This season we partnered with the crew at Tacolicious to create the ultimate Mexican taco party, complete with festive cocktails, grilled nachos, spicy pickled vegetables and hearty tacos. We even worked with them to develop a line of salsas and braising bases so you can pull off the meal yourself! Here, we ask Sara Deseran — who’s writing the Tacolicious cookbook, out this fall from Ten Speed Press — for her best tips for hosting a “taquiza” at home.
A taquiza makes the best party ever. Think of it as a DIY taco buffet—a spread of as many or as little taco fillings as you can drum up, spread out on a table with a stack of warm tortillas waiting to be filled. We were served up a beachside taquiza once when on a family vacation down in Tulum and it was one of our most memorable nights.
What’s the best way to serve tacos for a crowd?
To assemble a taquiza, put out a couple bowls of braised meats, a pot of beans, some pickled onions, a bowl of chopped cilantro, some guacamole, and of course a few different salsas. Come to think of it, the Williams-Sonoma Tacolicious line is a taquiza waiting to happen. Oh, a pitcher of seasonally-inspired agua frescas for the kids and margaritas for the adults. You can’t forget the drinks.
What’s the vibe you’re trying to achieve? Any tips for getting people involved and making them feel at home?
One of the things we love the most about Mexico is the fact that the food is generally very humble and accessible. This isn’t surprising, considering it completely reflects some many of the people we’ve been lucky to meet when traveling in Mexico. Good Mexican food should make for a casual and fun affair.
A myth that we like to dispel is that Mexican food is inherently really spicy. The truth is that only parts of Mexico like it really hot (the habanero-loving Yucatan being one of them). And even then, it’s usually just the salsas, which are served on the side, that are spicy. Mexican food itself is inherently approachably medium to mild.
The other thing that we like to remind people about is how healthy Mexican food generally is. It’s full of beans, meats, corn tortillas (gluten-free!), vegetables — dark greens, squash (winter and summer), tomatoes, nopales — and much more. The Mexicans also love freshly pressed fruit juices. I’d say that could have started the juice craze.
Any make-ahead tips?
While a lot of people think of Mexican food as food that’s grilled or cooked on the plancha a la minute (in that minute), like carne asada, much of Mexican food is braised. Which means it’s forgiving food that you can cook ahead of time. Guisados, as they’re called in Mexico, can be made ahead and they also freeze really well. Of course beans fall into the make-ahead category. They freeze well too. Tortillas are one of the few things that are truly best purchased fresh the day of the party. Good ones without preservatives in them have a short shelf life.
What about sides, appetizers — any recommendations?
Guacamole. The easiest and healthiest side ever! Pickled onions can be set out on a table to top pretty much anything with, from soups to tacos to grilled meats and fish. Also, pickled jalapenos and carrots (we have a recipe for this in our book).
Any suggestions for serving condiments or add-ons, like fresh peppers, limes or hot sauces?
Limes are such an integral part of Mexican cuisine it’s hard to imagine serving Mexican food without them. We also can’t live without our Tapatio. This kind of hot sauce plays a different role than a salsa. Just a few shakes into a soup enlivens it. We also love it on fried eggs and much more. Chopped white onions and chopped cilantro are the ubiquitous topping for everything too.
What about other creative serving ideas — platters, presentations, etc.?
One of Joe’s more genius ideas (this is his wife giving him credit for this) was the idea to serve up a platter of assembled tacos rather than just a taco per person. This makes a great party platter but it also creates a sense of sharing. At the restaurant we use long rectangular white platters for this.
Yes, margaritas are a classic. You cannot go without. However, variations on the tequila, agave, lime-based cocktail abound. We make a great cocktail called the Flor de Jamaica, using hibiscus tea. Another one made with watermelon juice has a little cilantro muddled into it first. Try using different types of salt to rim your glasses too. We make one with a chile-salt and another one with coconut-salt. Finally, the Paloma might be our favorite classic Mexican cocktail, right next to the margarita. We make ours with a little St. Germaine elderflower liqueur and garnish it with a wheel of grapefruit. It gives the very traditional drink a little elegant twist.
How do you serve cocktails to a crowd? Any other fun/creative ideas for cocktails?
Pitchers! Pitcher drinks are everything for a crowd. Just don’t let your ice dilute it too much. Chill your cocktail mix first, place it out with a bucket of ice for everyone to serve themselves with, and for an added bonus, pre-rim any cocktail classes with salt (if you’re into that). Also high-quality, denser ice will last longer and not water down drinks, so if you can find it it makes a nice addition.
What about the table — any tips for setting it to be fun and festive?
Yes, you can go the expected route of crazy colorful oil cloth-lined tables, but we think Mexican food deserves more than the overused stereotypes of sugar skulls and Mexican wrestling masks. Make it urban, cool, and colorful. At our house we love midcentury vintage serving ware that’s kind of mixed and matched with practical modern plates and bowls. Succulents, though endlessly popular, can be given a little update when they’re clipped to mix into low-slung fresh flower arrangements. Votive candles and party lights. You can never have enough.
Joe is a huge music fan and he’s in charge of the Tacolicious restaurant playlist. His rule of thumb is to always try to mix the music up enough so that everyone dining has a moment where they want to break out in song whether it’s because they’re a fan of Devo or Jay Z or the Decemberists or Die Antwoord. So our party playlists, like our own musical taste, tend to be very eclectic. Only advice: Look for songs with a good, strong beat, and don’t try to out-cool people when you’re putting together a playlist for a group. People need to hear songs they recognize here and there.
What makes a great party?
A great mix of interesting people, good music, good food (surprisingly this isn’t the most important thing), and a good flow (i.e no long breaks between food or drinks, and no awkward arrangement of furniture, etc). It has to seem effortless so that no one notices anything other than the overall good time. It needs to have great synergy more than it needs perfection in any one category. The host also has to be having fun, so being prepared is key. If you’re freaking out over the food, it sets the tone. Also, fancy is overrated. Really.