Yo Quiero Taco Bell

I believe that I have already established that I am a big fan of authentic Mexican street food (2) (3), and I like a legitimately prepared taquito as much as any serious Mexican food aficionados. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the style of Tex-Mex stuff you get at the fast food chains like Taco Bell. My problem is with the quality of ingredients and the freshness of what you are getting. Taco Bell stuff sits in steam trays for hours and they use crappy quality lettuce and vegetables which are all wilted and gross by the time it gets into the bag. I believe that with just a small amount of effort, you can create your own Taco Bell-like creations in the privacy of your own home, which nobody has to see you eat, and that won’t make you violently ill afterwards. I think that’s a good thing.

On your shopping list should be:

1Lb of Ground Beef or Ground Turkey. In terms of beef I would go with 80 percent lean ground chuck. Anything less fatty is just a waste of money for our purposes and frankly won’t taste as good.

Some nice fresh ripe tomatoes, some fresh yellow onion, and a nice fresh head of iceberg lettuce (not mesclun mix!). Green onions too if you like them.

Your favorite type of inexpensive supermarket-brand block cheddar-type cheese, which you can finely shred with a cheese grater. Don’t bother with the pre-grated stuff. Pepper Jack or Monterey Jack would also work great.

Sour cream or Mexican crema fresca, if you can find it.

Fresh Jalapeño or Serrano peppers, or habaneros, depending on how hot you like it for condiments

Canned Pickled Jalapeños and Canned Green Chiles, to cook in with the meat mixture.

Ripe Avocados. Chances are your supermarket will not have them already ripe, so unless you have a Mexican bodega or a Latino market near you, you’ll need to ripen them for a few days.

Fresh Cilantro. Not everyone loves this stuff, but I do.

Fresh Limes. You just gotta have it.

Here is where we must unavoidably get into Sandra Lee territory. To replicate the flavor profile of Taco Bell, we really have no choice but to acquire some pre-prepared food products and some seasoning mixes that would make many gourmets squirm.

To get that fast food taco taste into the meat, we’re going to need some prepared jarred salsa and “Taco Seasoning Mix”. If you’re really conscious about the chemicals in jarred salsas you can go with a natural brand like Newman’s Own, but frankly the list of ingredients didn’t look that much different than the Chi-Chi’s.

The Taco Seasoning for the most part is salt, onion powder, cumin, MSG and cornstarch as a thickening agent. And yes, you need the MSG in there or the suspension of belief that you are eating this in your own home instead of at fast food restaurant is not going to fly (this, despite the fact that Taco Bell claims on its website that there is no MSG in any of its food. Yeah, well the glutamates are still there, just not in MSG itself.). You can also try making your own seasoning mix, but I just don’t think it would taste right. McCormick and Penzeys also have their own blends, but I think by not having MSG in it we’re kidding ourselves that it’s gonna taste just as good. It won’t.

Alcaparrado. Technically, this is Puerto Rican and not Mexican, but you can find this in a lot of Mexican bodegas and it is frequently used to add a savory touch to things like picadillo, which is what taco meat essentially is. It’s Manzanilla olives with capers and pimentos. I like to chop this up (removing the pits from the olives) and add it to the meat mixture. It adds that special… something. If you can’t find Alcaparrado, just get cocktail olives with pimentos and chop up some brined capers along with it.

For the crunchy base, we’ll need some tostadas and/or some tortilla chips. I prefer tostadas to taco shells because they hold up better to piling on the ingredients. I’ve bought an actual Mexican brand here.

If your avocados are nice and ripe, you should able to cut around the pit, and twist one half right off, and then removing the pit from the other half by whacking it in the side with a knife and pulling the pit right out.

With your halves of ripe avocado you should be able to scoop the halves of creamy flesh right off the skin using a spoon.

Mince up 3 or 4 Jalapenos, and reserve half for condiments and the rest for the guacamole.

Our guacamole is usually the flesh of two or three avocados, chopped tomato, onion, chopped cilantro, minced Jalapeños (or any other fresh hot chile) salt and pepper and the juice from half a lime. Start with smaller amounts of cilantro and chile, mix it up and taste as you go. Start off with two avocados worth of flesh, taste the mixture, and determine whether or not it needs more flesh or more lime juice to balance it out. Its not rocket science and everyone likes their guacamole more or less spicy, or with more or less lime juice.

We tasted it initially and decided it needed the third avocado.

Finished guacamole. If you end up not eating it all in one sitting, just put some plastic wrap tightly over the surface of mixture (leaving no room for trapped air) and put it in the fridge. It should stay just fine for another day or so. You might get a small amount of oxidation, but if you used enough lime juice it should be minimal and you can just remove the small amount of browned guacamole at the top the next day, if there is any.

For the filling, saute up some finely chopped onion, and put it aside. Then brown up your ground beef, straining off the grease as it cooks. Put back the onion, and then add a few spoonfuls of pickled jalapeño and your canned green chile and your Alcaparrado. Mix it all up. I also have added some leftover cooked corn I got from the farmers market that I have removed from the cobb. I think it adds a nice texture.

Add approximately half a jar of your pre-prepared jarred salsa. Mix ‘er up.

Add your Taco Seasoning mix, and then about half a cup of water. Mix up.

Simmer the mixture. Add chopped cilantro, if you like the stuff.

Grate up your cheddar cheese.

Assemble your Taco Bell mise-en-place area, with shredded iceberg lettuce, sour cream, diced tomato, diced green onions, minced Jalapeno and your favorite hot sauces. I also like to have stuff like Goya black beans around which I can mash up and use as a topping, but tonight we didn’t heat up any.

Rachel made herself nachos, using multi grain tortilla chips. Not bad.

I ran the tostadas under the broiler with the meat mixture on it and the shredded cheese on top, until it melted.

My plated tostadas.

9 Responses to Yo Quiero Taco Bell

  1. Ozymandias says:

    Real Mexican food is virtually impossible to find on the East coast.

  2. Daisy Martinez says:

    it’s my understanding that Tex-Mex is a genre on its own merit, and quite frankly, if prepared well, is delicious. Those nachos and tostadas look absolutely delicious, and with a house full of teenagers, i can see backing up into a plate or two…i’d have to lose the msg, though…my mommy gene would kick into overdrive and prevent me, lol.
    Thanks you guys!

  3. […] So despite the fact that Rachel and I made Tex-Mex fast food last night, I was totally jazzed to hear that our Blockheads had just opened up the day before and we just had to go. Blockheads is a small chain from Manhattan that specializes in Burritos and Tacos, and has sort of a Caribbean and Pan-Latino twist on them. They use fresh ingredients and nothing is deep fried — the burritos themselves are steamed to order. […]

  4. Jon says:

    Ozymandias Says: “Real Mexican food is virtually impossible to find on the East coast.”

    That’s actually not true in Northern New Jersey anymore–at least in Bergen County. There’s a pretty decent sized Mexican population around now–big enough that there are places they open to serve their own–which of course are the places where its done correctly. Usually these places are just little delicatessens with a grill stuck in the back, but they exist.

  5. Jon says:

    Add to the above…

    And actually, now that I look closer, Jason has linked to three of them right at the head of this article. There are probably far more than that.

    Its the REST of the East coast that’s in trouble. :-)

  6. Ozymandias says:

    Yes, but driving in NJ is a major pain. WTF is up with all of those jughandles. Why can’t you make a proper left turn. Oy.


  7. Bill Moran says:

    That idea of store bought salsa kinda runs agains the grain of the recipe, huh? If you would be interested, I’ll email you the formula (mine) of my Longneck Salsa which is the real thing here in South Texas. texaschef@the-i.net

  8. I was following along with gustatory anticipation until you tossed in the corn.

    I don’t know what it is about adding corn to recipes. I actually LIKE corn, but casually adding it to Tex-Mex food just turns me off. Not to mention the corn-black bean (salsa, for example) partnership/cliche that I’ve encountered elsewhere.

    But your relatively pristine guacamole redeems the posting. :-)

  9. I am making tacos tonight using Smart Ground instead of meat and using a Mexican fajitas seasoning I found in the Hispanic foods section at our local Meijers! That was quite interesting what you had to say about MSG in the seasoning I never really put that much thought into it before but you are probably right about the taste will have to do some experimenting now lol. Thanks again for the tips

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