To answer this question we need to back up a bit. You may recall from a previous article that there is a difficult discussion to be had on whether or not a quesadilla needs cheese to be a quesadilla. The arguments over the cheese question range from linguistic to ideological to historical*. The fact that Mexico City quesadillas do not automatically come with cheese could lead one to ask what, exactly, is the difference between a taco and a quesadilla. I mean, they are both folded tortillas stuffed with the ingredients of your choice, so…?
The conclusion that we’ve settled on is that the limits between a taco and quesadilla are not, in fact, clear. The boundaries are blurred among the shapes, ingredients, and the cooking style of the chef at your favorite puesto. Therefore, no one would be wrong to question them. But while the short answer to the original question about quesadillas and cheese may be based on location, there is indeed a consensus on what makes a taco a taco and a quesadilla a quesadilla.
How are a taco and a quesadilla alike?
Let’s establish the similarities first. Both the taco and the quesadilla have two elements in common – the tortilla and the filling (which can be anything, really, so long as it tastes good inside a tortilla), and both are served hot. With me so far? Okay, so what sets them apart?
What is the difference between a taco and a quesadilla?
The difference does not lie so much in the cheese distinction (there are tacos with cheese and quesadillas without cheese), nor in the shape (some, like chicken taquitos, are rolled) or whether or not they have vegetables (because there are plenty of vegetarian taco options). It is on the comal (or in the oil) where the transformation happens and where the quesadilla becomes a quesadilla and the taco becomes a taco.
Does the quesadilla, then, necessarily have cheese in it?
The big difference lies in the way they are prepared. The quesadilla is made on the comal (griddle), or in plenty of oil if they are doradas (meaning fried) with the filling already inside the tortilla, hence being cooked simultaneously. In the case of tacos, the two ingredients (tortilla and filling) are cooked and heated separately; that is, the hot tortilla has a hot filling added to it. (Those who would argue that tortilla and the filling in tacos de canasta are cooked at the same time would be wrong because they are still prepared according to the taco method. The plastic-lined basket merely serves to keep them steaming hot, not as a cooking method).
Now that we know that a quesadilla = tortilla and filling cooked together simultaneously on the comal or fried in oil (with or without cheese) while a taco = tortilla heated separately from a filling which is added after (and sure, it can also have cheese), how do you choose between a taco and a quesadilla? That’s a silly question. Just order both!
*In Mexico, according to Francisco Javier Santa María’s Dictionary of Mexicanisms, quesadillas have been made since the 18th century and consist of a “corn bread stuffed with cheese and sugar, cooked on a griddle or fried in lard; a small pastry in a semilunar shape, mainly made of cheese.” Hence they are called quesadillas and initially they were strictly cheese, but the passage of time has expanded not only the dish, but also the definition.