How To Make A Modern Taco Salad

Bringing the taco salad back, fried tortilla bowl and all

This month, Tasting Table celebrates all things salad. Keep your cool with us.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I found solace and sustenance at the Mexican kiosk in the food court at the Bridgewater Commons mall.

I'd take the escalator up to the third floor after buying a double-breasted Kelly Taylor-inspired blazer at The Limited or perusing the pleated khakis at Banana Republic. This was where I would eat my feelings, forgetting for a minute about how I was deluding myself into thinking that having the right clothes would make me feel cool when I was never one of the cool kids.

I always ordered the same thing: the taco salad. It was, to put it politely, a monstrosity: a volleyball-size, fried-until-bubbly tortilla shell filled with shredded lettuce, tomato, neon yellow cheddar cheese, olives, salsa and sour cream. I'd pull my hair back with a scrunchie and tear into it with abandon. By the time I'd worked my way down to the ground beef and layer of refried beans on the bottom, the "bowl" would have softened into wet cardboard. But I still ripped through it and crunched pieces of the outer shell until it disappeared.

In these days of mâche and fennel fronds, it's easy to scoff at the taco salads of yore. But when we were talking about updating classic salads this month, I insisted that our food editor, Andy Baraghani, put a spin on my teenage dream—complete with that fried tortilla bowl (see the recipe).

Our recipe is more refined for sure: It's actually a manageable size for one person, nestled into a puffy flour tortilla (which probably technically puts it in tostada territory). It's filled with a slaw made with sautéed black beans, paper-thin radishes, red cabbage and charred tomatoes. That's joined by some avocado slices, thinly sliced jalapeños and Cotija cheese.

Gone is the spice packet-seasoned ground beef: Andy rubs skirt steak with paprika, cumin, and onion and garlic powders; grills it; slices it thin, fanning it out over the salad; then tops the whole thing with a little sambal-spiked crema. It's a brighter, lighter combination than the gloppy salad I ate back in the day. Like me, it's grown up, a better version of what it was all those years ago.

Plus, I no longer have to worry about getting a piece of tomato stuck in my clear braces. And that's a damn good feeling.