IT’S A SUMMER DAY IN SANTA FE, mid-1970s. As the temperature swells into the 80s—high heat for that time in our mountain-ringed town—I cross the street to the Quintana house, where the family’s four daughters provide me respite from my five brothers. We draw the drapes to cool the day and darken their small den. There, in the glow of our daily soaps—All My Children and Dark Shadows—we devour our favorite lunch.


Not just any tacos, but Taco Bell tacos, the latest takeout trend from the fast-food cradle of California. These were not our abuela’s tacos. Those we savored at home, where we ate most of our meals. For large families like ours, going out to eat was a rare occasion, and Santa Fe then was not exactly a taco destination. But Taco Bell’s seasoned beef, cheese, and lettuce concoctions led the wave of a culinary revolution, their crispy prefried shells crafted for a car-obsessed, convenience-minded, postwar society. Their confident crunch and vinegar-forward sauce suited our salty preteen personalities and dime-store pocketbooks. These were tacos for changing times.

When Taco Bell’s Mission-style facade rose within walking distance of our west side neighborhood, we thought Santa Fe had arrived. Never mind that our families had been cooking a more delicious and distinctive New Mexican cuisine, including some version of the taco, for centuries. Or that corn—a key feature of this folded wonder food—is an Indo-Hispano staple of local culinary traditions. New Mexico foodways reflected the diverse agricultural and gastronomic histories of Spain, Mexico, and the Indigenous Americas. Yet little did we know that new generations of culinary invention and cultural integration would eventually catapult our taste buds across an ever more diverse—and delectable—taco landscape.

At Yapopup, Ryan Rainbird Taylor creates tacos that fit his “Indigenous soul food” mantra.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO, AUTHOR OF the book Taco USA, describes the taco, or “a tortilla wrapped around a stuffing,” as a latecomer to the American table that migrated from Mexico to California and Texas in the 1920s. Four decades later, when Glen Bell franchised his Taco Bell brand, the “crunchy taco” spread nationwide, then internationally. Although many New Mexicans bit into Bell’s mass-produced American-style taco, they didn’t completely give in to culinary assimilation. As Arellano writes, “New Mexico is another country—totally Mexican, totally American, totally its own thing.”

Indeed, New Mexicans were tucking meat, beans, and other fillings into corn (and flour) tortillas long before the term taco defined it. Soon after statehood, in 1912, homegrown cookbooks began touting New Mexico’s traditional cuisine: pinto beans, red and green chile, posole, carne adovada, and more. When the how-tos of local taco makers finally appeared in print in the 1930s, they defied categorization.

Try the breakfast tacos from Mañana Tacos. Photograph courtesy of Mañana Tacos.

New Mexican tacos blend cultural histories, family traditions, and individual tastes. Folded or rolled. Oven-baked or deep-fried. Filled with everything from beef, chicken, and pork to chile, potatoes, and cheese, a taco can be whatever the maker—and the eater—determines it to be. My family smothered ground-beef soft tacos in red chile and cheese. We also baked flautas, rolling blue-corn tortillas around shredded chicken, green chile, and sour cream. We savored chewy fried taquitos dipped in salsa, queso, or guac. At every fiesta or state fair, I’d make a beeline for a Native-made, Frisbee-size beef-and-bean frybread marvel.

In the 1930s, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, a home economics teacher raised in San Miguel County, began writing as a form of social activism in the face of pressure for local Hispanos to assimilate to Anglo-American culture. Local foodways were being abandoned in favor of canned foods and eateries that appealed more to tourists’ ideas of New Mexican cuisine. Her cookbooks illuminated the historical contexts of New Mexico cooking and agriculture as a means of preservation. She is credited with publishing the first-ever recipe for hard-shell tacos, documenting a local appetite for crunchy, U-shaped tacos long before Taco Bell came to town.

Fernando Olea, a pioneer in Santa Fe's taco scene, opened Bert's La Taqueria, one of the city's first Mexican taquerias. Photograph by Douglas Merriam.

“TACOS ARE MORE THAN TACOS,” writes New Mexico literary luminary Denise Chávez in her 2006 food memoir, A Taco Testimony. The book details family life around her mother Delfina’s “taco table,” a celebratory spread of cheesy baked ground-beef and potato tacos that Chávez calls “sacred.”

Writing that “time and love are the essence of all Mexican cooking,” Chávez connects taco culture to her upbringing in Las Cruces at the heart of the Mexican–American borderland experience. My childhood in northern New Mexico delayed my awareness of the unique culinary identity of southern New Mexico, yet Chávez’s story resonates a theme to which I and many New Mexicans instinctively relate: Tacos are more than a recipe—they are a rite.

Celebrated Santa Fe chef Fernando Olea, owner of Sazón restaurant and recipient of the 2022 James Beard Award for best chef of the Southwest, knows the ritual well. “Anything is a taco,” he says, recalling his upbringing in Mexico City, which he calls “the capital of the tacos.”

You can get a taste of Fusion Tacos at their Airport Road taco truck in Santa Fe. Photograph courtesy of Fusion Tacos.

Arriving in Santa Fe in 1989, Olea was surprised to find an abundance of hard-shell tacos but none of the soft pliable corn tortillas he grew up eating. It was only a matter of time before Olea was pioneering the local taco landscape, opening one of the city’s first Mexican taquerias, Bert’s La Taqueria, which featured carne asada, al pastor, and more. “It was something so natural,” he says. “Here we have the roots of the Mexican culture, and the Native Americans have always had the masa.”

At Sazón, lamb barbacoa, duck-skin, and huitlacoche tacos anchor Olea’s sophisticated New World cuisine. In his own kitchen and beyond, Olea says the “invasion of the taco” across New Mexico is a sight to behold. “I remember when people didn’t want to eat Mexican food,” he says. “Incredibly, the world has started to pay attention.”

In keeping with our regional history, New Mexicans are eagerly embracing influences that reflect increasingly diverse populations and tastes. We’ve enjoyed the arrival of uber-popular birria tacos, Korean fusion tacos, Texas-style breakfast tacos, and veggie tacos featuring cauliflower or crispy avocado. Meanwhile, tradition-bound taco enthusiasts make pilgrimages to the original Las Vegas for old-school burnt-cheese tacos.

Back in Santa Fe, a growing range of taco options draws diners from Airport Road’s burgeoning scene to taco trucks parked at nooks and crannies citywide. Cooks of all cultures are blending and expanding our taco bounty, continually shifting our perception of what is homegrown.

Alongside our generations-old recipes, the New Mexican taco is still in a league of its own. Go ahead, take a bite. Savor your own taco ritual.

Read more: Taco Wars founder Natalie Bovis serves up a winning strategy.