An ode to taco night, my weeknight lifesaver

To keep things fresh and exciting, I make street tacos three ways: fussy, fast and fusion.
As the primary family cook, I found a secret weapon in taco night.
As the primary family cook, I found a secret weapon in taco night.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Tacos are hard to mess up. As long as you have solid corn tortillas, well-seasoned, tender meat (or vegetables!), a smattering of toppings — pico de gallo, cilantro, avocado, jalapeños, cabbage, crema — you should be in good shape.

But an important lesson I learned during the pandemic is just how easy they are to dress up.

When lockdown began back in March, our family, like so many others, was at home cooking and having dinner together most nights. While I have a husband who will eat anything, our kids, ages 21 and 18, are a mixed bag: One will try anything; the other is pickier but eats well when he loves the food.

As the primary family cook, I found a secret weapon in taco night. But not just any old taco night: To keep things fresh and exciting, I make street tacos three ways: fussy, fast and fusion. (Pro tip: Before you start, get yourself some stainless steel taco holders. They are practical, convenient and will make any taco meal Instagram-worthy!)

Fussy

Tacos have long been regarded as an unfussy food, as they were first sold in the U.S. as street food with the influx of Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s, according to Smithsonian magazine. But that's a misconception: If you're making them from scratch, they take quite a bit of work. I use the term “fussy” here because this version of the street taco requires the most effort, as in, scratch cooking is required!

Start with a no-fail marinade recipe. I like this one for grilled chicken thighs from Isabel Orozco-Moore, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who blogs at Isabel Eats. My other go-to is a simple, six-ingredient sautéed shrimp recipe featuring shrimp, garlic, cilantro, sea salt, red pepper flakes and lime.

Ingredients for "fussy" tacos: sauteed shrimp, pico de gallo, seasoned black beans and chopped jalapeños.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

Once you have your seasoned, cooked filling of choice, it’s tortilla time. There are plenty of good made-from-scratch tortilla recipes, but "fussy" can also mean the best, locally-sourced tortillas you can find. Research your favorite local Mexican restaurants to see if they sell them by the pack, as many do.

Alternately, you can’t go wrong with these regional small-batch tortilla brands, according to Bon Appetit. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so tortillas from Portland-based Three Sisters Nixtamal are easy to find at Whole Foods.

These "fussy" tacos feature sauteed garlic-cilantro-lime shrimp on street taco-style corn tortillas.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

Let your imagination run wild when it comes to toppings. I usually set out a selection, from seasoned black beans to pickled jalapeños to Siri Daly’s avocado pico de gallo, which is simple and flavorful. The pièce de résistance: avocado-lime crema to drizzle on top. (It is so easy to make: 1 avocado, 1 cup crema or sour cream, half a cup cilantro, juice of one lime. Blend together and salt to taste.) Don’t forget your lime wedges as garnish!

Fast

When I haven't got the time or energy to make from-scratch tacos, I pivot to fast, which means: What is in my fridge that I can quickly and easily turn into street tacos?

Ingredients for "fast" tacos: oven-ready breaded cod, shredded cheese, cubed avocado and cabbage slaw with avocado-lime dressing.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

For starters, you need your filling — again, the protein or veggie of your choice. Here’s where I hit my freezer, because I’m looking for as ready-made as possible, and fish is usually the answer. When my kids were younger, I was not above using fish sticks as taco filling. These days, I prefer two Trader Joe’s frozen products: Tempura Shrimp or Breaded Cod Fillets. Alternately, there are some good ready-made meats, like Del Real Foods’ Pork Carnitas or Barbacoa Beef, which you can order online.

You can find street taco-size tortillas — usually 4 to 5 inches in diameter — at most grocery stores. While I think corn tortillas are the way to go, my family prefers the taste and consistency of flour tortillas. Mission makes both in street taco size and even offers a low-carb, whole-wheat version, as well as sweet Hawaiian.

These "fast" tacos feature breaded cod (from the frozen-food aisle), supermarket bagged slaw and street taco-size flour tortillas.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

For toppings, think simple: sour cream, your favorite jarred salsa, shredded cheese. One hack: Get a bagged slaw kit. I like Dole’s Fiesta Lime "Slawsome" Kit, which has green and red cabbage, carrots and cilantro-lime dressing. It’s the perfect all-in-one topping for your taco.

Fusion

Sometimes the hankering for a street taco collides with a craving for a different flavor profile. That's when "fusion" comes in handy.

Ingredients for "fusion" tacos: palak paneer, cucumber raita, tomatoes and cilantro.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

As a first generation Indian American, I grew up eating my mom’s home-cooked Indian food every night for dinner. I am lucky that she lives near me, so I occasionally still get it! Not long ago, she made some chicken curry and when she didn’t have any naan bread on hand, she substituted with flour tortillas.

These "fusion" Indian-style tacos are vegetarian, featuring palak paneer and mini naan bread.Kavita Varma-White / TODAY

This inspired me, and I’ve discovered that most any Indian dish is tasty when tucked into a tortilla or naan bread. Try Priya Krishna’s Garlic-Ginger Chicken orSheet-Pan Aloo Gobi. Top with chopped tomatoes and a drizzle of cucumber raita. You can also use ready-made items, like Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken or Palak Paneer, both of which are in the frozen food aisle.

My kids will be coming home from college next month for their long winter break. You can bet that taco night — in all its forms — will be back in full force in our home.