In honor of last Saturday's Cinco de Mayo festivities, I've decided to find out what really is the difference between all these Mexican dishes. Analyze any menu from Cancun's on 8th Avenue (really great place, FYI) to a chain restaurant like On the Border's and you'll see a number of similar dishes. I've isolated five of these dishes to find their history and see if what we know as a taco is really a taco.
A burrito, which oddly enough means "little donkey," is also known as taco de harina. Roughly translated, taco de harina means "flour taco". In Mexico, this dish is prepared by wrapping meat or refried beans in a wheat flour tortilla, creating a cylindrical treat.
A chimichanga is a wheat flour burrito, filled with rice, refried beans, or various meats that is wrapped into a rectangular package and then deep-fried.
The world enchilada is the Spanish past participle for the verb enchilar, which means "to add chile sauce to." Thusly, an enchilada is a corn tortilla wrapped around a filling such as rice, beans, or meat and covered in either a tomato or chile sauce.
Fajita refers to the cut of meat this dish was originally made with: skirt steak. Fajitas are grilled meats (such as beef or chicken) that are served in either corn or flour tortillas and folded in half like a taco.
The word taco literally means "plug" or "block". The word's definition is bent to mean "light lunch" or "to fill". Tacos predate the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, Aztecs were observed by the Spanish to be selling tortillas filled with meat as a sort of "to go" meal. Pre-Columbian Mexico: the original Taco Bell. Simply put, tacos are spiced meats in a corn tortilla, which is then folded in half. Note: hard shell tacos are an American invention.
It should be observed that the ingredients to these dishes are all similar and merely the techniques employed and presentation are different. Also, notice that the original dishes don't include all the cheeses and vegetables that we use in America.
I hope now you can order with confidence when you head to Cancun -- the restaurant or the city.