The History Of The Chili Queens & The Street Taco
And why the street taco just might unite humanity.
The street taco. Available in most major cities, the food blessing that meets just about everyone’s cravings, and a perfectly well-rounded and nutritious meal if done right. It’s time to throw some respect on the street taco’s name.
Why do we love a street taco so much? Is it the various fillings with their spices that can transport you to a foreign land? The specialty sauce from your favorite food truck? Is it the humbling way that no one person can eat them without making a mess? There are too many reasons to count.
We went on a search to find out how this food treasure ended up in the United States and also for proof that they might be the food that unites humanity.
The History of The American Street Taco
Let’s just state right here, although we can unequivocally say that the taco hails from our more well-spiced friends from the south, a street taco is not a Mexican taco and vice versa. The version of taco that has emigrated to the United States from the south has taken the vast array of regional flavors from South American cultures and made them a fusion of a hybrid of a melding of an authentic favorite.
Tacos and Mexican Silver Mines
The modern Taqueros (professional taco makers) have benefited from those who paved the taco cart streets before them. The word “taco” actually came from the silver mines of Mexico dating back before the 19th century. Back then, “taco” meant “explosive” in reference to the small sticks of dynamite used to blow up the rocks in the mines. (Insert joke about street food and explosiveness here.)
From the 19th century on, the only authentic tacos were found served from Mexican street cars. They are traditionally served with fresh warm corn tortillas, a family’s century-old salsa recipe, and various cuts of meat. Classic styles include “Barbacoa,” lamb meat, “Carnitas,” seasoned pork, “Al Pastor”, typically beef mixed with red peppers, and the uber classic, “Carne Asada,” which is thinly sliced grilled meat marinated in citrus juices.
A notable side story here is the Mexican worship of corn, which still plays a significant part in Mexican food heritage. Way back in 3000BC, the indigenous cultures worshipped corn as the foundation of humanity, the seed of life. Their devotion to this miraculous crop ran so deep that there was a thought that humans themselves might be made out of corn. So is it wrong to love a crop that sustains life in the form of tacos? We think not.
The Street Taco Crosses The Border
Americans can agree to disagree on many things, but a love of tacos can unite the most fickle of foodies around the food truck.
The taco made its way across the border around 1905 when Mexican migrants came to work on railroads and other laborious jobs. They brought with them the half-folded gold that is our modern-day street taco, as it was a versatile and highly portable lunch on the job.
Even in the early 1900’s Los Angeles was ahead of the foodie trends. With the demand for immigrant labor came the market for the taco carts that would line the streets here. The women running them were famously called “The Chili Queens.” These were typically migrant women who took their generational food knowledge to the streets to make all our lunch breaks better.
By the 1960s, street tacos became a staple on the food scene in every major city. Industrialization brought innovation to the taco game, with high-powered tortilla presses speeding up the process and making the tradition more widespread and accessible than ever.
It was this period forward where the authentic taco evolved to American standards and commonly included lettuce, cheese, hard crunchy shells, and sour cream. That’s right; you’ll not find sour cream at a Taquero’s cart in Guadalajara.
Americans have taken the traditional taco and evolved it to really be just anything that is wrapped in a tortilla which can sometimes include the melding of entirely different cultures. See the Jamaican Jerk Street Taco or the gluten-free Vegan Jackfruit Taco with Coleslaw as evidence of the looseness of the interpretation of what a street taco in the US is in modern times.
Either way, we’re sure the Chili Queens of LA would be proud.
Street Taco Slang You Need To Know
Now that you have a newfound respect for the life and journey of the street taco, you should know how to order one from an authentic food cart respectfully. Here is some street taco lingo that you can throw around to gain immediate respect from your local Taquero.
When the Taquero lines the tortilla with meat and cheese, gives it a flip, and returns it to you crisped and caramelized.
A fried taco.
A friendly nickname for a light-skinned customer.
The master of the street tacos.
Life itself, these are the roasted cambray onions.
A style of authentic taco that is meat, cilantro, onion, and salsa.
The opposite of the Mexicana style, with lettuce, cheese, and (gasp!) sour cream.
This literally translates to “garden” and means with lettuce or herbs.