Menu Inspiration: Flavors of Baja California Hit the U.S. Market

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert

Traditional taco cart | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Traditional taco cart | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Baja California offers a unique combination that is flooding the Southern California market and beyond: Mediterranean climate and a mixture of regional cooks, ingredients, and recipes from different states throughout Mexico. 

Travel into Baja only needs to last about two minutes before being engulfed in the aroma of mesquite charcoal and seared meats, and that means one thing: street tacos. Almost as prevalent, albeit a little more regional, are seafood vendors offering fresh seafood served alongside a tall or short stack of tostadas. These items are versatile, cost-effective, and delicious. They also happen to be exactly what many diners are after.

Tortillas: Authenticate Your Vehicle

The beautiful thing about tacos and tostadas is their simplicity. They each have a key component that acts as the vessel to deliver a protein and/or vegetables: the tortilla. The quality of the tortilla is incredibly important and should be considered before the menu is changed to offer street tacos on Taco Tuesday. 

Careful thought behind the tortillas for tacos is crucial for a variety of reasons. Taking some grilled chicken that is already being utilized elsewhere on the menu and throwing it on any tortilla a bulk supplier can provide is an option, but it will only yield average results, no matter what goes on top. To get to the next level (for both taste and menu pricing), tortillas should be procured from a more authentic source or be made in house. 

Think about the celebration of food that is happening south of the border and the many homes and establishments that are either making or purchasing prepared masa (dough) for tortillas and pressing them themselves. Tortillas are a staple, and fresh ones always beat out the massed-produced ones. Get authentic. Realistically, the dough can be prepared by a prep cook and then tortillas can be pressed, ready to be thrown on the flat top when the taco contents are almost ready since they don’t take long to cook. Considering the popularity of “craft” everything, tortillas are something that can fall within that sought-after category of cuisine, and they most certainly deserve it.

Pork adobada on a trompo | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Pork adobada on a trompo | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Designer Tacos and Tostadas

Making exciting tacos and tostadas is something that needs to fall right in line with craft and seasonal philosophies in the kitchen. Use quality ingredients, not too much, and offer a balance of flavors. Consideration of the classic street tacos and tostadas is a good start. Mesquite grilled meats, whether they are cooked over the coals or on a trompo (vertical rotisserie), will offer smoky proteins that range in textures on their own. The tender pieces of carne asada or al pastor that are chopped up with some of the edges that got the tiniest bit crispy provide interest in the meat. A fresh element is added with minced onion and cilantro, as well as an occasional addition of guacamole. A squeeze of lime cuts the richness and the warm tortilla brings it all together. A hot sauce finishes the taco or tostada, but is usually served on the side, or DIY style. 

Considering the basics of the taco, nearly anything goes. The street taco is the perfect delivery method for anything from pork belly or braised lamb to bone marrow or grilled vegetables, provided ingredients and combinations of ingredients are delicious. When planned for with prep staff and cooks, street tacos are not difficult to construct, and offer a good price point since the amount of protein is relatively small. One trip to Baja will amaze the uninitiated with the volume served and efficiency of service at a busy taco cart. Cost of goods and labor, of course, need to be evaluated to add these authentic flavors to the menu. But executed well, they could turn a lot of heads. Think like a taquero.

Tacos and Tostadas 2.0: Start With a Classic, and Build

Tostadas and tacos can use the inspiration of a classic, but be reimagined with a new twist. Take a classic tostada served with an octopus cocktail and prepare the octopus in a different way. Sub pickled red onions for diced fresh, add fresh herbs, avocado, and a sauce inspired by a classic salsa, and you have a fresh take on delicious tradition. 

Tacos Perla in San Diego braises their octopus, then grills it and serves it in a taco with poblano chile, pesto, and cheese. Bracero Cocina de Raiz offers a lamb neck barbacoa taco with kombucha pasilla salsa and cilantro. Seriously, anything goes. Taco purists may balk, but when the ingredients are celebrated with a nod to Baja roots, guests will gobble these menu items up. Vegetarian options are also endless when a substantial vegetable is the star. Puesto in San Diego features a charred cauliflower taco that is served with avocado, pickled carrot, and chile almond crema. Vegetarian tacos are easily converted to vegan, and if traditional corn tortillas are used, gluten allergy concerns are quelled.

Tostada with octopus | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Tostada with octopus | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

The Finishing Touches

Guests like variety and enjoy having choices that can help customize their experience. A simple way to round out the taco or tostada menu is to offer a few house salsas. Understanding of ingredients and a Vitamix will earn an establishment street (taco) cred and provide delicious accompaniments to imaginative tacos and tostadas. 

Get to know a handful of chile peppers like the chile de arbol and habanero. Chiles de arbol offer some heat along with a traditional “taco shop” flavor. Deepen that flavor and offer guests some smokiness by blistering the dried chiles or toasting them before mixing up a batch of salsa. Use caution with the scorching habanero pepper, and balance the heat with some carrots to sweeten the sauce and bring out the habanero’s deliciously fruity notes. Tacos Perla understands that texture is often what guests are after, so they offer creative add-ons like chicharrón (crispy pork skin) or Oaxacan-style fried crickets!