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Is a Taco a Sandwich or a Spoon: Breaking Down the Mexican Tortilla

May 14, 2021 5 min read

Is a Taco a Sandwich

No matter how you fill a taco, this carb-filled Mexican standard is delicious; but should we call it a taco "sandwich?" We're breaking down the taco definition and what constitutes a sandwich to determine what a taco really is. 

Humans love to categorize everything - this natural instinct helps us feel a little safer by better understanding the world around us. 

Unsurprisingly, one of our favorite things to deconstruct in both our minds and our mouths is food. With the spread of the Internet, once far-away and foreign cuisines are commonly found in most countries globally. 

One of the world's favorite foods, the taco, hails from Mexico. And while we stuff tacos with all sorts of fixings, the outer shell is a corn or wheat-based flatbread. We've teasingly referred to it as a Mexican sandwich, but what is a taco - a sandwich, a spoon to scoop ingredients, or something else altogether?

We're getting to the bottom of the most popular takes on a true sandwich definition to determine whether tacos are considered a sandwich or not. 

What is a taco?

Before we begin trying to categorize these tasty wraps correctly, we first need to break down their ingredients. A taco consists of a fried corn or wheat tortilla wrapped around all sorts of ingredients (also called taco toppings), from stewed meat and beans to fresh lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, onions, and more. Generally, tacos contain a mix of spicy chile flavors and light, refreshing lime and cilantro. 

The original use for tortillas

Tacos are one of the most popular antojitos, meaning "little cravings," which refers to all sorts of Mexican street fare. The base of the taco has its start in the pre-Hispanic period, before AD 250. Back then, people weren't rolling up tacos - instead, they used corn tortillas as a scoop to eat all sorts of stewed delights, much like we use naan to eat curries in Middle Eastern cultures. 

Over time, people began placing their food right on the tortilla itself. In Mexico's rural areas, wives brought their husbands meals wrapped in a tortilla for a lunch of convenience. 

So, when did the modern taco develop?

As anything, the history of tacos is complex. Historians can't pinpoint an exact origin of modern tacos, but they believe tacos developed somewhere in the 19th-century silver mines.

The original name "tacos de minero" translates to "miner's tacos," named after gunpowder wrapped in paper that helped break into rock. The edible tacos resembled the wrappings on these explosives, and so, the taco was born. 

What is a sandwich?

Simply put, a sandwich contains two pieces of bread with several toppings placed between them like meat, cheese, and veggies. 

The sandwich has a much later discovery than the tortilla, with most chalking up the discovery to a lazy cardshark who didn't want to leave his game to eat and needed foods of convenience. The 4th Earl of Sandwich brought sandwiches into the mainstream around the mid-1700s, where they've remained a dietary mainstay ever since. 

Though it's the most officially recognized sandwich discovery account, people made sandwiches long before this - the Earl of Sandwich spent some time in the Mediterranean, where he undoubtedly took inspiration from the Greek and Turkish people that layered meat and cheese on fresh bread, charcuterie-style. 

Which came first: taco or sandwich?

Some people don't like to categorize a taco as a sandwich because, technically, these little tortillas came long before Western European colonialism. And we can't disagree there - we haven't seen anyone trying to claim a sandwich as an "American taco," despite tacos dating back to ancient Aztec cultures, which most definitely came first. 

The numbers debate: 1 or 2 pieces of bread?

What qualifies as a sandwich?

If we took the dictionary definition of a sandwich consisting of exactly two pieces of bread literally, then it's clear that the single tortilla in a taco makes it different. 

That said, there's some murky grey area in this food theory - most people agree that a submarine sandwich is, in fact, an authentic sandwich, but it only contains one roll of bread that's not fully sliced through. 

If a sub is a sandwich, it's not crazy to think that a taco or even a hotdog would be one, too.

Let's look a little deeper to see what people say about hot dogs - maybe here, we can find a straight answer. 

Under the eyes of the New York and California law, a hot dog is a sandwich. Legally, the lines are drawn, yet the experts on the subject at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council state that a hot dog is not just a sandwich and deserves its own food category. 

No one seems to have a solid answer about whether foods stuffed into singular pieces of bread are sandwiches or not. 

The Cube Rule of food 

Clearly, we're all a little undecided about how to categorize the foods we eat. A young man on Twitter created this system that makes the categorizations a little easier. 

The Cube Rule dictates which category a food fits into based on the location of its starches. There are seven possible food types total with this rule. No exceptions. It's a harsh system, but it works. 

Cube Rules: The 7 types of food

  • Salad: Contains no starch.
  • Toast: Ingredients sit on top of 1 starch.
  • Sandwich: Ingredients sit between 2 starches, typically parallel to each other.
  • Taco: Ingredients sit between starches on the bottom and 2 sides.
  • Sushi: Ingredients are wrapped in starch on 4 sides, with open ends.
  • Quiche: Ingredients sit inside starch on 5 sides, with one open end. 
  • Calzone: Ingredients are wholly encased in starches on all sides. 

Starch on the bottom is toast, so pizza is toast, along with the open-faced pie. Quesadillas are sandwiches, along with layered cakes with no covering. 

Tacos fit easily into the "taco" category, but so do subs and hot dogs. According to the Cube Rule, a hot dog is a taco - we told you, the rules are harsh!

If you follow the Cube Rule theory, a taco is absolutely not a sandwich. 

Final notes: Is a taco a sandwich?

It's clear that the answer to whether a taco is a sandwich or not lies in your perspective and that neither solution is wrong. Who cares what everyone else thinks anyway?

If you think a sub is a sandwich, you may very well believe a taco is a sandwich too - and that's okay!

If you base your decision on which came first, a taco isn't a sandwich, as it existed long before sandwiches ever did. 

You may like the Cube Rule because it's so definitive, but it's also a little challenging to wrap one's head around, sometimes. 

Whether you're for or against putting tacos in the same category as sandwiches, one thing is for sure - they're delicious! Wrap your favorite taco, or sandwich, or taco sandwich in a taco holder, and enjoy your tasty meal!

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