This week, we’re spotlighting recipes from Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman (Clarkson Potter). Stupak is the owner of Empellón Cocina, Empellón Taqueria, and Empellón al Pastor in New York City. Try making the recipes at home and let us know what you think!
Photograph: Evan Sung
Makes 12 tacos
My wife, Lauren, and co-author, Jordana, discovered the cheeseburger taco together in Mexico City. We were all there for a marathon research trip to learn about al pastor — tacos filled with marinated pork shaved from a rotating spit called a trompo. We had 48 hours to speed through as many al pastor stands as we could reasonably manage; we had one job to do, and it didn’t include any cheeseburgers. I was checking out the trompo rig at El Rey del Taco in Coyoacon when I saw Lauren and Jordan talking to the griddle cook. There was a line forming around the corner and he was passing plate after plate of the same tacos over the counter. At that time in New York, people were camping out on a SoHo sidewalk to taste a Cronut; in Mexico City, they were queuing up for cheeseburger tacos.
The women ordered one taco and we all watched as the cook prepped the griddle with lard, added a burger patty and a handful of grated cheese, and attacked the thing with a pair of metal spatulas, chopping and scraping the melty mess as if he were mixing cookie crumbles into ice cream at a Cold Stone Creamery. He swiped a flour tortilla with mayo, piled on the gooey beef, and topped it with sliced tomato and avocado. I really didn’t want to like this thing. But I did. We all did.
My god, cheeseburger tacos. Cheeseburger tacos. The absurdity of it can take your breath away. Mexico gifted its cuisine to America, and over time we gave it a patriotic makeover, drowning its nuances in seismic waves of nacho cheese. In return, I guess, we gave them cheeseburgers. This is cultural exchange at its most mystifying. The cheeseburger taco forces some uncomfortable questions—namely, what counts as Mexican food? If the answer is simply food that’s cooked by Mexicans, for Mexicans, in Mexico, using Mexican ingredients, then why is a cheeseburger taco not valid? And who is in a position to make that call? Not me, probably.
So I came back to New York, put a cheeseburger taco on the menu at Empellón Cocina, and watched it sell out every night—another cultish burger in a city that worships them. I’m not sure this taco makes a provocative statement when it is served in the United States, where there’s no reason to analyze why a restaurant would offer a burger. I don’t think anyone eating it at Empellón sees it as a symbol of globalization, or ponders what is gained or lost as one food culture bleeds into another. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe junk food is a universal golden calf and I just need to get right with the Lord. Nevertheless, you’re going to love it.
Note that the filling for this taco comes together rather quickly and it must be served and eaten immediately, or else the melted cheese will seize up. For this reason, the usual taco method doesn’t apply here; instead, you must make the tortillas first, and hold them warm while you prepare the cheeseburger mixture.
Salsa Roja (see below), for serving
1 recipe Corn or Flour Tortillas
FOR THE FILLING
1 teaspoon lard or vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
Kosher salt, as needed
1 pound Chihuahua cheese, grated
TO ASSEMBLE THE TACOS
3⁄4 cup mayonnaise
1 plum tomato, cut into 12 slices
1 avocado, cut into 12 slices lengthwise
1⁄2 medium white onion, minced
60 cilantro leaves (from about 15 sprigs), roughly chopped
2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges
Make one batch of tortillas and hold them warm.
MAKE THE FILLING:Set a 12-inch nonstick sauté pan over medium heat and add the lard. Once the fat is shimmering, add the ground beef and cook, stirring, until crumbly and browned, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. Add the grated cheese and stir until completely melted, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
ASSEMBLE THE TACOS:Lay out the warm tortillas on serving plates. Place a tablespoon of mayonnaise on each tortilla and spread using the back of a spoon. Evenly distribute the cheeseburger filling among the tortillas and top with the tomato and avocado slices, minced onion, chopped cilantro, and a drizzle of Salsa Roja. Squeeze a couple of the lime wedges over the tacos and serve the rest on the side.