Chicago, where I live, has a wealth of excellent Mexican food. In all corners of the city, residents are practically tripping over perfect tortas, birria, or tamales. Unfortunately, I grew up in the suburbs, so my first 18 years were informed by the “international” aisle at the local supermarket. And that meant every taco I had throughout childhood was made of ground beef flavored with that ubiquitous taco seasoning packet (it’s huge in Sweden!). Depending on the brand you buy, it’s a hodgepodge of chili powder, paprika dried onion and garlic, oregano, cumin, and one of several thickeners.
The seasoning packets are still a valued touchpoint for me despite their lack of authenticity. Back in the halcyon days that coincided with Reginald VelJohnson’s zenith, my family was all about crunchy shells, Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, and the magic seasoning packet that tied it all together. I can’t forget that just because I moved to the big city and develop a taste for lengua.
As an older, wiser, huskier food writer, I felt compelled to figure out new non-taco applications for the beloved 80-cent taco packet. The ratings are based on my family’s gauge of taco night success: the number of intact crunchy shells in one of those Tex-Mex taco kit boxes.
It seemed wise to start things out with a fastball down the middle. The burger is the most adaptable of our American food forms. So I made a 5.5-ounce fresh grass-fed beef burger with fried corn tortilla strips, avocado, salsa, crema, and romaine lettuce (with a quick toss in Caesar dressing). It was super tasty on a toasted potato bun, because of course it is. And now we’ve got our baseline for the Taco Packet Test.
Rating: 8.0 Taco Shells out of 10
I had high hopes for this dish and its really stupid name. It’s chicken tikka masala with chicken thighs as the base and the garam masala switched out for taco seasoning. I don’t want to say anything controversial, but turns out pre-prepped grocery store spice packets don’t replace the flavor of fresh-toasted and ground spices. It wasn’t bad, but I kept thinking about how much better actual tikka masala would be. This was one-dimensional and just a bit too salty.
Rating: 3.5 Taco Shells
I took the classic Michelada (lime, beer, hot sauce, ice) and rimmed the glass with taco seasoning because we are living in the last days of Rome. “I don’t hate it,” was the verdict from my super-game wife Emily, to which I replied “Okay, thanks for trying it, you don’t have to finish it.” That glass was quietly drained very quickly—Taco Chelada has a power over people.
Rating: 6 Taco Shells
I have long been a fan of vegan-ified dishes, mostly because a good proportion of my family observes that particular diet. So I took an old Buffalo dip recipe of mine and adapted it without animal products. It was surprisingly good! Grated cauliflower cooked in Valentina hot sauce, then combined with vegan cream cheese, mayo, and taco seasoning. Tastes great on pita chips, carrots, or—if you must—celery. And honestly, it earns the highest of any vegan recipe: It doesn’t taste like you were trying to make something vegan.
Rating: 5.5 Taco Shells
I did not expect to get emotional during this experiment, and yet. It started when I substituted taco packet seasoning for barbecue rub on an eight-pound pork shoulder, a rack of baby back ribs, and about two dozen whole chicken wings.
My dad, who expresses preference for almost no food, was unusually expressive. He wanted to help take the wings off the pit, went all in for the pork ribs, and couldn’t stop telling me how much he enjoyed the pork shoulder (served with cider vinegar sauce and red cabbage slaw). This was atypical behavior from the man I’ve shared maybe 400 Tombstone pizzas with. He even took home leftovers. It may not sound like much, but as far as bonding with gruff Midwestern mustachioed dads go, it was practically a Cat Stevens song.
If Dad was into it, it must be good. The smoky, chili-paprika-onion profile of the seasoning packets more than held up over several hours of low-and-slow time on the pit. I made the taco-seasoning barbecue hoping it would turn out just alright, but I would almost do this again. Every step on my barbecue journey brings me ever closer to the conclusions that secret recipes are for idiots and that literally anyone with patience can make great smoked meat.
Rating: 9.5 Taco Shells
I realize this sounds like an Internet thing that starts out amusing and quickly becomes unbearable, but Taco Bacon got a fair shake. I followed typical bacon-candying protocol, except with a freshly torn-open packet of taco seasoning in lieu of the usual sugar-and-spice blend.
It was good! My chief taster Emily said: “I had the Taco Bacon and I thought it was too much, but then I went back to the regular bacon and it didn’t seem like it had enough flavor.” It seems like a solid result when you can ruin bacon for someone. Also: this stuff would absolutely kill as a garnish for an aggressive Bloody Mary.
One word of warning: make Taco Bacon once and your dwelling is going to smell like it—and not subtly—for a long while.
Rating: 6.5 Taco Shells
After all that, and despite one very disappointing result, it turns out that even cheap-ass taco mix can build into something excellent, no crunchy shells required.
- Barbecue Platter
- Taco Burger
- Taco Bacon
- Taco Michelada
- Vegan Taco Party Dip
- Chicken Taco Masala