These tacos have a cult following. But if you’ve never stood at one of the big baskets perched on the back of a bicycle in Mexico City and devoured their simple, full-flavored suppleness, the recipe probably won’t make much sense. These are tacos made hours before they’re served and kept warm swaddled in cloth and plastic and paper and, ultimately, a basket and sold by the half dozen to those who need an almuerzo snack between breakfast and the mid-day meal. They’re less about the filling than they are about the oh-so-comforting texture that results from a magical transformation of the tortilla when the flavored oil meets the steam.
Though I’d seen them on the streets, I’m embarrassed to say that I first ate these humble beauties at the legendary Fonda El Refugio, the finest traditional Mexican restaurant in the country for decades. There, they were made to order, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and served at a price ten times higher than what you’d pay on the street. The street vendors are serving another need, though, one of affordable sustenance. With mostly vegetable-based fillings, the price for a half-dozen or more is within reach of most anyone who’s hungry. Choose 2 or 3 fillings, like Bean and Bacon or Potato Chorizo
So when and to whom should you serve them? When you’re having adventurous friends over for snacks and drinks, load up a slow cooker with tacos de canasta and offer one of Mexico’s most unique tacos experiences.
Don’t be alarmed that the tortillas look oily as you’re filling the tacos. That oil is absorbed during the “steaming” process.
Make the flavored oil. Pour the oil or lard into a small saucepan and set over medium heat. When hot, add the chiles and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly until the garlic begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Pour into a blender and add 1 teaspoon salt. Secure the lid, remove the center, cover with a towel and blend as smooth as possible. Pour through a medium-mesh strainer into a small bowl.
Set up the “basket.” Line a 6-quart slow cooker with napkins to cover the bottom, sides and enough overhang to fold in to cover the whole top. (You’ll need 2 heavy 18x18-inch napkins.) Then line the napkin-clad interior with a plastic bag (the easiest option is to use one of the cooking bags they sell for slow cookers). Taco vendors add a layer of papel de estrasa—similar to kraft paper—but I don’t think it’s necessary in this version. Turn the slow cooker on low and set the timer for 2 hours. Scatter ⅕ of the onion slices into the bottom of the lined slow cooker.
Heat the filling(s). Whichever filling(s) you’ve chosen, scoop it/them into something that’s microwave safe, cover and microwave until steaming. Cover to keep warm.
Heat the tortillas. Brush the tortillas on both sides thoroughly with the flavored oil or lard, then stack in 3 piles of 12. Slide each stack into a plastic bag and microwave 1 of the bags at 100% for 2 minutes. Let stand in the microwave for 2 minutes or so. Remove the first bag of tortillas from the microwave and begin heating the next bag. You’ll get into a rhythm of assembling a dozen while the next batch heats.
Make the tacos and “steam” them. Working quickly so that the tacos go into the slow cooker warm, scoop 2 rounded tablespoons of filling into a tortilla, fold it over and press flat. Lay into slow cooker over the onion. Continue with 7 more tortillas, shingling them in 2 rows over the bottom of the slow cooker. Scatter on another ⅕ of the onion, then make another layer of 8 tacos (I do those right down the center). Then onions, then tacos, then onions, then tacos. And finally, finish with onions. Fold the plastic and napkins up over the tacos. Set the lid in place and “steam” for at least 30 minutes (They can hold up to 1 hour.)
Serve the tacos. Open up the slow cooker and start serving your tacos de canasta on plates, encouraging everyone to top them with salsa and pickled chiles.