Infinite pursuit of the perfect taco
My pursuit of the perfect taco—whether at home or eating out—is a passion that will enthrall until the end of my days. Smoky-sweet cochinita pibil, spicy charred carne asada, luxurious mole poblano … my passion for the seemingly never-ending variety of tortilla-centered tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more borders on zealotry…
And I’m far from alone in my tortilla adoration. Last year, Americans ate 4.5 billion tacos. Tortillas are a $2.4 billion business at retail, tortilla chips are approaching $5.0 billion ($2.0 billion of that is from Doritos)—and both categories are growing. The projected value of the Mexican restaurant industry in the U.S. is over $40 billion, with $10 billion coming from Taco Bell alone, which has seen sales surge over the past few years.
While classic tortilla chips will always accompany the salsas on my table, the next-generation tortilla-style chips hitting the retail market with force command attention. We’ve covered some of them in these pages, and the ingredient mix that these invariably gluten-free chips bring to the bag—grain diversity, beans/pulses, veggies, sprouted seeds—is building newfound devotees from the ranks of better-for-you snacking.
Breads also stand to benefit from the Latin American culinary boom. Tortas, the sandwich-based take on tacos, are gaining more-widespread exposure. Over the past 30 years in my hometown of Chicago, Chef Rick Bayless has dedicated himself to educating the masses on the finer points of Mexican cuisine, and he’s dedicating more attention of late to the torta. While the sandwiches appear on many of his menus, his Tortas Frontera concept with three locations at O’Hare Airport (massive exposure there) and another on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, and street-inspired Xoco in the River North neighborhood of downtown Chicago, both center on the torta. This builds the overall market for the specialty Mexican breads used to make tortas, like bolillo/birote and telera rolls—all variations on the baguette—which are starting to hit in-store bakeries in non-Hispanic neighborhoods.
All of this is great news. U.S. dissemination of Latin American cuisine will build momentum for the foreseeable future, providing a welcome boon for multiple snack and bakery categories. ¡Salud!