Sunday, September 25th 2022
An Expats Guide to Street Tacos in Mexico
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Tacos have been a passion of mine for decades. Growing up in Mexico City, my friends would take me to tacos stands throughout a night of social engagements; and as the night would pass, we would find ourselves eating progressively cheaper and stranger tacos with incrementally spicier salsas to cover up exponentially lower quality meats, until we were basically eating pigeons and rats at dawn. I am also a Mexican cook who is enthralled by Mexican cuisine—especially Mexican street tacos. Therefore—though this is perhaps the most challenging endeavor I have ever attempted—I have decided to write an Expats Guide to Street Tacos in Mexico.
I must preface before we begin, there are no absolutes in the world of tacos. Often one type of meat is fried at one stand, while another stand braises the same meat across the street with radically different results. Salsas are as varied as personalities. I collect traditional salsa recipes from Mexico as well as the American Southwest, and I can say with some modicum of certainty that the salsa is as important to the taco as the cut of meat—perhaps even more so.
I grew up in Mexico City and I now live in the state of Morelos. I have tried to remain objective throughout my research however I have attempted to add my own experience to this guide. I welcome constructive discussion so as to better this guide, so please feel free to comment with your own taco experiences, or the unique taco native to your region—and I will make it a point to add it to the Taco Index.
WHAT IS A TACO:
Though tortillas are a Pre-Hispanic invention with archaeological evidence of their existence dating back at least to 500 C.E., wrapping meat in a tortilla has not always been called a taco. One likely theory is that calling the word taco dates to the 18th Century from miners in the Silver Mines of Central Mexico. They would carve out a hollow hole in the rock face, and then they would slide a rolled-up paper stuffed with dynamite called a taco into the hole to detonate the rock face and excavate the ore beneath_._ If this theory were true, I would not be surprised (knowing the Mexican culture) if the taco were then a pun—a double entendre in as much of the rolling of dynamite in paper as with the oh-so-common explosive gastronomical effects.
TORTILLAS – MAIZ OR HARINA:
This is the first discussion that must take place—not in Mexico, but when dealing with American expats. There is a common belief that traditional tacos are made with corn tortillas, and that flour tortillas are somehow a type of Westernization.
There is an element of truth to this perspective. In the writings of Hernan Cortez, when he arrived at Coyoacán—a small village on the outskirts of what was then called Tenochitlan, now in the heart of Mexico City—Cortez was served pigs meat wrapped in corn tortillas. Flour was introduced to the Americas by European conquerors, and thus flour tortillas are not Pre-Hispanic.
However, this belief does a disservice to those states that have adopted the flour tortilla as an integral part of their regional cuisine. Like all of Latin America, these flour-tortilla-loving states have mestizo culture which synthesizes—to their own satisfaction—elements of indigenous and European culture. They do not have to satisfy us.
Therefore, I prefer to divide tortillas—instead of by time period—but by said states which have adopted the flour tortilla as their own, namely: the North. The South adopted corn, and the North adopted flour. One criticism of this belief which I have noticed is that: many places in the south do not handle flour tortillas, whereas most places in the north will offer the option of corn or flour tortillas.
PRICE OF TACOS**:**
This is a far deeper philosophical discussion than it’s given credit. I might try and list a figure like $3 MXN – $18 MXN. This would be the most and the least I’ve ever paid for street tacos in Mexico. I should say the most I’ve paid was $18 mxn at a commercial chain like El Tizoncito—decent-tasting but terribly-basic and just stock salsas are served atop a single mass-produced tortilla. This commercial chain has no soul.
$3 MXN is the least I’ve ever paid. I was sick for ten days. Don’t ever do it. I will never do it again. They were served with one of the best salsas I’ve ever tried. Beware unbelievably cheap tacos with infamously-delicious salsas.
I would say a midrange of $8 MXN — $13 MXN is solid as a defining factor of what you should look for. In rural areas, you can probably find some wicked street tacos for less than $8 MXN, and in the heart of Condesa or Roma Norte, you could find yourself paying more than $13 MXN—but it’s a good rule of thumb.
What could I possibly say in a short paragraph about salsas that would do it justice. At some point, I will have to write a guide to salsas. In the meantime, I can offer only metaphorical rules of thumb. The first dichotomy in my salsa taxonomy is whether the salsa is blended or left chunky. There are levels of chunky ranging slightly-chunky from being chopped in a food processor, to molcajete style salsas which are literally just ground with a mortar and pestle, to even chopped salsas such as salsa Mexicana (which is white onion, red tomato, and green chile—most often chile serrano though not always. It is called “salsa Mexicana because it resembles the Mexican flag). In the United States, this is called a pico de gallo though that’s another story, which you can read in the sangrita section of another article if you click here. For the purposes of the guide to street tacos, I would say that most street taco stands have a blended salsa and then some chopped cilantro and diced onion for texture—though many street taquerías in Mexico have salsa Mexicana available.
These blended salsas, I divide salsas into: Water-Based Salsas and Oil-Based Salsas. Furthermore, I divide them into green salsas and red salsas.
This is perhaps the best way to think of taquer__í__a salsas. There are outliers as well, such as salsa negra which is just garlic-infused oil blended with habanero that is roasted over a fire until burnt black and is typically served with seafood. There are so many variations of salsa that I could not begin to name them all here. Another salsa that struggles to fit into this taxonomy is salsa de guacamole—a mixture of salsa verde and guacamole. This is one of the most common salsas in the world. I would classify it as a water-based salsa, however the fats in the avocado in practicality leave it creamy and rich like an oil-based salsa.
On top of these “salsa anomalies”, salsas become particular to the chef, the family, the restaurant, the person—everyone adds their own touch. Furthermore, typically there is one hot salsa and one mild salsa. Cheaper taquerías will likely make these salsas spicier than more expensive stands and restaurants. This is to cover up cheaper cuts of meat. Some establishments have one salsa that is not spicy, and another that would strip rust off a battleship. Others have two salsas which are of equal spiciness—however if you ask the cook which is spicier, he or she will always have an opinion.
One tip which I have learned is not to ask a taquería the recipe for their salsa. This is considered rude. If you want to learn a taquería’s recipe, I suggest you frequent the establishment, befriend a cook, and then every once in a while ask if it has one particular ingredient. However, I’m not above bribing a line cook for their salsa recipe. I’ve done this. Just beware that you never get the secret ingredient.
PLANCHA O CAZUELA:
This is simply another metaphorical way of subdividing tacos. In the subsequent sections, I refer often to “fried” tacos. For example, what I mean by “fried pork meat” in the rest of this article is that a griddle is heated and a squirt of oil (this is usually vegetable oil or corn oil where a hole is poked in the cap and squeezed out the top. For your homemade tacos, I recommend avocado oil) and then chopped pork meat is laid atop the hot oil. This is known as a la plancha.
“Cazuela” often refers to meats that are slow-cooked in a cazuela—or a traditional clay pot where ingredients are often braised. It has a lid with holes in the top which make it act almost like an ancient crockpot. Tacos de cazuela are often succulent, shredded meats instead of the crunchy, fried cubes we see after being fried a la plancha. Tacos de cazuela are sometimes stewed in their own fats with herbs and spices, or they are simmered in prepared salsas and marinades.
MOST COMMON STREET TACOS:
– Tacos al Pastor –
Lebanese immigrants flooded to Mexico—in particular Mexico City—to flee conflict such as the Israel-Lebanon War or the Six-Day War. This profoundly changed the face of Mexican cuisine. These tacos are made in the style of shawarma, where thin strips of marinated pork are stacked atop each other on a long spit called a trompo. The pork is typically marinated in an adobo of pineapple, chiles, and achiote. As the fat drips down the trompo, it bastes itself—while crisping when exposed to the heat source. It is typically served with a green salsa, diced onion, and cilantro, lime juice, and a slice of pineapple.
The expert taco aficionados that I have met in my time ask for their tacos al pastor to be left in front of the trompo until the golden-browning affect known as the Maillard reaction occurs. Personally, I am an anomaly. I often (though not always) ask for the meat to be fried a la plancha until the bits become crispy like chunks of bacon. My father likes his tacos soft, fresh off the trompo without any browning—only braised in the dripping fat of the marinated pork fillet above.
– Tacos de Suadero –
Suadero is a thin cut of meat from between a cow’s ribs and its leg. It is taken from the fatty muscle closest to the skin, and often it is slow-cooked to highlight the smooth, supple texture of this cut. Suadero is typically chopped and fried on a griddle to crisp and brown the outside of the meat. However it can also be found slow-cooked and shredded with almost a carnitas texture. It is often served cilantro, diced onion, and lime juice.
– Tacos de Cecina –
Cecina is a form of dried and salted beef, cut very thin. In my state of Morelos, we are known for our cecina—specifically from the town of Yecapixtla which has a festival every year. Traditionally, this meat was salted and dried by means of sun, smoke, and air. There are cecinas made with goat, horse, rare. . . etc. However, it is typically a cut of salted beef. Tacos de cecina are served with cilantro, onion, and lime juice.
– Tacos de Chuleta –
“Chuleta” means pork chops, and tacos de chuleta that are served on the street are generally created from smoked pork chop, which is then diced, and finally fried on a griddle. The tacos are served with lime juice, diced onion, cilantro, and house salsa. This is one of the least expensive cuts of meat, and can often be found in taco stands which stay open until dawn.
– Tacos de Chorizo –
In Mexico, chorizo is a type of spicy, ground sausage which is cooked down in its own fat until it fries—forming dark red bits of meat for filling. The chorizo most often found in Mexican street tacos are made from pork, however grocery stores sell chorizos made from venison, beef, chicken, turkey, even kosher or tofu chorizos. The level in which the chorizo is fried in its own fat will dictate the crispiness of the filling. Tacos de chorizo are often served with a smear of refried beans and a hint of cheese. However, they are also found with just the filling, or with minced cilantro, chopped onion, and lime juice.
– Tacos de Longaniza –
Longaniza is a type of sausage that is made with pork or beef. It can be a dense sausage (like a hot dog or salchicha) or a ground sausage like chorizo. Valladolid is famous for its longaniza, where the meat is infused with achiote and then smoked with wood from the Jabín tree (often called Jamaican Dogwood in English). Most longanizas however are not so intricate. Tacos de longaniza are typically served with cilantro, diced onion, and fresh lime juice.
– Tacos de Costilla –
These tacos are typically made from the shredded meat of braised beef ribs. These tacos have a soft texture, and can often be found served with slices of avocado, or with the traditional cilantro, diced onion, and lime juice sides.
– Tacos de Bistec –
Bistec (or sometimes Bistek) is a generic term for steak. Typically this term denotes a type of skirt steak which is known for its flavor—not its tenderness. The meat typically ends up chewy when fried on the griddle, however it can be braised or even slow-cooked in salsa to soften the meat.
– Tacos de Casuela/Guisado –
Tacos de cazuela (also known as tacos de guizado) are tacos filled with slow-cooked ingredients. These ingredients can be vegetarian, such as tacos de rajas for example, or they can have meat products in them like tacos de chicharr__ó__n. Either way, they are slow-cooked in a _cazuela—_which is a traditional clay pot that is used similarly to a crockpot in the United States. The lid of a cazuela has holes in it which allow a bit of moisture to escape, which still keeping in loads of vapor for a multitude of guizados.
– Tacos de Pescado –
Tacos de pescado simply mean fish tacos, and they can be found along all beaches on both coasts. They can be grilled, or made from smoked or slow-roasted whole fish which would often be served with Spanish rice. However, perhaps the most famous fish tacos are the tacos de pescado from Baja California and Baja California Sur which offer beer-battered and fried strips of what is typically a white fish. They are then served with a slaw of some kind, be it made with cabbage in cream or mayonnaise, and a type of diced salsa with some form of tropical fruit along with tomato, red onion, chili peppers, and minced garlic. Fish tacos are always served with a side of lime.
– Tacos de Barbacoa –
Barbacoa refers to a style of cooking which originates with the Taíno people of the Caribbean. It is from this term that the English word “barbecue” originates. In Mexico, barbacoa is traditionally cooked with a pit in the ground that is covered in agave leaves and left to cook in its own juices. Occasionally, an adobo or marinade is added for flavor. Today, tacos de barbacoa generally refer to cuts of meat from young animals, or those that have a high fat content—or sometimes even whole sheep cooked in this method—until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone. The meat filling is then shredded and served with diced onions, cilantro, and lime juice.
– Tacos Campechanos –
Tacos campechanos are from the Mexican state of Campeche. Traditionally, they are made with crispy pork rinds ( chicharrón), longaniza, and cecina. These would be served with the typical diced onion, cilantro, and lime with a salsa de morita. Throughout the rest of Mexico, tacos campechanos has come to mean tacos that are made with a mix of beef and pork—usually whatever fillings the house already serves.
Tacos Ahogados: These fried tacos from Guadalajara are served in a tomato caldillo or salsa, with onion, bean, and cabbage.
Tacos de Aguacate: Avocado with a little salt. Probably one of the oldest tacos.
Tacos de Aporreadillo: From Michoacan, these tacos are made with minced beef and fried with onion, green chili, tomato, and scrambled eggs.
Tacos de Arrachera: Beef from the muscular lining around the diaphragm of the cow. It is recognized as one of the most-highly prized cuts throughout Mexico.
Tacos de Barbacoa: Are tacos of various meats prepared on the barbecue The meat can be sheep, goat, rabbit, chicken, fish, venison, and even iguana.
Tacos de Cabeza: These are slow-cooked parts of the head of the cow. They are tacos of a mixture of eye, lip, cheek, tongue, and brains.
Tacos de Cabrito a la Leña o al Pastor: From Coahuila, these tacos are made with charcoal-grilled meat, flour tortillas, and piquin chile salsa or mountain.
Tacos de Cachete: Made with the braised meat of the cow’s cheek. It is considered one of the most succulent meats in Mexican cuisine.
Tacos de Caldillo Durangueño: From Durango, these tacos are made with beef in an adobo of garlic, onion, tomato, and chile ancho or chile mulato.
Tacos de Canasta/Sudados: These tacos are served in a steamy basket which keeps the tortillas soft and the filling warm for longer periods of time. These were traditionally brought to work and shared between employees.
Tacos de Carne Asada: This is a generic term for seared beef which is then cut into cubes or strips and served as a filling. This is most often served with diced onion, cilantro, and lime juice.
Tacos de Carne Salada con Chaya: Native of Yucatán, these tacos are made with picadillo, cecina, or machaca, banana, and chaya.
Tacos de Carnitas: From different parts of pork, usually cooked with lard and spices.
Tacos de Cecina: In the north, it is called “cecina” when salted beef dried in the sun. In the center of the country, “cecina” is a strip of thinly cooked beef. They make delicious “tacos de cecina” from both.
Tacos de Chanfaina: From a thick stew of Spanish origin, this is accompanied by chopped parts of different meats or from the same animal.
Tacos de Chapulines: Chapulines are dried grasshoppers. They are consumed in different states, especially in the center of the country, such as Oaxaca. Accompanied with guacamole, lime, or salsa.
Tacos de Charales: Made with a very tiny fish that lives in Mexican lakes. It is usually dried and marinated before with salt and lemon, however they also are eaten breaded.
Tacos de Chicharrón: They are practically tacos made with the fried skin of the pig. They are often slow-cooked in salsa afterward to soften the meat.
Tacos de Chicharrón de Camarón: From Baja California and Baja California Sur, these tacos are breaded and fried shrimp accompanied by cabbage, mayonnaise, and a salsa roja.
Tacos de Chicharrones de Vieja: From Durango, these tacos are made with goat meat fried in lard.
Tacos de Chilorio: Originating in Sinaloa, they are tacos of shredded pork meat, seasoned with pasilla chili, garlic, cumin, oregano, and salt and cooked in lard. Sometimes beef or turkey is used in place of pork.
Tacos de Chilayo: These tacos from Colima are made with shredded pork, nopales, and vegetables cooked in a sauce with tomatoes and tomatoes.
Tacos de Chinicuitles: These tacos are one of the most expensive delicacies in Mexico. They are made with the fried larvae of the moth that infests the maguey.
Tacos de Chuleta: Some of the least expensive tacos, these tacos are made with smoked pork chops which are fried.
Tacos de Coachala/Guachala: Chicken and pork in chile pasilla.
Tacos de Cochibita Pibil: A dish typical of the Yucatán Peninsula, this delicious slow-cooked pork is shredded, and then marinated in achiote. It is often served with pickled red onion and habanero salsa.
Tacos de Chochito: From Chiapas, these tacos are traditionally served the 22nd of January. They are made with pork—often from a piglet—slow cooked and basted in the oven in a salsa made from oil, vinegar, herbs, and spices.
Tacos de Coetlas: From Puebla, these tacos are made with worms raised in the chia tree, and then they are eaten with a spicy chili sauce.
Tacos Criadillas: These are made with the testicles of the bull. These are typically braised in a salsa roja or an adobo.
Tacos Dorados/Flautas: These are tacos which are rolled and then fried in a corn tortilla. In the south of Mexico, they are commonly referred to as tacos dorados, however in the north they are sometimes referred to as flautas.
Tacos Dorados de Pejelagarto: From Tabasco, tacos dorados are made with a large freshwater Mexican fish called pejelagarto. They are served a la Mexicana—which means with tomato, onion, and green chili pepper (usually a chile serrano. This style is called a la Mexicana because the red, white, and green are the colors of the Mexican flag).
Tacos Envenenados: From San Luis Potosí, these tacos are made with a mix of beans, potatoes, chorizo and cheese fried in lard.
Tacos de Escamoles: A delicacy in Mexico, these tacos are made with ant roe.
Tacos Gobernador: Shrimp with cheese.
Tacos de Hormigo Chicatana: From Chiapas, these tacos are made ants roasted on the comal. Then they are served with guacamole.
Tacos de Jumiles: These tacos are made with dried and seasoned stink bugs. These tacos are common in the southern states of Morelos and Guerrero.
Tacos Laguneros: From Coahuila, these are one of the few traditional types of tacos that could qualify as vegetarian. They have slices of roasted poblano pepper, tomato, Manchego cheese, onion. They are unique because the tortilla is slightly fried, and then they are reheated wrapped in baked aluminum foil. (Some people also prepare them with different types of meat).
Tacos de Lengua: These are made with the meat of the cow’s tongue. The tastebuds are removed leaving the pure muscle, which is then braised or chopped and fried.
Tacos de Macha Langosta o Mantarraya: Made with either lobster or mantis ray, the meat is cooked a la Mexicana (which means with tomato, onion, and a green chili—usually chile serrano. These are the colors of the Mexican flag).
Tacos de Machito/Tripa: These tacos are made with the intestines of a pig—which are then stuffed with offal—and then fried until crunchy. Occasionally they are slow cooked and chopped. Served with diced onion and cilantro.
Tacos de Marlin Ahumado: These tacos usually come from the Riviera Maya, and are made with smoked marlin.
Taco mi Matamoros Querido: Fried tortilla, steak or fajitas and queso fresco, cilantro, avocado, fried raw onion, with salsa Mexicana.
Tacos Mineros: with potatoes, bacon, and pork. They sometimes are also filled with pasta.
Tacos de Mixiote: With one or more cooked mixiote leaves and different types of meat.
Tacos de Mollejas: These tacos are made with the grilled or fried salivary glands or lymph nodes of the cow. They are infamous for having a soft texture and a crunchy outer layer which crisps when fried.
Tacos de Nana: These are made with pig, cow, or even goat uterus. You can expect them to be served with cilantro, diced onion, and fresh lime juice.
Tacos de Nata: From Guanajuato, these tacos are made with milk curd, cream, and slices of poblano chili are bathed in tomato sauce and then baked.
Tacos de Nopal Asado: These tacos are made with seared cactus. Usually chopped cilantro and tomato are added to the taco.
Tacos de Ojo: This is made with the fried and chopped eyeball of the cow. They are often served with diced onion, fresh cilantro, and lime juice.
Tacos de Pancita: These tacos are generally served as barbacoa style and then braised in salsa, and can include lungs, liver, kidney, and intestines.
Tacos al Pastor: The preparation of pork is made in a braised Lebanese tradition. They were born in the 60s after an important migration of Lebanese to Mexico City.
Tacos de Pepena: Made with tripe and heart of beef in tomato sauce.
Tacos de Pescado o Pulpo Zarandeado: From Nayarit, these tacos are made with grilled fish or octopus.
Tacos de Pescado Tikin Xic: From Quintana Roo, this fish is grilled in an adobo of ancho chili and achiote. The meat is then served directly from the whole fish in a tortilla with salsas.
Tacos de Plátano Frito con Salsa Chimole: Fried plantain strips in a fried tortilla bathed in chimole (a thick black sauce made with burnt chiles).
Tacos Potosinos: From San Luis Potosí, these tacos are made with cheese and fried red tortillas with pickled peppers, onion, and carrot.
Tacos de Reques__ón: These tacos are traditionally made with the derivative of the production of soft cheeses.
Tacos de Sal: The tortilla with a little salt, the most common and universal taco.
Tacos de Sesos: These tacos are made with grilled or braised brains, typically from a cow or goat, and often topped with crunchy elements like chopped fresh onion to often their soft texture.
Tacos de Suadero: Beef, which is between the ribs, chest, thighs, and skin.
Tacos Surtidos: The term refers to the mixture of different parts of the pig, but can it also apply to meats of different types in the same taco.
Tacos de Tocino: These tacos are made with wide-cut bacon bits, fried in their own fat a la plancha.
Tacos de Tu__é__tano: They are made with the marrow of the bones of different animals.
Tacos de Tzic de Venado: From Yucatan, these tacos are made with venison meat is cooked in banana leaf, with radish, onion, garlic, jalapeño pepper, orange, and oil.
Tacos Viril: These tacos are made with a bull or boar’s penis. They are often served with a cilantro, diced onion, and lime juice.
Tacos Vísceras: This is a general term for tacos that are made with the stomach, kidneys, livers, and/or intestines of a pig.
Tacos de Zorrillo: From Santiago de Anaya, Hidalgo, tacos are made with skunk meat. The skin and stink glands are removed in a traditional method which remains a secret to their village. They are then basted in chiles and achiote.
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