Creating Vegan Tacos
A meal in one hand with endless possibilities.
Tacos. A meal in one hand. There are endless possibilities. But maybe that’s the precise reason why they’re so dangerous.
While most taco shops don’t offer a wide range of veggie-filled tacos, the kitchens and recipe blogs of vegans and vegetarians around the world abound with them. I’ve ingested my fair share of flour tortillas with sweet potato and yellow squash fillings drizzled with avocado-lime crema, but the truth is it isn’t hard to make something taste acceptable when sprinkled with chile and cumin and wrapped in a tortilla. But I figured it was time to promote the veggie taco to a status alongside the classic meat-based tacos: pastor, carnitas, tinga. These are all fillings positively packed with flavor, dressed simply, and held in place with a warm corn tortilla. I see no reason why a vegetable taco can’t stand among them.
Every taco ever made is built with three basic elements: tortilla, filling, and topping, and every variation of taco changes one or more of these elements. To create a vegetable-based taco that matches the intensity of flavor that the dish deserves, we must ensure that the tortilla, the fillings, and the toppings make sense together. This may seem like an obvious point to make, but a lot of taco pitfalls involve incoherent combinations that result in a taco that might taste…all right, but doesn’t pack much of a punch. However, we can avoid taco mediocrity by constructing each of the taco elements with care and precision.
I must admit that I spent most of my life decidedly on the side of the flour tortilla. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the flour tortilla. It has its place. However, the real star of the taco world is the corn tortilla. From the perspective of flavor and history, corn is the way to go: nothing beats a warm, lightly charred corn tortilla.
The biggest improvement you can make for your tacos is to make your tortillas at home. Some nerdy control freaks (not going to name names) might want to make corn tortillas straight from field corn. However, the simplest and most practical way to make corn tortillas at home is with masa harina, which is corn tortilla flour ready to be mixed with water and pressed into tortillas.
The most important thing is to avoid serving cold tortillas. A storebought corn tortilla can be made order-of-magnitude better by a brief toasting right atop a gas burner.
This is where, I’m sorry to say, many tacos go astray: the fillings, the very essence of the taco. The problem with many taco fillings is that they’re more like filler, lacking in flavor and uninteresting in texture. The goal with every last ingredient you put in that tortilla should be flavor density and textural interest. Anything that doesn’t bring at least one of these, preferably both, can be left out.
To that end, my basic veggie taco has a three-part filling combination: creamy, aromatic guacamole, smoky and rich black beans, and a pepper-red onion blend, seasoned thoroughly and cooked quickly over very high heat. It takes absurdly little time to prepare, and packs a ton of flavor and textural contrast into every bite. Get the recipe.
That’s all well and good, but in the meat-based taco world, there’s a huge host of rich, flavor-dense options. Stewed and seared meats heavily seasoned with chilies, citrus, and spices. What can compare?
The answer lies in cooking mushrooms to a deep brown, followed by a simmer in a chile- and citrus-rich sauce. The mushrooms end up tender, browned, at meaty, coated with lots of ancho chile flavor with bright sweet notes of orange and smoky, savory chipotle chile. These mushrooms stack up to any delicious meat fillings. And, of course, the chilies and spices can be exchanged for whatever flavors suit your fancy. Adding roasted strips of poblano chile to the taco amps up the flavor quotient to eleven. Get the recipe.
The secret to topping tacos properly is to use ultra-flavorful toppings in judicious amounts. Salsa is obviously the most popular taco topping: a dab of the good stuff can propel an already good taco to exquisite heights.
My all-purpose taco topper is a charred salsa verde. Luckily, it’s also one of the easiest salsas to make: cook the veggies and run through your food processor. Get the recipe.
As for other toppings, ensure they’re thoughtful and minimal. A bit of guacamole can provide creamy smoothness to a crispy filling. Get the recipe. Pickled red onions are unbelievably easy to make and give a delightful bright kick and color. I’ll let you go from there.
Many non-Mexican Americans seemed to have an obsession with the idea of “authentic Mexican food.” However, if you want to make “authentic” Mexican food and you are not Mexican, I am afraid to say that you’re out of luck. Authentic Mexican food is, by definition, food that originates from Mexicans (and usually, food that is eaten by the same people). When Mexicans living in the United States adapted to the ingredients they had on hand—ground beef, lettuce, cheddar cheese—they were not making “inauthentic” Mexican food. Similarly, no matter how hard you try to find every traditional ingredient and process, your tacos will not be “authentic.”
And that is just fine. Tacos were invented out of necessity and availability, not strict rules. I hope these veggie tacos serve to be an inspiration to all you veggie cooks who care to venture into the tortilla-laden land of the taco. Fill wisely and flavorfully. And don’t forget the salsa.