For a recent project, I was tasked to do taco research. While for some, reading old books, magazines, and newspapers may feel like work, for me it was a joyful exploration into a world I knew little about.
As I delved through publications, trying to put together a timeline, I saw recipes from the 1920s through the 1950s that were called tacos, but today would appear to be what we know as enchiladas. Certainly, when one encounters a rolled corn tortilla that been stuffed then smothered in a sauce, it’s labelled an enchilada. Though in that era, these rolled tortilla dishes were often called tacos. I wondered why.
It didn’t take too much investigation to learn that the word “enchilada” signifies that something has been smothered in chiles. So, a true enchilada is a corn tortilla that’s been drenched in a sauce made from said peppers. Use of that phrase refers to the chiles and not the shape of the tortillas.
In fact, during the first half of the 20th Century, Mexican and Tex-Mex purists would call a soft rolled tortilla dish “tacos,” if chiles were not the foundation of the dish. It was as simple as that. Though, this style of taco is not widely seen today. Or, if they do make an appearance, they are more likely to be called enchiladas.
In the Dallas area, however, the soft cheese taco is quite popular. I never understood its name but clearly it’s a holdback from this time. Indeed, the sauce is cheese based, not pepper based, so the creators called it a taco. And in Fort Worth, The Original, a Tex-Mex restaurant that’s been open since 1926, also has a soft beef taco, which is a corn tortilla stuffed with piccadillo that’s rolled and smothered with queso. Its form may appear to be like a beef enchilada but the queso keeps it firmly in taco territory.
While today, this style of soft taco is most often seen around DFW, the earliest recipes were from San Antonio and El Paso, two places where they are no longer found, curiously enough. One of the recipes I encountered was from a 1926 cookbook, “How We Cook in El Paso.” It took roasted and peeled long green chiles, tomatoes, and onions, and folded those into a white-cheese based sauce. The tortillas were lightly fried in oil then dipped into the sauce, rolled, and then smothered with the remainder of the queso. The dish was given the simple name of tacos.
In 1947, the El Paso Herald Post published a cookbook with a similar recipe, though in that instance, the sauce this time was poured over stacked tortillas, as is often the custom for enchiladas in that part of the world, and as such, the dish was called enchiladas.
It may seem confusing to call the rolled version tacos and the stacked version enchiladas, but as I prepared the dish in both incarnations, I realized that I preferred the tortillas rolled. And while they may appear to be a plate of cheesy enchiladas, they are in fact soft tacos. Much like my beloved Dallas-style soft cheese tacos, which are similar, only they are smothered in a yellow-cheese sauce instead of white.
Soft cheese tacos, El Paso style
- 4 long green chiles, such as Hatch or Anaheim
- 1 small yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 1 cup grape tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 8 ounces Monterey Jack, shredded (2 cups)
- Oil, for frying
- 12 corn tortillas
Turn on the broiler and place a rack 5 inches away from heating element. Place the chiles, onion, and tomatoes on a cast-iron skillet skillet. Cook under the broiler for 7 minutes, and then remove the skillet from the oven. Turn over the chiles and onions then return the skillet to the oven for 5-7 more minutes or until the chiles have blackened.
Remove the skillet from the oven and place the chiles in a paper sack or plastic food-storage bag, close it tight, and let the chiles steam for 20 minutes. Place the tomatoes and onions on a cutting board and when cool enough to handle, dice.
Once the chiles have steamed, rub off the skin, remove the stem and seeds then dice.
To make the queso, In a pot, melt the butter on medium low and add the diced tomatoes, onions, and chiles, stirring for a couple minutes or until fragrant. Pour in the cream and while stirring, add the cheese, and continue to stir until smooth and melted. Add salt to taste, then turn the heat down to low. (You can make this a day or so ahead and reheat on low, while stirring, if you prefer).
For the tacos, pour 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet, swirl it around until the entire skillet is coated, then working in batches, cook the tortillas until warm and softened. Add more oil as needed. Keep the cooked tortillas wrapped in a cloth or tortilla warmer until all the tortillas are heated.
To assemble the tacos, with tongs dip each cooked tortilla into the queso, shake off any excess, then roll the tortilla and place on a plate (I serve 3 per plate, though you may wish to do more or less). Pour over the rolled tortillas the remainder of the queso. Serve immediately.