You might know stories of unlikely heroes, sagas of farmers who became kings, or tales of orphans who rose to power and prominence.
Then there’s the humble street taco, a Hispanic food once frowned upon by mainstream America — remember when respectable folk or even alcohol-saturated college kids scoffed at taco trucks?
Street-style tacos, however, have conquered the country to become the darling of the culinary scene.
“Young and old and everyone in between, everybody loves tacos,” said Todd Ketterman, department chair for Linn-Benton Community College’s culinary arts department.
Noe Morales spent his early childhood in San Diego, and he frequently went across the border to dine on street food from carts and trucks.
When he was 13, in 1999, his family moved to Albany, and they struggled to find Mexican spices and authentic tortillas for cooking. Perhaps worse, the town was a “taco wasteland,” Morales said.
“There were no real tacos. … It was horrible,” he added.
Morales’ family had to travel to Dos Arbolitos in Lebanon to get a taste. But things are different now. Albany and Corvallis, in particular, each have multiple spots to get street-style tacos.
That’s thanks in part to Morales, the owner of Tacos El Machin in Albany and Corvallis.
“Just in the last decade, tacos have taken off,” Morales said.
Traditional street tacos usually have only five ingredients: a tortilla, meat, onions, cilantro and salsa. “They’re really simple but really flavorful,” Ketterman said.
Street tacos are filling, tasty, easy to eat, portable and inexpensive — many options sell for $2 each — said Marcia Hara, the culinary arts teacher at Lebanon High School.
Tacos also are easily customized. A patron could order just one taco for a snack or three for a full meal, and do so with a variety of meat choices or vegetarian options at some restaurants.
But demographic shifts in population have also played a role in the rising popularity of tacos, as have culinary trends and other factors, Hara added.
“Mexican food has become American food,” Hara said.
Mexican food in general has risen in popularity from decades ago, when Hara was a kid in the Portland area.
“I think you could probably count the Mexican restaurants in the area on one hand when I was growing up,” she said. She added that most offered more Americanized dishes. Think hard-shell tacos or plates loaded with cheese, beans and rice.
To be sure, fast food such as Taco Bell and other Americanized restaurants continue to be hits. According to CHD Expert, a restaurant and food services data firm, as of 2017, Mexican restaurants were the second-most popular type of eatery in the United States, with nearly 60,000 such businesses. The top spot went to restaurants with varied menus, while pizza joints were third.
An influx of new immigrants and Mexican-Americans from elsewhere in the United States, such as California, however, has led to an increased demand for more authentic fare.
As Bob Dylan might have put it: The tacos, they are a-changin'.
The demographic shift should be relatively easy for longtime residents of Linn and Benton counties to spot.
The mid-Willamette Valley’s Hispanic population stood at roughly 8,160 people, or 4.5 percent of the population, in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures. By 2016 estimates, Linn and Benton counties’ Hispanic population surged to about 16,150, or 7.8 percent of the population.
In Albany, the trend was even more pronounced. Albany’s Hispanic population more than doubled from about 2,500 people in 2000 to nearly 6,540 in 2016, good for 12.6 percent of the population, according to census figures.
In Corvallis, the Hispanic population increased from 2,820 to 4,660 in the same time period. Hispanics now make up 8.4 percent of Benton County’s largest city.
Sources said the demographic shift has occurred at the same time as the food-truck scene emerged in the Northwest, and with Americans becoming more adventurous and open to foreign food and menu items such as lengue and cabeza — cow tongue and cheek meat, respectively.
A 2015 report by the National Restaurant Association found that two-thirds of customers eat a wider variety of ethnic foods than they did just five years earlier.
“Honestly, street food in general has been making a resurgence in the last couple of years,” Ketterman said.
The mainstream appeal is critical for a restaurant’s success in much of Oregon. Morales said that while his restaurant is popular with Mexican Americans, most of his customers are Caucasian.
Many chefs love to take a very basic concept and put their own spin on it.
“I can make it the way it’s supposed to be made, but also I can be creative and do something that no one’s ever seen before,” Ketterman said.
And the street taco format provides them with a sort of blank canvas.
As the owners of Taco Vino in Corvallis have stated, anything that tastes amazing would be amazing in a taco. And that’s led to Brussels sprouts with bacon, chicken skin and Dungeness crab tacos, as well as Northwest-inspired and more traditional options at the restaurant.
The nature of tacos also make them a venue for ethnic fusion experiments. Lebanon food cart Stick a Pork In It, which focuses on Cuban food, specializes in delicious Cuban-style pulled pork tacos, for example.
But there’s pushback to pushing the boundaries, of course.
“Certain people prefer the very traditional street taco, and frown upon someone taking it and making it modern,” Ketterman said.
Hara said she thought people would get more sophisticated with tortillas, corn and other ingredients, with the possibility of gourmet options. But, at their essence, she added, tacos would remain a fun and fast street food.