A taco is a traditional Mexican dish composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. A taco can be made with a variety of fillings, including beef, mutton, shellfish, vegetables and cheese, allowing for great versatility and variety. A taco is generally eaten without utensils and is often accompanied by a garnish such as salsa and vegetables such as cilantro, tomatoes, onions and lettuce.
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Beginning from the early part of the twentieth century, various styles of tacos have become popular in the United States and Canada. The style that has become most common is the hard-shell, U-shaped version first described in a cookbook authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949. These have been sold by restaurants and by fast food chains. Even non-Mexican oriented fast food restaurants have sold tacos. Mass production of this type of taco was encouraged by the invention of devices to hold the tortillas in the U-shape as they were deep-fried. A patent for such a device was issued to New York restaurateur Juvenico Maldonado in 1950, based on his patent filing of 1947. (U.S. Patent No. 2,506,305) Such tacos are crisp-fried corn tortillas filled with seasoned ground beef, cheese, lettuce and sometimes tomato or sour cream. In this context, soft tacos are tacos made with wheat flour tortillas and filled with the same ingredients as a hard taco.
Since at least 1978, a variation called the "puffy taco", has been popular. Originating in San Antonio, Texas, and exemplified as prepared at Henry's Puffy Taco of that city, uncooked corn tortillas (flattened balls of masa dough) are quickly fried in hot oil until they expand and become "puffy". Fillings are similar to hard-shell versions. Restaurants offering this style of taco have since appeared in other Texas cities, as well as in California, where Henry's brother, Arturo, opened Arturo's Puffy Taco in Whittier, not long after Henry's opened.
Kits are available at grocery and convenience stores and usually consist of taco shells (corn tortillas already fried in a U-shape), seasoning mix and taco sauce. Commercial vendors for the home market also market soft taco kits with tortillas instead of taco shells.
The breakfast taco, found in Tex-Mex cuisine, is filled with meat, eggs or cheese with other ingredients.