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New Takes on Tacos

Talk about a transformation. From street food, to fast food, to casual-upscale upstart, tacos have found their way into the hearts of customers, the minds of inspired chefs, and onto the pages of menus.

Roy Choi turned the tables for tacos in 2008 when the surprising and delectable fusion of flavors in the Korean BBQ Taco had Los Angeles food lovers chasing down Kogi trucks. This fueled the hunger for new tacos everywhere.

There’s been an explosion of nontraditional, non-Latin-ingredient based tacos in casual and casual-upscale menus across the country. And now taco offerings are appearing in full service operations—a trend we’re expecting will continue to expand.

If you decide to add a taco plate to the menu, you don’t have to have Latin or traditional ingredients on hand. Just look at your inventory and build your ideas from there.

Taking Tacos to the Next Level

Increasingly sought after as a sandwich substitute, tacos are a blank canvas that can be gussied up or kept simple to fit the needs of the daypart or your customers. Even better, it’s easy to embrace the opportunity to craft craveable tacos.

Tacos are following the same path as burgers, pizzas, and hot dogs, offering creative toppings and a wider variety of cheeses, condiments, and garnishes. But tacos can also serve as a platform for innovative meatless variations as well. Taco treatments are getting increasingly creative so as long as the flavors make sense and you’re putting the taco together thoughtfully, all ingredients are fair game.

The key is to deliver an unexpected flavor experience and drive menu differentiation and experiential dining.

Here’s how to get started:

Offer mucho variations. You don’t have to menu two dozen tacos, as does Mondo Taco in Santa Monica, California, but you can model a taco menu after a sandwich menu. Use rotating limited-time offers to provide greater variety.

Go shareable. Menu mini pork tacos and taco flights. Rubio’s Coastal Trio Taco Flight features a choice of three: the Original Fish Taco, the Grilled Tilapia Taco, the Blackened Tilapia Taco, and/or the Salsa Verde Shrimp Taco; T.G.I. Friday’s presents Thai Pork Tacos—mini pork tacos topped with Sriracha aïoli, ginger-lime slaw, and Hoisin sauce.

Feature regional flavors. At Mondo Taco, the Southern Decadence Taco has fried chicken, the New Yawker Taco has a Hebrew National hot dog, and the Hawaii 5-OH! Taco includes grilled pineapple.

Embrace seasonality. Incorporate slaws made from shredded fennel, kale, or thinly shaved kohlrabi flavored with horseradish or citrus; various configurations of tomatoes, (diced tomatoes tossed with onion, basil oil, and vinegar; roasted tomatoes; and smoked tomatoes); pickled vegetables, such as daikon and bok choy; and smoked or grilled corn.

Enhance texture. Sautéed or deep fried hominy, crispy haystack onions, fried shredded sweet potatoes, or deep fried mashed potato balls enhance mouthfeel.

Veg out. Vegetarian tacos are an ideal opportunity and research revealed that some of the best examples are meatless. El Toro Blanco Mexican Restaurant offers grilled cactus tacos with quinoa and smoked chili vinaigrette; and Salvation Taco in New York is offering a Wood Roasted- Cauliflower Taco topped with mixed grains and a curried crème fraiche.

Go fish—and hook customers with other seafood, too.  Serve grilled or house blackened Mahi Mahi, Tilapia, Salmon, or Swordfish with ancho chilies, fresh guacamole and salsa fresca.  Baja style with grilled swordfish, charred octopus or a craft beer battered fish. Unique seafood tacos can be competitive differentiators, like the Ruby Red Shrimp Tacos, with jalapeños, and house-made salsa verde from The Library at the Public in New York.  

Non-Traditional Taco

The puffy taco. Rolled discs of corn masa that “pockets” during the deep frying process. The crispy and slightly chewy taco shell makes for a fantastic eating experience. Bar Ama in Los Angeles is serving up house-made chorizo, chilies and cumin, grilled shrimp, jalapeno cream, grilled pork and pineapple inside a puffy taco shell.

Break out the breakfast tacos. Taco Bell has a new waffle taco. And casual and casual-upscale independents are embracing the Austin, Texas, breakfast taco trend. Park tavern in Chicago is serving up tacos with scrambled eggs, greens, and seared tuna with pickled vegetables.

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