How to Throw a Casual Mexican Taco Party Like a Chef

Hand-Drawn Menu from Hugh Acheson
Whether you're celebrating Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo, or just a low-key Friday night with friends, a build-your-own-taco buffet and a few colorful decorations make for a fun Mexican-theme party. "Top Chef" judge and frequent party host Hugh Acheson shows you how.

Mexican Party Ideas

When well-known chef Hugh Acheson entertains at home, he likes to keep things simple and fun. The award-winning chef and cookbook author and Top Chef judge mixes a batch of tasty drinks and sets a casual buffet to make his guests feel welcome and relaxed.

The ingredients for a fun and simple Mexican fiesta include:

• A ready-to-pour pitcher of refreshing cocktails.

• A serve-yourself buffet piled with recipes you can mostly make ahead. At the buffet, guests assemble their tacos with whatever combination of toppings suits their moods. Colorful pottery dishes add to the party atmosphere (rwoodstudio.com).

• Vibrant decorations such as paper pom-poms (make them yourself or buy them in a wide range of colors at amazon.com), bright linens, and richly hued flowers in colorful pottery vases (try an interesting pairing like spray roses with two-tone geranium leaves from the garden).

Serve-Yourself Mexican Party Buffet

At Acheson's restaurants, perfectly plated dishes are part of the experience. But at home, he prefers a casual, family-style buffet. "It's easy to pull together, and kids are more apt to try new things if there's no pressure," he says. "They can browse and pick what interests them." His unexpected decorating trick is to drape the island with vibrant tablecloths before setting out the buffet.

Muffin Tin Centerpiece

A vintage muffin tin and a collection of jelly jars are the building blocks of this easy centerpiece. The jars, filled with colorful votive candles and a mix of dahlias, garden roses, and black pincushion flowers, are both casual and festive.

Napkin Pocket Project

These paper utensil pockets are super simple and make a casual gathering feel special. To make the pockets:

• Select a letter-size piece of decorative paper, or print our custom design inspired by the tile in Acheson's kitchen.

• Fold the paper in half to make an 8-1/2x5-1/2-inch rectangle. Press in the sides so they just overlap, and secure with regular tape or colorful Japanese washi tape. 

• Repeat to make as many napkin pockets as you need.

Dyed Linen Napkins

Vintage linens take on a modern, festive look when overdyed in saturated colors.

To achieve these rich, super-saturated colors, use fiber-reactive procion dye on plant-based fabrics such as cotton, linen, rayon, etc. We found a huge selection of colors, plus helpful hints and instructions at Dharma Trading Co. (dharmatrading.com).

Basic How-To:

• Prewash the fabric.

• Create a paste with the powdered dye and a small amount of warm water, then add more warm water. When the dye is dissolved, add to a tub of water and stir in completely. The amount of water and dye you need depends on the amount of fabric, the chosen color family, and how deep you want the final color to be.

• Add the called-for amount of noniodized salt to the dye tub and mix. (Some instructions call for adding optional calsolene oil. We did not use calsolene oil for the linens shown.)

• Add the fabric (either wet or dry), and stir frequently for 20 minutes.

• Dissolve the called-for amount of soda ash in warm water and very slowly add to the dye bath while stirring, avoiding pouring it directly on the fabric. Stir frequently for the recommended time (about 30 minutes for lighter colors and one hour for darker colors).

• Rinse the fabric with cool water until the water runs almost clear. Finally, machine-wash on high-heat setting with detergent to remove the rest of the dye. (You may have to repeat this last step with some darker colors.)

El Perro Salty Cocktail

Margaritas aren't the only option for a great Mexican party cocktail. This tasty salty dog-mojito hybrid can be mixed one at a time or in a large batch for a crowd. Made with Mexican grapefruit soda, Acheson wittily dubbed the drink "El Perro Salty."

Taco Buffet Spread

Serve tacos with a variety of condiments so guests can build their own flavors. Here, the pork, warmed tortillas, and bowls with the fixings are all arranged on a large wooden cutting board for easy access.

Acheson's advice for beating the stress of entertaining? "Prep your meal well and you'll be much more relaxed," he says.

Read on for all the recipes.

Pulled Pork Taco Recipe

These Roasted Pork Tacos feature tangy-savory flavors, such as achiote paste (available at Mexican grocery stores), lime juice, garlic, and cider vinegar.

Refried Black-Eyed Peas

This fresh twist on refried beans calls for black-eyed peas, bacon, and queso blanco.

Radish and Cucumber Salad

Julienned radish tops are the surprise ingredient in this Radish and Cucumber Salad.

Roasted Pumpkin Guacamole

Put a fall spin on guacamole with sugar pumpkin and crunchy roasted pumpkin seeds. If you can't find sugar pumpkins (also called pie pumpkins), you can use butternut squash instead.

Almond Tres Leches Cake with Strawberry-Mango Salsa

It wouldn't be a party without a showstopping dessert. This new take on classic tres leches cake is topped with a sweet strawberry-mango salsa. Make it ahead of time so the flavors have time to develop.

Stuffing a Pinata

Hosting a family-friendly fiesta isn't just about the food. Activities such as pinatas keep the kids happy between nibbles. Acheson and his daughters stuff their pinatas with little toys, Mexican candies, and a few special treats from a local chocolate maker.

Hand-Drawn Menu as Decoration

Acheson often does quick sketches of food ideas and recipes. Here, they're part of the decor -- he and his daughters sketched this party's offerings and taped them to the pantry door as a fun visual menu. Acheson's James Beard award-winning cookbook, A New Turn in the South, is sprinkled with his handwritten notes and sketches.

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