'The Taco Chronicles' is an informative, fun, mouth-watering, must-watch documentary on Mexico's iconic street food dish.
Tacos have a history of being misunderstood in the United States and other countries outside of Mexico. Even though hard shells and American "Mexican food" chains are pretty much panned around the world these days, and disregarding the fact that authentic tacos can indeed be found in the United States and elsewhere, there hasn't been a be-all-end-all Taco 101 documentary. Until now. The Taco Chronicles (2019) is so good at informing about the many different types of tacos, that even Mexicans might learn something after watching this new Netflix documentary series.
This documentary has narrowed it down to six types of tacos (an insufficient number of categories, of course, but it'll have to do for this first season). Each episode focuses on one of these: al pastor, carnitas, asada, canasta, barbacoa, and guisados. As they talk to experts on these street food staples, i.e. random Mexicans who find themselves interviewed during their lunch or dinner, the documentary travels to the Mexican town or region that excels in that particular dish.
So, while Mexico City has mastered the art of marinated pork on a spit, the North is known for top-tier meat quality. Michoacán, in the West, is called the carnita capital (carnita is pork meat deep fried in its own fat), and Hidalgo, at the heart of the country, is the Mecca of barbacoa (lamb meat cooked inside a stone oven on the ground). Basket tacos are said to have been invented in Tlaxcala, though they enjoy popularity all around the country, and guisado or stew tacos are really just home meals served on tortillas.
What's fun about each episode of this series, not just for foreign taco aficionados, but for Mexicans as well, is that they explain the origins of each taco. We know tacos wouldn't have existed before the Spanish conquest, but how long have they have been around? Carnitas are said to have been the combination of whatever the first Spaniards had available at the time: a handful of pigs, and the closest thing to bread the could find. Boom! They didn't know it then, but they had just created a culinary revolution. On the other hand, pastor tacos wouldn't enter the scene until centuries later, when an influx of Lebanese immigrants brought the spit-style of grilling meat across the Atlantic ocean.
The Taco Chronicles also explores everyday people whose lives revolve around selling or cooking tacos, an art that has been passed down from generation to generation. From the muxe (the transgender indigenous woman) basket taco seller, to a group of women who grow organic corn. Both the start and the end of the process are covered in these episodes. It's a visual wonder seeing cooks placing maguey leaves in an underground stone oven, and lowering a giant pot where the lamb meat's broth will fall. Then, watching them covering the hole with mud to trap in all the heat, and looking at the finished product may be a spectacle not many Mexicans have actually witnessed.
On two of the episodes, the series crosses the border to check out what LA has been cooking. One of the taquerías, Sonoratown, pays homage to a long-forgotten neighborhood where 19th century Mexican immigrants lived in Downtown Los Angeles. It's also a reference to the Sonora style steak tacos on flour tortillas. On another side of Los Angeles, Wes Avila's Guerrilla tacos puts sweet potatoes on tortillas, a bold choice that challenges Mexicans' notions of real tacos.
Overall, the documentary is true to many firmly-held beliefs in Mexico: that real tacos can only be found in Mexico. Anything other than that is just a copy, however well-intentioned or however close it may come to the real thing. After covering Sonoratown, the documentary's narrator makes something quite clear: "You explain it to them, but they don't get it. On the other side [on the US side], instead of tacos, there's only the effort [to make tacos]". This is a tongue-in-cheek response to what Sonoratown owner candidly admits about her restaurant: "The food that we serve here will never be as good as the food you get there." "They're not bad," says the narrator, "but asada tacos, real asada tacos, exist only south of the border." Ávila, too, is aware that his tacos are called inauthentic, but this does little to keep him from cooking them.
Who is to say what a real taco is, anyway? There seem to be rules on what constitutes a taco and what doesn't constitute a taco, and The Taco Chronicles thrives in finding what these rules are. Throughout the docuseries, there's a feeling that Mexicans have not only been blessed with an intensely flavored and varied plethora of culinary options, but that they are very aware of it, maybe more than any other tradition. So, it was about time that the most iconic Mexican street food staple of all got its own documentary. Except, rather than a documentary, this feels like a love better. A delicious, mouth-watering, food-pornographic love letter.
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