A Beginner’s Guide to Authentic Mexican Tacos

I have wanted to write about the incredible, diverse and delicious world of authentic Mexican tacos for awhile, but it took me some time to gather enough information. A couple of weeks ago Mike and I spent a delightful morning walking around Puerto Vallarta with Yah Yah from Vallarta Eats, who helped me fill in a lot of the gaps in my research (you can read more about my experiences with them here). Which means I am finally ready to present to you this beginner guide to Mexican tacos and the culture that surrounds them.

Tacos in Mexico

Forget what you think you know about tacos, particularly if that knowledge comes mainly from assorted American-style Mexican restaurants, or even (god forbid), Taco Bell.

For starters, as I mentioned in my post about Mexican food surprises, tacos are almost always served in soft corn tortillas. Occasionally you can find wheat flour tortillas, but those rock hard crispy yellow shells? They do not exist here. Ever.

Secondly, I have yet to see ground beef served in an authentic Mexican taco. I’m not saying it never happens, but it is definitely not the standard filling. In fact, there is no standard filling. Nearly anything can be cupped inside of a tortilla and called a taco it seems.

Tacos are ubiquitous in Mexico. You can sometimes find them at sit-down restaurants but the best tacos are usually served out on the street. Families can own the same street stand literally for decades and most stands specialize in just one or two types of tacos. We’re talking whole generations of a family dedicated solely to grilling shrimp or stewing beef.

So yeah, people take their tacos seriously.

Tortillas

Tortilla press

Good tortillas are essential to delicious authentic Mexican tacos. Most taco vendors either make their own tortillas by hand (the best) or buy them fresh each day from a local tortilleria. Either way, the tortillas have a shelf-life of only a couple of days and are best eaten fresh and warm. There is little that is less-appetizing than a dry, crumbly, room temperature tortilla.

7 Popular Types of Authentic Mexican Tacos

There are so many types of tacos it would be impossible to catalog all of them. Nearly anything can be, and somewhere probably is, folded inside a tortilla and called a taco. I’ve seen everything from carrot to cactus to cow udder tacos just in this one region of Mexico. In Oaxaca, I hear fried grasshoppers are a popular filling.

Tacos al Pastor

One of the most delicious taco fillings, which sadly is rarely ever seen outside of Mexico, is pork al pastor. Marinated pork is slow cooked rotisserie style, similar to shawarma or Turkish doner kebab meat. Not surprisingly this dish was first brought to Central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.

Bits of meat are sliced off with a knife and served with onions, cilantro, and slices of pineapple, which give the tacos a meaty, yet tangy flavor.

Seafood Tacos

Fish tacos are particularly popular on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The fish, usually some sort of white fish, although marlin is very popular here, is breaded and fried, then served with a shredded lettuce salad on top. In our area, they are usually served with a spicy chipotle mayonnaise sauce.

Shrimp tacos are often prepared the same way although you can also find grilled, non-battered shrimp tacos too.

Birria Tacos

Birria is a slow cooked meaty stew, made with goat, lamb or cow and roasted peppers. In many parts of the country it is eaten as a soup, but on the west coast, it is popular as a taco filling, particularly around breakfast time (it’s said to be a great hangover cure).

Carnitas Tacos

Carnitas are literally one of the tastiest styles of meat out there. Giant sections of pig are first braised and then fried to create crispy, fall-apart shredded pork. I would not be surprised if this is the origin of southern style pulled pork. When ordering you can specify if you would like a particular part of the pig (loin, cheek, even eyeballs) or just ask for carnitas mixtas. This is the tastiest option even if it means maybe you might eat a little bit of eyeball (you won’t notice, I promise).

Other ways of preparing pork for tacos include cochinta pibil, slow roasting pork with achiote. Then there is the omnipresent chorizo, which can vary greatly in quality, but when done right is oh so zesty and good.

Cheese Tacos

Unlike in the US, most tacos are never topped with cheese, and definitely never the shredded kind. Certain tacos are all about cheese though. My favorite are tacos made with grilled or fried panela cheese- a kind of rubbery, salty cheese that holds it’s shape instead of melting.

On our Vallarta Eats tour, we also tried a taco made with requeson, a mild, milky cheese that is nearly identical to ricotta. The taco was then topped with cotija, which is a salty crumbled cheese. It was probably my favorite dish of the whole weekend.

Carne Asada Tacos

Carne Asada is grilled meat, usually skirt or flank steak, although it’s not uncommon to see tacos de cabeza sold alongside them (head tacos: think cheeks, tongue, brain, even eyeball tacos). In this part of Mexico, the meat is seared on a metal plate. Usually, the meat is chopped up into small pieces before being served.

Vegetarian Tacos

Although most tacos involve a meat base, there are plenty of vegetarian tacos to satisfy anyone who needs a little more fiber in their lives. Roasted veggies (think peppers, carrots, zucchini) is one popular incarnation. Also notable: Chile relleno tacos (stuffed poblanos or jalapenos), rajas (poblanos in cream), potato, squash and even hard boiled egg tacos.

Tostadas, Gringas and other Taco Variants

ย You will often see a few other varieties of tortilla and filling sold alongside these authentic Mexican tacos. Tostadas are fried tortillas topped with just about anything (ceviche tostadas are popular around here). Gringas are wheat tortilla tacos with cheese and filling, usually meat al pastor. Quesadillas are tortillas folded over, filled with melted cheese and sometimes a filling.

The Toppings and Sauces

The beauty of authentic Mexican tacos is that they are epically customizable. Even the smallest taco stand will have at least half a dozen options for you to round out your taco.

Lime is probably the most essential of all taco toppings and is always served and used. A quick squeeze adds a dash of acid that brings out the flavors of the taco beautifully.

The most basic taco toppings that often come standard are raw onions and cilantro. From there typical topping offerings may include sauteed onions, pico de gallo, cucumber slice, radish slices, avocado or chili peppers.

Then there are the salsas, enough to warrant their own follow-up blog post. Spiciness in Mexico is a choice, and most taco stands have two or more different homemade salsas to spice up your meal.

ย How to Eat a Taco

For something that should be self-explanatory, those little buggers can be quite tricky to get into your mouth! To successfully eat a taco without creating a big mess, follow these steps:

  1. Don’t overstuff your taco, tempting as it may be.
  2. Lift your taco from the top center, not the bottom or an end.
  3. Once you’ve picked up your taco, don’t put it down again, unless you want all the juicy innards to spill everywhere!

Good luck and happy taco eating!

Learn More About Travel to Mexico Here!

 

 

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A Beginner's Guide to Authentic Mexican Tacos

40 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Authentic Mexican Tacos”

  1. I’m actually glad you wrote this because, being a Brit, tacos aren’t something I’ve come across before on a regular basis. The birria and carnitas tacos would be my favourites for sure, although they all sound pretty damn good. My stomach is growling now, even though I’ve just finished dinner. Gah.

    1. For the first month here in Mx the tacos tasted ok.nowhere near as Good as in the taco joints back in the States.that must have to do with the quality of the ingredientes.after five months they all have the same greasy taste.the meats are disgusting.seafood is Good.The best meat i have eaten was iguana in Oaxca.cant speak for all of Mx but tacos in Veracruz state suck

  2. Just reading this post has my stomach growling and me craving a good taco which is impossible to find here in Europe. I love me some carnitas too; so so yummy! I guess I’m forced to make some myself for Taco Tuesday tomorrow ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I feel like you could have easily called this ‘A Beginner Guide to All That is Beautiful and Delicious’ instead. Your mouth-watering photos are making me crave some Mexican food!

  4. mmm I ate lots of these same tacos in sayulita! I miss Mexican food so much, as it’s the ONE type that Indians just cannot cook.. they know it’s suppose to be spicy and can’t help but add Indian spices.. But, I was surprised when a Mexican friend told me I was eating my taco wrong and taught me to eat it holding it in the middle! He was right ๐Ÿ™‚ But growing up with American Mexican food… I am partial to flour tortillas, sour cream, and shredded cheese toppings they don’t traditional use in Mexico.

  5. Amazing! I’m going to print this off and bring it with me when I visit Mexico later this year! Thanks for putting this together – Can’t wait to stuff myself with tacos after tacos!

  6. Loved the article. I have been on a juice cleanse for a week and this made me crave tacos. So true about the cheese, here in the US, cheese is the solution for everything.

    Well done! Easy and fun read.

  7. This all sounds divine! I’m looking forward to the salsa post, I like them as hot and spicy as possible and I imagine there’s a few that would float my boat.

  8. OMG LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS!!! People just don’t know… they just really don’t. I love your 3 rules… those are rules to live by. Oh man I can’t wait to be in Mexico come July. Even though I have Mexican food all the time thanks to my mom. Oh & the flour tortilla is normally a northern Mexico thing and it’s something I was angry I didn’t find many in the South while I was down there 2 years ago.

    Have you had a pirata? They are huge flour tortillas stuffed, with your choice of meat, cheese and tons of avocado. Oh man they are so damn good! Kinda like a quesadilla I guess, but not.

  9. Love this post! It makes me sad when people think of tacos as the hard yellow shells and bland ground beef you get at Taco Bell when clearly there’s so much more to them. Hopefully this will inspire people to try more tacos ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. These tacos look seriously amazing, especially the cheese version. Traveling with a gluten-free perspective, I’m really happy to hear that corn tortillas are so common (and flour tortillas almost nonexistent). Mexico is quickly moving to the top of my travel list! Please keep the food posts coming!

  11. Yum! I love Mexican food and tacos are among my favourite meals. I really need to get to Mexico soon. Especially for a birria taco. Thank for sharing your tips Steph!

  12. Have you ever tried the tacos at Oyamel in DC? I’m wondering how they compare to the real thing, aside from being considerably more expensive. They have grasshopper tacos on the menu so I figured it was pretty legit.

  13. Ah this looks (and sounds) delicious!! I’ve only been to Mexico a few times, and mostly to Cabo, so I am really itching to go somewhere a little less resort-y. I kind of lucked out in that there are (from what others say) very authentic tacos where I live in Santa Barbara, places that make their own tortillas and serve lengua and ojo (eek). My boyfriend and I have attempted to try a bunch of the taquerias (http://thephilomathist.blogspot.com/2014/01/taco-trail.html) and it’s been a fun food adventure! I like adobado the best usually. Hoping I can make it to Mexico soon to try them there!

  14. Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum! My mouth us literally watering and it’s only breakfast time! I could eat tacos every day of my life ๐Ÿ™‚
    I make pulled pork soft tacos with a pineapple salsa every week, it’s great to learn that it’s actually authentic!
    I hope you do more Mexican food posts soon ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Nice post! Love me some tacos and you are right about forgetting what you think you know about them. Not sure where the recipe got so messed up cause real tacos are amazing. There has been a trend of real taquerias popping up in Canada so am thankful for that!

    Shaun

  16. OMG this post made me pretty hungry. I think I know what I’m ordering for dinner…. carnitas!! Luckily enough the neighborhood I live in has a huge Mexican population so there are plenty of trucks and little restaurants selling all these delicious options for $2 ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. So happy to hear that the hard shell doesn’t exist in Mexico! I’ve always hated those. Looking at all your photos…oh how I can’t wait to get back to North America for some proper Mexican food ๐Ÿ˜€

  18. Being a Mexican-American born and raised in Los Angeles, I feel really bad for what much of the world has to deal with in the name of Mexican Food. 3 years ago I actually treated myself by purchasing my very own taco cart to use for bbq’s and family gatherings… But before you knock the Taco Dorado (hard-shell taco), you should know a little bit of the history behind it. True Taco Dorados are common in Northern Mexico, but not as we’ve come to know then in America.

    The taco as Americans know was created at Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, CA back in the late 1930’s. Mitla opened just a couple miles away from where the McDonald Bros opened their hamburger restaurant. Mitla Cafe is still open today and just celebrated their 76th Anniversary. During the Depression 30’s, meat was somewhat of a luxury and many restaurants had to make do with what they could get. With ground beef and potatoes more easily available, and selling to a predominately Anglo customer base, Mitla Cafe altered their taco style a bit to fit the population. Made to order, they would deep fry each of their tacos with a flattened solid ground beef/potato mold (for filler) on the inside, and add the plentiful local produce of tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese.

    The locals loved the Mitla Tacos, and one person in particular came almost every day… His name was Glenn Bell and he owned a small hamburger stand across the street. Wanting to add the tacos to his restaurant, he came and ate at Mitla almost daily to try and figure out how to make them. One day he finally he asked the owner who proudly took him into the kitchen and showed him how to make their tacos. A few years later, Glenn opened his first Taco Bell and in name of profits and speed, he bastardized the beautiful Mitla taco and spread his frankenstein version all over America, leaving Americans to believe that this is what tacos really are.

    As a long time friend of the family, when I’m in San Bernardino I still drop in to Mitla Cafe to have one of their tacos, as they are still made the same way 77 years later and still owned by the same family. Early Anglo Californians weren’t quite ready or receptive to the depth of flavors that was traditional Mexican cooking, so much of it had to be altered (watered down) to fit the market. Mitla Cafe helped pioneer what we know as Cal-Mex cuisine (for good and bad) and are one of the only originals still around today.

    Keep up the great work and if anyone is interested in some of the history of how Mexican food has taken over the US, check out Gustavo Arellano’s book, Taco Nation USA….

  19. We love tacos and we used to make those every week back in Wisconsin. Sad we can’t do that as often now but what’s great about it is we try to check out local tacos every now and then! Thanks for the guide post girl!

  20. DROOL.

    Being introduced to Mexican food in the US has totally bumped Mexico up onto my bucket list.

    I must say tacos are probably my least favourite STYLE of Mexican dish (just due to the messiness factor, ha).

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