I hail from El Paso, Texas, sometimes known as "the Mexican food capital of the world" (I know, you'd think it would be in Mexico, go figure!). The Mexican restaurants in El Paso are, it must be said, highly inconsistent, but when they're good, they're so mother-effing good, and they're not like anything else in the world. The food they serve constitutes its own sub-genre of "Tex-Mex," which I've come to think of as being better represented by Houston, Austin, and other cities in East Texas, 700 or 800 miles yonder. Textbook Tex-Mex as seen at, say, a Chuy's, is super-sized and kind of sanitized – the colors are brighter, the beans and rice are fluffier, and though you're surely taking in enough calories for a baby elephant with every plate, there's less visible surface grease. The ingredients are slightly different too: more tomatillo, for example, more white meat versus dark meat.
El Paso, being on the border of New Mexico, is more dependent on green chile, but the real measure of an El Paso Mexican restaurant (EPMR) is the red sauce: super-earthy and rich and best on cheese enchiladas, perhaps topped with a fried egg. A combination plate from an EPMR will have less verticality than one from Houston. The tortillas are softened in hot oil before they're (minimally) stuffed, rolled, and sauced; the sides of beans (a much thinner consistency than typical elsewhere, made delicious with lard, probably, and a topping of grated jack cheese) and rice (El Paso is one of the few places in America where the Mexican rice is worth eating) are added to the plate and the whole shebang goes into the oven for a re-warm-through, so when it arrives at your table it's too hot to touch and there are a few strands of burnt cheese on the rim (sign of greatness). Before that though, you get a semi-pointless little "salad" garnish of shredded iceberg lettuce and a half-slice of wan tomato (which I sometimes actually eat), and your taco of choice. The taco is immediately recognizable for its shell, which is neither deep-fried until crunchy nor soft as though steamed or dry-toasted on a skillet. Instead, it's a kind of "soft fry": cooked in hot oil enough to brown and crisp the edges and hold a shape, but not so much that it loses its chew. This, to me, is the Ultimate Taco.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, but we all know laziness is at least as fortuitous. My mother used to make taco shells in this fashion by pouring a little vegetable oil onto a big double griddle (same pan we used for french toast and pancakes) and standing there frying and folding until there were enough shells for four. This was an obvious pain in the ass. Even when cooking for two, I don't much care to splatter hot oil all over the stove and my person; it's also really hard to get the right amount of oil in the pan so the shells get kind of dampened but not soaked. To avoid this mess, I used to heat up tortillas directly over a gas burner, which gives you great char. But my current apartment has an electric stove. An easier way to warm a stack of corn tortillas is by wrapping them in a damp paper towel and zapping in the microwave for 30 seconds to a minute. If you then wrap those in a cloth kitchen towel, they'll stay warm for the duration of your taco session, assuming you eat tacos as quickly as we do. Unfortunately, this technique doesn't add any flavor or texture to the tortillas.
Somehow, recently, I hit upon another method. It's not messy or very time-consuming, and best of all, it gives you perfect El Paso–style taco shells every time: a little soft, a little crisp, a little chewy, with great, photogenic color (but I'm not a food photographer, sorry) and lasting integrity around your filling. It's the best of all worlds, people. Take it from a taco expert.
So here's how you do it!
El Paso–Style Taco Shells, THE DEFINITIVE RECIPE for Semi-Authentic Types
Corn tortillas, any number
Cooking spray (I like Winona Pure 100% Sunflower Oil)
A griddle (mine is nonstick, but cast iron would probably be best)
A paper towel–lined plate
OK, so, the idea is that these will eventually become tacos, so get all your taco stuff ready before you start the taco shells. (Tonight, the filling was shredded poached chicken and cheddar cheese, with toppings of fresh salsa, smashed avocado, spicy sour cream and shredded romaine, but I have endless ideas for taco fillings. See below.) Spread your toppings out on the table, keep your fillings warm, and get your griddle nice and hot. I put it over medium-high to high heat (7-8 on our burner, which goes up to 10, works best) for several minutes before I start laying on the tortillas. Throw as many on as will fit in a single layer with no overlapping (my griddle holds four), then quickly blast each tortilla with a little cooking spray. Then (this is key!) flip the tortillas over so the sprayed side is down. You don't need to spray the other side. Then just let 'em go for a good 3-4 minutes. This will vary based on how hot your pan is, but you want to develop some brown spots without going so far that they aren't pliable. At that point, flip them back over and just give them a wee bit more time on the other side to warm through. Then, using your tongs, gently fold each tortilla in half, with the sprayed-and-crisped side out, and transfer them to the plate. If there's any excess grease you can blot that off on the paper towel, but if you're doing it right, the minimal oil will mostly be absorbed into the shell. Prop the shells up against each other to encourage them to hold their shape and help keep them warm. (If you're really fancy, you could keep them warm in the oven.) Repeat until you've got enough tacos to properly stuff your face. Following in the footsteps of my mom, I generally make all the shells (6-8 for two people; we're gluttons but we don't usually have any sides with tacos), then stuff them with the warm filling(s) before taking them to the table. Then everyone can serve and top themselves.
This is the only way I make tacos now, and we have tacos about once a week. Cooking spray for the win!
Since you asked, here are some quick filling ideas:
CHICKEN: Poach or roast chicken breasts on the bone, then skin and shred. Alternatively, roast and slice boneless/skinless chicken thighs (which don't dry out as easily). For tonight, I did a kind of roast-poach, adding a quarter of a cup of water to the pan and covering the chicken breasts with foil, then cooking at 375 for about 45 minutes, which results in very tender chicken.
PORK: This recipe for carnitas is my favorite, mostly because I like it enough that I haven't tried any others. Pickled onions are a nice touch here.
FISH: Sometimes I pan-fry tilapia or catfish, usually tossing it in some kind of spice mix first, sometimes with a bit of a breading (usually a mix of cornmeal and chickpea flour in this house). Sometimes I quick roast halibut in a coating of mayo with some sriracha (or other hot sauce) and chopped garlic stirred in. I know, that sounds random, but mayo is a classic way to keep halibut moist in the oven, and it bakes into a kind of sauce. Seared and sliced tuna steaks are also good, when you're feeling flush. I often make a quick slaw to serve on tacos; with fish tacos it's a staple.
MUSHROOM: Slice several portobello mushroom caps in half, then into thin slices crosswise (about a quarter inch thick). Toss with salt, pepper, a little dried oregano and maybe some cumin, olive oil, and a little bit of water or broth on a sheet pan, and roast at high heat for 15-20 minutes, until they're softened with a few crispy edges.
BEAN: A cheap pantry classic from my childhood. Refried beans from a can and shredded cheese, it's that simple. The topping we always made to go with these was chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes moistened with a spoonful of mayonnaise. I KNOW, WTF. It makes no sense but is improbably delicious.
MAYO: Just kidding guys, I don't really eat that much mayo!
Anyway. Make some tacos.
UPDATE: In the interest of not getting sued, I should note that cooking spray is supposedly flammable, so if you have a gas stove, use caution. You might want to spray the tortillas on one side before you drop them on the hot griddle, so you're not aiming the pressurized oil toward an open flame. Nobody ever said, "It's not a taco party until somebody catches on fire." (Until now.)