remember getting ground beef tacos. The tacos were delicious, but what really threw my 9 year old palette for a loop was the rice and beans.
What the hell else am I going to order at 9 years old?
I was a fan and (still am) of rice. We grew up on rice dishes, and my Grandma Dolly always made the most amazing buttery rice in chicken broth. I’ll have to share that recipe sometime too. ..but the beans? At that age the only beans I had ever had were the green kind out of a can.
Refried beans? Stop. I didn’t get it. Why do they look like that? The smell, the texture what is happening here? Was this a mistake? Who ordered this for me? Why did they need to fry them again?
One bite and I was hooked.. and of course now I love all types of beans, black, red, kidney, pinto, fresh.. and yes even the green ones in the can.
How it Started for Me
As a kid I didn’t really understand what it was I was tasting and why I loved Mexican cuisine so much. All I knew was that after that first meal in Hollywood in 1980 I couldn’t get enough of it.
Throughout my childhood my Mom would make tacos as a weekly staple. You know the drill.. Ortega shells, 80/20 hamburger and some cheddar cheese and lettuce. Boring. Gringo Madres don’t know what’s up, especially back in the 1980’s.
Over the years as grocery stores evolved and the choices became more diverse we started seeing Taco seasoning packets and canned refried beans, soft shells (wow!) and of course later an entire section of your favorite store dedicated to “International Foods”.
For my younger readers you’ll just have to take my word for it, this stuff just wasn’t always available. It’s a fairly new thing.
These days we can get fresh cilantro, avocado, corn tortillas, whole wheat tortillas, tortillas with peppers baked into them and even shells made of … wait for it… DORITOS. Stop it.
The list is almost endless.
When I moved to Florida in 1999 with my wife Celeste, we had been mostly content with the Ortega or Old El Paso meal kits. Again, it’s boring but it satisfied that taco craving, and frankly we just didn’t know any better.
Moving to Florida opened up a whole new food world for us, especially for me as I was more willing to try new things.
In Florida, the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian and of course Mexican restaurants seemed to be everywhere, much as I suspect it was back in California all those years ago. We were just never exposed to it in Ohio.
I do realize its better in the present day, but 20 years ago you’d really have to go looking for some good Latin cuisine, of any kind, in Canton, OH.
The Street Taco
Street tacos originated as sort of a quick street food sold in carts or what nowadays we see as food trucks. They were also sold at stands on the side of the road in much the same way you may see a hot-dog vendor in Manhattan or a vegetable stand in rural areas of our country.
The first time I had one of these little delights I was taken aback at the lack of cheese and other “Gringo” accoutrements we as a society have become used to dumping onto our tacos.
Grilled meats, onions, fresh Cilantro.. perhaps even radishes? Soft corn tortillas. Fresh salsas? What is this? Where’s the CHEEEEEESE!? Where’s the Ortega Mild and Smooth Taco sauce? No sour cream?
Lack of cheese aside I was pretty blown away by the flavor. I also had no idea that most people in Latin American countries don’t even eat cheese on their tacos. I’m guilty of being a Gringo yet again.
Sometimes you’ll see them with a little Cotija cheese on them. This is a nice light and mild crumbly white Mexican cheese with just enough saltiness to give you the cheese satisfaction required by Gringos across the U.S.A. …But with probably a small fraction of the calories we had normally put on our tacos en mi familia.
If I had to pick one I would say Cotija resembles a mild Feta in flavor and texture.
You may have to hunt for it a bit though.. after asking our waitress at our favorite Mexican place (El Zocalo in Sanford, FL) what exactly it was, we finally found some over by the butter and eggs at a Wal-Mart nowhere near the cheese section.
Salsa and Sauces
Fresh salsa is HUGE. Now, you don’t have to go out and buy fresh tomatoes and all of the ingredients to make your own. There are perfectly fine fresh salsas you can buy in your local grocery store, especially at some of the high end joints like Fresh Market and Whole Foods.
My wife loves “Cantina Fresh” salsa because its not too chunky and has a nice bite to it. We get it at Publix, but you can find similar fresh salsas from the produce section of just about any grocery store. Sometimes its worth a trip to these at times, almost unbelievably expensive stores (Although Whole Foods is cheaper since being bought by Amazon) just for some fresh salsa and good shells. We’re talking under $10 bucks for both folks, no matter where you go. It’s worth it.
Regardless of where you decide to shop, stay away from the room temperature salsas in the Mexican food aisle such as Pace and the like. They’re typically loaded with too much of everything you really don’t want to make your Street Tacos taste authentic. Vinegar and salt being the key offenders.
Guacamole or fresh sliced avocado? This one is up to you, but I’ve found that most of the best tacos I find out and about come with a small length-wise slice of fresh avocado. Guac is for chips.
“Avocados are really, really good for you!”
Whatever you decide, avocados are really, really good for you and you shouldn’t deny yourself regardless of your preferred delivery method.
The Meat (el carne)
For this recipe I’m using chicken thighs because its my wife’s favorite, and still very healthy. Of course you can use steak, pork or chicken breasts too, but thighs are easy and hold a lot of flavor without putting a lot of work into them.
Grilling with gas or charcoal?
I have to go with charcoal here unless you’re really pressed for time. I prefer a grill or smoker with a lid too. This keeps the heat and smoke flavor in and typically the cooking goes much faster.
I use a cheap $40 upright cylindrical style smoker I bought at Wal-Mart a few years ago and it works fine for regular grilling when I move the charcoal bowl up to the 2nd level shelf. Nothing fancy needed with charcoal.
Essential Mexican Food Seasonings You Must Have In Your Cocina:
- Chili Powder
I’ve been using Penzey’s Spices (https://www.penzeys.com ) for the past few months since my buddy turned me on to them. The Ancho Chili Powder is a must have and they always run a lot of good deals for free shipping and bonus items. I also like that they have a good vibe and Bill Penzey’s emails always contain a positive message. Check them out.
Worth noting, I am not in any way affiliated with this company nor do I make any commission from promoting their products. It’s just great stuff!
- Brush just a bit of extra-virgin olive oil all over the chicken.
- Add some sea-salt and fresh ground black pepper to both sides.
- Rub some chili powder on both sides. Use as much or as little as you like depending on whether your chili powder has significant heat or not.
- I use Penzey’s Ancho Chili Powder which has a ton of flavor with almost no heat.
- Cumin on both sides.
- Smash up some fresh garlic with a mallet and set aside.
- If you decide to use chicken breasts you should probably pound them down to about 1/2” or even a bit thinner.
- If you’re using thighs like me, they should be fine the way they are.
- Take all of the chicken and put in a larger freezer bag or big bowl and add the garlic. Put in fridge until you’re ready to grill it.
- Notice I’m not giving measurements here. There’s no need. Don’t be afraid to be generous with the seasonings. I typically cover both sides of the meat with each one,with the exception of salt and pepper. Use your own judgement here. If you’re cooking for 2 one day and 10 another day measurements aren’t going to work anyway.
- Fire Up That Charcoal!
- While your coals are getting hot you can use the next 20 minutes or so to prep your toppings.
- Chop up some onion, cilantro and fresh hot peppers if thats your thing. I like either fresh red jalapeños or Serrano peppers if I’m really in the mood for some serious heat. Never use the jar pickled jalapeños as it will kill the whole vibe of the Street Taco experience.
- Cut a soft avocado length-wise all the way around to where you started. It should split right open and you can slice up the section without the pit.
- Leave the pit in the one side and put it back in the fridge or set aside. The pit will keep it from spoiling too soon. Avocados go downhill fast!
- To Cheese or Not to Cheese?
- Whether you decide to go ‘sin queso’ or not is really up to you. I typically don’t ask for cheese if they come that way in my favorite Mexican restaurants but at home I can go either way.
- Open a bag of that Cotija cheese you bought if you happened to find some, otherwise a nice Monterrey Jack or other white cheese will be good.
- Grate some cheese. Yes I said grate Gringo!
- Grating your own cheese is always better. It tastes fresher and is much more in line with the natural creamy texture of the block. The junk that’s pre-shredded has all kinds of nasty magic dust in it to keep it separated in the package. I just want some cheese. I do not want my cheese with chemicals please.
- You don’t have to worry about your little bowl of fresh grated cheese, because it won’t be around long enough to matter. I always grate a little less than I think I’ll need and if I need just 1 more taco, I’ll just grate that much more if I need it to prevent waste.
- Grill it up!
Grab the chicken and get ready to throw it on your grill. Once the coals are grayed over and hot, spread them out evenly.
Don’t overload. If you cram a piece of chicken covering every square inch of your charcoal grill it will take forever to cook and the temperature will drop rapidly due to lack of air circulation. Keep the pieces a good inch apart all the way around the cooking surface area.
Flip once. You can check it a few times, but only flip it once. I learned that one from Bobby Flay and.. well he’s right. The texture turns out better and there’s just no need to fool with the meat when its cooking.
Also, you will never get nice grill marks on meat you keep flipping around, if that sorta thing matters to you.
Dice it up. Dice the chicken into whatever you deem as attractive taco sized pieces. Too big, and your gonna have an empty taco I after 1 bite, so dice it up nice and small.
If you’re lucky enough to have someone around to do the dicing for you, do that. While the coals are hot, throw some soft corn shells on the grill. About 30 seconds per side is just fine. If you microwave them you’ll kill the texture of the shells and they will fall apart.
Most authentic corn shells are done on a flat-top or grill, NEVER in the microwave.
I think thats about it! I’m not going to tell you how to top your Gringo Street Tacos because I know you’re going to do whatever you want anyways! Enjoy.
Craig Smith is a professional Guitarist, Teacher, and Writer living in Sanford, Florida. Craig has taught guitar lessons, performed 200+ gigs per year for nearly 30 years, and published 4 guitar instructional books. When he’s not gigging or writing, you may find him by the pool with his wife Celeste, 4 Chihuahuas, and a drink. 🎸