I considered my stance a corrective, but in truth it was an overreach, as much an attempt to distance myself from my hometown as anything else. As I later realized, not only is Tex-Mex food worthy of its own level of appreciation, but hard-shell tacos (like flour tortillas) have strong connections to the motherland. Whether it’s tostadas, tacos dorados, or, as José R. Ralat wrote in Texas Monthly, the salbutes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, tortillas have been fried for, well, probably as long as there have been masa and oil.
Adding even more evidence against the taco-shell binary is a San Antonio staple that may (or may not) have been invented there or somewhere else in Texas: the puffy taco. If you haven’t tried one, I wish I could see your face the first time you do. These are made not by frying a cooked corn tortilla, but by frying its predecessor, a round of freshly pressed masa. The disk puffs up, and the cook holds a spatula or other utensil in the center, to encourage it to form somewhat of a U shape (or, as one cook told Ralat, the shape of Mick Jagger’s lips). It’s ethereal and ephemeral; you drain it, fill it and eat or serve it pronto.
The first time I had one, I was reminded of the first time I experienced a real croissant, in Paris. I was sitting by the Seine, and as a saxophonist played nearby (I swear!), my eyes rolled back in my head as I took a bite, and flakes showered onto my lap. The super-delicate crunch of the puffy taco results in the same ecstasy — and the same crumbles.
Purists would tell you that these need to be made with fresh masa, and at restaurants like the wonderful Los Barrios in San Antonio, they are. But for the home cook, I’m happy to report, they turn out perfectly well using a major shortcut: masa harina, the instant masa flour made by such companies as Maseca. In fact, two of the hardest things about making them are the same things that are tricky about making corn tortillas the first few times: getting the amount of moisture just right (the masa should feel like Play-Doh) and getting them cleanly off the tortilla press (thick pieces of plastic cut from zip-top bags help).
I also like to keep the fillings fairly sparse — and not too liquidy, to avoid any sogginess. Puffy tacos demand immediate consumption, but making them with refried black beans rather than anything soupier gives you a little more wiggle room.
Plenty of you are probably wondering about another shortcut, and I’m afraid I have bad news on that front. For this recipe, the air fryer just doesn’t do the trick — or at least it didn’t for me. A masa disk I put in at 400 degrees just flopped around and folded on one side before it hardened and lightly browned. It was crunchy, not crispy; thin, not puffed; more like a thick tortilla chip than the thing of beauty I was after.
So even if you’re an air-fryer devotee, I urge you to pull out the oil and a pot for this one, at least once.
What about that shaping technique? Well, that can take a little practice, too, although the worst thing that’s going to happen is that those Jaggeresque lips might end up pressed a little too closely together to afford much room for the beans, or open so wide the tacos are flatter like tostadas. If either of those things happens, no sweat: Just treat the fillings more like toppings, and the puffy tacos will be every bit as delicious and every bit as messy, in the best possible way.