October 4th is National Taco Day. So why do we need a second holiday, March 21st*, National Crunchy Taco Day? To celebrate hard tacos a.k.a. crunchy tacos. They may merit their own holiday because in Mexico, tacos were traditionally made with soft corn tortillas. While today you can find tacos with flour tortillas, and with hard shells, the original taco had a pliable casing.
So where did that crispy shell that many Americans associate with a taco come from?
No one can say for certain who first fried a soft tortilla and filled it. They appeared in Mexico sometime after the soft version. (Flautas are also a form of crispy tacos that are rolled instead of folded
The tacos with fried, crunchy shells are called tacos dorados, or golden tacos, because frying the soft taco turns the pale tortilla color into the familiar golden one.
The earliest American recipe for hard tacos was published in a California-Mexican cookbook in 1914. A corn tortilla was stuffed with ground beef, sealed, pan-fried, then [wait for it!] smothered it in chili gravy [source].
In the U.S. they are called hard shell tacos or crunchy tacos.
In terms of who popularized the hard shell the U.S.: Point your finger at Gene Bell of Taco Bell.
When he launched what would become a major American food franchise on March 21, 1962, San Bernardino, California†, he put crunchy tacos—fried tortilla shells, not soft tortillas—on the menu. (Note the date? It became National Crunchy Taco Day).
Bell was the first taco seller to fry his taco shells in advance (traditionally they were fried on demand).
With all due respect, not all hard-shell tacos taste like Taco Bell, Del Taco, or another chain. A quality Tex-Mex restaurant—whether fancy or a taco truck—will fry them fresh daily.
Crunchy tacos, also called hard-shell tacos, are corn tortillas fried into a U shape. Rigid, they are stuffed with meat or seafood, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese (and many add-ons, from guacamole to sour cream).
Some sources call them Anglo-Tacos and/or Cali-Mex cuisine. But you will, in fact, find them in Mexico.
While prefabricated taco shells have a bad reputation, when prepared freshly with care, the Tex-Mex crunchy taco is delicious.
Depending on your point of view, you love the crunch of fried taco shells, and don’t care if you end up brushing crumbs and fillings from your clothing.
Or you may prefer a soft taco that wraps around the fillings like a blanket, holding them in when you take a bite.
Soft tacos are much neater—although less textured—eating. With hard tacos, we need a fork to pick up everything that falls out.
We like both versions; although when we really want to crunch away on fried corn tortillas, we order a plate of nachos.
If you’re pining for crunchy tacos, head to a Mexican restaurant that fries them from scratch. With all due respect, Old El Paso hard taco shells are pretty tasteless.
So, hats off to the tasty hard tacos out there: Crunch away!
*March 21st is also California Strawberry Day, National French Bread Day, National Healthy Fats Day, and National Vermouth Day. It’s the only date we’ve come across that hosts five food holidays.
†Before Taco Bell, he launched Bell’s Drive-In and Taco Tia in the San Bernardino area. His non-Hispanic customers called them TAY-koes. The first franchise opened in Torrance, California in 1964. Today there are 7,072 locations worldwide (as of 2018) [source].