A Twin Cities Taco Evolution

As the popularity of tacos continues to grow in Minnesota and nationwide, new variations are emerging
Nico's Tacos
Nico’s Tacos

Provided

The comforting, sometimes crunchy, and all-encompassing meal known as the taco is having a moment in Minnesota’s culinary scene, especially with the beloved stewed meat in the pan-fried birria taco showing up on menus across the state. To celebrate this Mexican dish, we look at its humble beginnings and its current presence in Minnesota.

Historians trace the first taco made with a corn tortilla to about 1500 BC in the Soconusco region of Chiapas in modern-day Mexico, near the Guatemalan border. Workers needed foods that could stay intact out in the fields and across long distances.

According to an article by food writer Eric Wichner, who owns a food-tourism company in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the word “taco” comes from the Nahuatl (or Aztec) word tlahco, meaning “half or in the middle’’ for the way tacos are folded inside a shell or outer wrap to protect the ingredients.

Others, including author, food historian, and former University of Minnesota history professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher, think the word originated with silver miners in Mexico who used small, hand-rolled explosives that looked like tacos.

Pilcher writes in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food that there were mixed reactions to the taco when it was introduced in the United States in the early 1900s. In Los Angeles, Calif., and San Antonio, Texas, groups of Mexican immigrant women known as the Chili Queens pushed carts through these cities selling tamales and tacos. It is the first reported evidence of tacos being sold in the U.S. However, Pilcher reports, many Americans avoided these dishes because they thought they were meant for poor Mexican immigrants who worked in mines and on the railroads.

Fast-forward to 1952, when Glen Bell made a valuable contribution to the popularity of the taco by deep-frying tortillas in a U-shape and creating the hard taco shell at his taco stand, Taco Tia in San Bernardino, Calif. In 1964, Bell founded the fast-food chain Taco Bell, which he sold to PepsiCo in 1978.

In an interview with the Minnesota Historical Society, owners of one of the first Mexican restaurants in Minnesota, Arturo and Elvira Coronado, discussed the beginnings of their business. In 1946, the Coronados started La Casa Coronado on the corner of Eaton Street and Fairfield Avenue in St. Paul. The dynamic duo raised a family that would continue in the restaurant industry. One of their daughters, Gloria Frias, and her husband, Guillermo, founded the Boca Chica restaurant in 1964. Boca Chica is still operating today in St. Paul.

According to a study conducted in 2021 by Minnesota Compass as part of the Wilder Foundation, Minnesota’s Latinx population has increased 38% since 2010. Today, more than 345,000 people of Latinx descent live in the state, comprising 6% of the state’s population. The taco scene in Minnesota has evolved significantly, too. A hockey-rink staple, the walking taco—ground beef in a bag of Doritos chips—is a long way from the in-demand taco plates on menus today.

In Hermantown, the Maya Family Mexican Restaurant has been producing authentic Guadalajaran dishes since 2002. Homi Restaurant in St. Paul also prides itself on authenticity, owned by Hortencia Reyes and Miguel Lopez.

With locations in St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, Nico’s Tacos takes the dish up a notch by incorporating nixtamal tortillas. The tortillas are made from heritage corn that are nixtamalized, meaning they are soaked in a wet limestone dust to break down the flavor of the kernels. Owner Alejandro Victoria says he draws most of his inspiration from his homeland of Michoacán, Mexico.

With Tex-Mex fusion, MB Foodhouse is also getting a spotlight in the Minnesota culinary scene. Owner Kristen Martinez uses her experience growing up on the Texas-Mexico border town of El Paso as the backbone for her food. In a 2021 interview with Minnesota Monthly, Martinez said the Chico’s Taco, an El Paso staple, and its secret ingredient, believed to be government-issued cheese, is the basis for her rolled taquitos in red sauce.

And food trucks featuring tacos are taking this scene on the road. The seven-year-old Habanero Tacos offers al pastor, carne asada, barbacoa, and lengua. Habanero Tacos can be found in Minneapolis and at catered events.

Eduardo Sandoval Luna, the owner of the Oasis Del Norte taco truck in the Duluth area, says he brought his mother’s recipes from Mexico to the Northland so he could have a piece of home with him wherever he goes. Luna describes his tacos as “clean,” “simple,” and “fresh.”

Minneapolis’ La Tapatia serves tacos with a strong Guadalajaran foundation and specialties like lengua and tripa. The food truck also offers torta ahogada, which translates to drowned sandwich, and birote bread (a Guadalajara sourdough) with salsa.

And for some restaurants, tacos aren’t just for lunch and dinner. Vivir and Rusty Taco offer breakfast tacos all day with unique combinations of flavors and ingredients. Vivir, in Minneapolis, is a Mexican cafe, market, and bakery that serves tacos with potato, eggs, cheese, bacon, cemitas (a mushroom sandwich with mayo and pomelo cheese), and chilaquiles verde (chicken, crema, queso fresco, and radish), while Rusty Taco features a long list of breakfast tacos. Founder Rusty Fenton offers tacos at restaurants in Eagan, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Eden Prairie, and Maple Grove.

Related: Jason’s Top 5 Birria Tacos in the Twin Cities

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