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Creativity fills today’s taco


According to Jeffrey Pilcher, author of “Taco Planet: A Global History of Mexican Food,” the taco actually is a modern creation. “It doesn’t go back to the Aztecs,” says Pilcher. “It’s actually a Spanish word. There are no references to tacos until the late 19th century, and then it’s everywhere, it takes off and becomes very popular in a particular moment in Mexican history. Then it spreads to the United States very quickly with migrants.”

Pilcher says that while Mexico is credited with creating the taco, the United States deserves some praise for popularizing it. Before the 1960s, few people outside of the United States and Mexico had heard of the taco.

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Updated: February 16, 2014 6:02AM

The taco is the new sandwich. You don’t have to look too hard to see that this finger food has become one of the most malleable modules for, well, just about anything.

Do a quick poll of what’s available in Chicago, alone, and you can find Korean tacos, such as kalbi (beef short rib) and sambal fish, at Del Seoul Korean Street BBQ; paratha tacos with spicy pork or Korean barbecue beef at En Hakkore; a grits and kale taco at Bullhead Cantina; Thai basil tacos at Thai Burrito; pulled pork tacos at Big Bricks and more.

I recently ventured over to Mercadito to sample the poutine taco, made with beef brisket, Serrano gravy and fries. It was a first for poutine and me. I’d set out to try the Canadian creation a number of times, but always was put off by the excessive brown monotone of the dish. But in a taco? It turned out to be a Quebexican revelation (thanks to a fellow food writer for coining that term). The taco was Mercadito’s December Tacos for Strength feature, which is a monthly special made by a revolving cast of chefs/personalities, and a portion of the proceeds benefit Sharing Our Strength, a non-profit working to end childhood hunger. I’ll have to head back for January’s feature: a black bean braised oxtail taco created by chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia.

Mercadito chef and owner Patricio Sandoval says that the tortilla truly is a palette that inspires creativity. “You see everything on a taco now. It’s transcended cultures. It’s something that you can find on a Japanese menu or you can go to a French restaurant and they might have some version of a taco,” says Sandoval. “Tacos have become something where chefs can use it as a canvas and play around with the flavors.”

The most prolific taco artists in town, then, must be Gary Strauss and Tony D’Alessandro of Big & little’s Restaurant, which has 25 taco choices on its menu, each more interesting and surprising than the last: raw ahi tuna poke tacos, lamb gyro tacos, bahn mi tacos, softshell crab tacos.

The most popular tacos, says D’Alessandro (aka Little), are the Samurai taco (beer-battered whitefish, a soy-based sauce and a chili aioli sauce, topped with lettuce, pickled jalapenos, sesame seeds and lime juice) followed by the spicy beef short rib (beef that’s braised, cooled and then seared, topped with onions and cilantro and sauces that are sweet, sour and spicy).

“It sells extremely well,” says D’Alessandro, of the spicy beef short rib. “They tell me it’s like crack, and they can’t get enough of the sauce.”

The taco trend extends far beyond Chicago. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, the taco has truly become a global food. Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, who literally wrote the book on tacos with the publication of “Taco Planet: A Global History of Mexican Food,” has traveled the world sampling tacos.

He says that in recent years, the tacos creative fillings actually have transformed it into a gateway to other cuisines. Pilcher uses the example of the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck in Los Angeles, which made the Korean taco a California classic.

“In a way, I find it very interesting because they’re using a Mexican food to essentially Americanize something,” he says. “Putting it in a taco gives it an edgy street-foody sort of thing.”

The same could be said for the poutine taco.Now that I’ve sampled it in a neat little tortilla, I’m ready to really get messy.

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