Welcome to Recipe Off-Roading, where the recipe isn’t in charge—you are. In this series of articles, we’re celebrating how cooks take liberties in the kitchen, whether that’s substituting an ingredient, adapting a technique, or doubling the salt (because you’re wild like that). So buckle up and let’s go for a ride.
It’s easy to assume that cookbook authors make elaborate dinners every night, followed by even more elaborate desserts. But the reality is: Cookbook authors, they’re just like us. Which is to say, sometimes they follow recipes. But most of the time, they riff on easy templates that they know will always turn out well.
I reached out to James Beard Award–winner Andrea Nguyen—author of The Pho Cookbook and, most recently, Vietnamese Food Every Day—to ask her just that: What do you cook when you aren’t recipe developing? What not-recipe do you come back to again and again and again?
In true cookbook-author fashion, Andrea’s current obsession was something she stumbled upon one day while getting lunch.
“I've been make frico-like tacos—an idea I picked up from Tucson when I was there in March for a book festival,” she wrote me. “It's simple and nifty, something I observed from a food truck that was low enough for me to watch the cooking through the ordering window.”
The food truck was Sazon El Cebo-Yon, located at 6th and Congress, in Tucson. And the online reviews speak for themselves: “This food truck is legit,” says one. “Bomb!!!!” says another.
The trick Andrea learned there is one she’s been applying to at-home meals ever since: Add a big spoonful—figure 1 to 2 tablespoons—of shredded cheese to a hot skillet. (Andrea loves the Trader Joe's Quattro Formaggio shredded cheese blend and uses a nonstick or carbon steel skillet.) After you add the cheese, plop a corn tortilla on top.
“The cheese melts, turns crisp and slightly golden, and adheres to the tortilla, which naturally softens to refresh.” Yes, please, and thank you.
After flipping the tortilla, Andrea fills it with things like: refried beans (“black or a Rancho Gordo heirloom that I've cooked up for the week”), sautéed greens (“kale and or chard, which I get for a deal at the farmers' market and then cook off to use during the week”), and thinly sliced leftover meat (“such as Viet lemongrass pork, char siu chicken, grilled or roasted veggies, roast chicken, steak”).
After half a minute or so, Andrea folds the taco shut, then serves it with everything from shredded cabbage and hot sauce to sliced avocado and salsa fresca.
At her house, they're known as "cheesy tacos," she told me. “It’s been a regular quick lunch for me and my husband for months.”
I have a feeling it’s going to be a regular for everyone reading this, too.
Here are a few recipes that would turn A+ leftovers into A++ cheesy tacos: