Mild or spicy? Meat or veggie? And what kind of hot sauce, if any? When it comes to taco taste, opinions are vastly divided, and for good reason—the popular, super-customizable dish suits a wide variety of tastes and flavor profiles. But of all the great debates, one question remains the most polarizing: hard-shell or soft?
Historically, what we now call a taco has been consumed for hundreds of years, if not more. In North America, the Aztecs used soft corn tortillas as vessels for fillings like beans and sauces. It was only after the Spanish conquest that the flour tortilla was born—corn was associated with Aztec deities, so was later replaced with the European-preferred wheat. So, basically, the debate really goes way back.
It isn’t known for certain when tacos got their official name, but one of the earliest recorded mentions describes them as tacos de minero, or, miner’s tacos. This leads historians to believe that the name originated from Mexican silver mining of the 1800s. When industrialization began, the food was popularized among the working class, particularly in Mexico City, which drew a large community of migrants.
Still, the different types of tacos varied (and still do vary) greatly from region to region in Mexico. In the south, popular fillings originally included pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables. When the dish traveled north (where beef was the popular protein), the flavor options really exploded, paving the way for taco specialties we enjoy today. Enter carne asada (grilled steak), barbacoa (slow-cooked, shredded beef), and lengua (beef tongue).
Today, tacos prefs still run the gamut depending on where you are. In Oaxaca (southwestern Mexico), chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, are a popular filling, while tacos de pescado and tacos de camarones (fish and shrimp), originated in Baja California (northern Mexico). The type of tortilla also tends to fall along geographic lines: southern Mexico is all about corn, while northern Mexico often wraps their fillings in flour.
As different groups traveled to Mexico, they brought their own culinary influences to the taco. Tacos al pastor—marinated, slow-cooked pork—are a Lebanese creation, using the technique of roasting meat on a vertical rotisserie (traditionally used for the Turkish döner kebab). Bring that to pork tacos, and you’ve got one of the earliest cultural taco mashups. Today, tacos al pastor often include diced pineapple, adding a hint of sweetness to the ultra-savory, succulent meat.
Given the abundant evidence, it’s clear that there’s a lot to love (and debate) about soft tacos. But the question still remains: If the soft taco is so historically beloved, when and why did the hard-shell option come to be?
Well, hard-shell tacos are a fairly recent development. And, surprise, their popularity is almost entirely due to the incredible marketing (okay, and taste) of iconic fast food spot, Taco Bell. Yep, they invented the hard shell. Fried and formed into a U-shape, this new taco option was very well-suited to fast food: it kept longer, making the tacos easier and faster to assemble. As tacos gained popularity in the U.S., we put our own American spin on the crunchy, savory snack, filling them with nontraditional ingredients like ground beef and Cheddar cheese. Cheeseburger, meet taco.
We think it’s safe to say that both soft and hard-shell tacos have their benefits, and they’re both ridiculously good. Some prefer the crisp crunch of a crumbly hard shell, overflowing with juicy carnitas, while others are diehard for the warm, cheesiness of soft tacos. Where do you stand? We want to know. Let’s taco ’bout it.