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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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:
- Don’t overstuff your taco, tempting as it may be.
- Lift your taco from the top center, not the bottom or an end.
- 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!