By Paul Hudson PLAYAS Y PLAZAS
There are few things that all Mexicans can agree upon but the love of tacos is something that brings everyone together. Trying to decide what types of tacos we want for dinner is challenging to say the least. One of the best parts of living in Mexico is looking for great tacos. I am always asking the people for taco recommendations and exploring the back streets when I get a good tip.
Different parts of the country are famous for different types of tacos. In the north of Mexico carne asada rules. In Michoacan, it is hard to beat the juicy pork carnitas. The Yucatan Penninsula has cochnita pibil (pork) and Hidalgo has barbacoa de borrego (lamb), both cooked in a hole in the ground. When you travel to new parts of Mexico, it is important to try the local cuisine. This includes foods that make you uncomfortable. The first time I tried liver and onion tacos I really didn’t like them. After finding the right vendor, they have become some of my favorites.
All types of tacos can be broken down into three basic areas: tortilla, filling, and salsa. So, what makes a good taco? I often compare a good taco to good sushi. Good sushi has good rice and a good taco has a good tortilla. Living in Mexico opened my eyes to the importance of a really good tortilla and how it affects the overall taco experience.
Nixtamal is the prepared corn dough that is used to make tortillas and a plethora of other typical Mexican foods. The process of nixtamalization goes back to well before the Spanish arrived in the Americas and is considered an important advance for the peoples of Mesoamerica. Nixtamalization kills harmful fungal toxins and breaks down some of the cellular walls so that your body can absorb more of the nutrients. The process ALSO makes the corn tortilla taste awesome!!
When you taste a tortilla made with heirloom varietal corn for the first time it will change your life.
In its most simple form, a taco can be considered a tortilla with a few grains of salt. We are fortunate enough to have infinite combinations of meat, fish, cheese, fruits, vegetables, and salsas that we can use to fill those tortillas.
Without further ado, these are my favorite types of tacos that I have found in Mexico, thus far.
TACOS AL PASTOR
We are going to start the list with the king of the types of tacos. The taco de pastor was named the best food in the world by the TasteAtlas website in 2019 narrowly edging out Brazilian churrasco and Napolitan pizza. I think it’s only fitting we start this list with the taco al pastor as well.
We can thank the Ottoman Empire for this one. At the beginning 20th century Mexico saw a fair amount of immigration from what is today known as Lebanon. One enterprising foodie was smart enough to bring their Shawarma style rotisserie and adapt the recipe to the ingredients easily available in Mexico.
Today tacos de pastor are some of the most popular tacos in Mexico. Lamb has been replaced by pork marinated in a sweet chile and achiote rub, and the vertical style rotisserie was topped with a piece of pineapple and onion. As the taquero spins the rotisserie and shaves off pieces of meat for each taco, the shape of the meat on the rotisserie would start to look like a spinning top or el trompo.
TACOS DE CARNITAS
Carnitas is essentially fried pork. However, I like to think about good carnitas tacos as I think about a duck confit. It’s pork cooked in pork lard. Just about every part of the animal is fried at low temperature in a large pot to get the meat tender and flavorful.
The best carnitas comes from the state of Michoacan, specifically the small town of Quiroga and the capital of Morelia. There is a culture of carnitas and the tacos start with animals that are well cared for and raised on family farms as opposed to factory farms. The types of tacos served in Michoacan focus on quality ingredients.
The best way to appreciate a carnitas taco is with several different cuts of meat that provide distinct textures: macisa (loin), cuerito (skin), costilla (rib), aldia (back), chamorro (shank), and chicharon (skin), or just ask for a mixed taco surtido (mixed). I like to choose the cuts that are a little juicier like the ribs or the back. The macisa tends to be a little on the drier side. The kicker, the best of the best, is when the taco shop puts a small portion of crispy fried pork rinds on top of your taco like a garnish. The combination of crispy and tender textures makes all the difference.
It’s worth traveling to Michoacan to try their carnitas. Carnitas Carmelo in Vasco de Quiroga is always a favorite. Tacos de Carnitas Chapalita is pretty good too.
TYPES OF TACOS DE BARBACOA
Barbacoa means different things to people in different places because there are several types of tacos de barbacoa. In the State of Hidalgo, barbacoa is made with lamb that is wrapped in agave leaves and cooked in an underground oven. In Guadalajara barbacoa is a stewed beef dish that is usually served in crispy tacos to cure a hangover. No matter which one you choose, they are both great.
TACOS DE BARBACOA DE BORREGO (HIDALGO STATE AND MEXICO STATE STYLE)
Tacos de barbacoa de borrego have an ancestral cooking technique that dates back to prehispanic times and can be found in other parts of the world. In Hawaii an underground oven makes kalua pig; in the Yucatan Peninsula they make cochinita pibil; and in Oaxaca, the same style of oven cooks the agaves for mezcal. An oven is made by digging hole in the ground which is lined with stones. A raging bonfire is lit to heat the stones. Once the oven is hot, the agave wrapped lamb is put in a pot and set in the hole. The hole is filled with dirt retaining the heat from the stones. The barbacoa is cooked all night at a fairly low temperature and the drippings are retained to make a broth.
As you walk in the door at a barbacoa restaurant, you are greeted with a little taco to sample the goods. As I mentioned in the introduction, you can tell a lot about a taco joint by the tortillas they are serving. I have found a high correlation between good barbacoa places and heirloom, blue corn tortillas. In Hidalgo and Mexico State there is a lot of heirloom varietal corn being grown. A good tortilla really makes the taco experience better.
The entire animal is used and the customer chooses the cuts they prefer. You order a plate by weight and can choose several different cuts of meat that you prefer. I like to order a mixed selection and have the butcher show me each cut so I can find my favorites. The slow roasting in an underground oven means that everything is ridiculously tender. The rib bones slide right out of the meat. They also make a great blood sausage (moronga). I recommend starting with a bowl of lamb broth with garbanzo beans and spice it up with some chile and onion.
One of the more unique and delicious salsas I have tried traditionally comes with barbacoa de borrego. The salsa borracha (drunk sauce) is made with pulque and chile pasilla. Pulque is another prehispanic culinary tradition made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. The beverage is only mildly alcoholic and the salsa has next to no alcohol whatsoever. The chile pasilla has a smoky flavor which complements the rich flavor of the lamb.
Barbacoa de Santiago is on the freeway between Mexico City and Queretaro and is a regional institution. I always look forward to the drive into Mexico City from Guadalajara because we always stop on the outskirts of Toluca at a place called El Rosario Barbacoa.
GUADALAJARA STYLE TACOS DE BARBACOA
You will see the term barbacoa used all over the place with several different types of tacos and meat. After lamb, the next most popular meat is beef. In Guadalajara, barbacoa tacos are made with stewed beef guisado which is put into a double tortilla and seared crispy on the plancha. Like the barbacoa de borrego, the Guadalajara style tacos de barbacoa are usually served with a broth made from the stew.
The tacos de barbacoa that are sold in Guadalajara quite different from that which is sold in Hidalgo. In fact, the barbacoa tacos in Guadalajara remind me a lot of the birria tacos in Tijuana and Los Angeles. Let me know what you think. They are bomb either way.
TYPES OF TACOS DE BIRRIA
Birria is quite possibly the greatest culinary tradition in the State of Jalisco. Back in the 17th century, there were a lot of goats and not a whole lot of demand for goat meat. That is until someone started making birria. Birria is a twice roasted meat stew that is usually made out of goat meat but can also be done with just about any protein. I know some folks making seafood birria.
In the north, Tijuana, San Diego, and Los Angeles, the birria looks a lot like the tacos de barbacoa in Guadalajara. It is a braised beef stew and consummé with more fat than the consummé in Guadalajara. The tortillas are bathed in the consummé and oil before being filled with the guisado and seared on the plancha. The flavor is incredibly rich.
Roasting the meat for long periods of time at a low temperature makes the meat tender and briefly searing it at a high temperature just before serving gives it texture. The roasting juices are saved and mixed with a tomato broth to create the sauce. An order of birria is served in a bowl of broth while others prefer to order by the taco and get a little cup of broth on the side. Any way you serve it birria is a winner.
CARNE ASADA TACOS
Carne asada is simply grilled meat. Keep an eye out for plumes of smoke because the natural lump charcoal is the key to that smoky flavor. The grill master may include a number of different meats such as beef, lamb or ostrich but beef is much more common. Thinner cuts like flank steak (suadero or vacio) and skirt steak (arrachera) are some of the most popular but there are some fancy taquerias out there using cuts like ribeye and filet mignon.
The north of Mexico is known to have far superior carne asada than the south. In Guadalajara, there a number of meat purveyors that claim the quality of meat in the north is better for the carne asada. It’s also cultural. Building a bad-ass grill in the back yard is a huge status symbol especially if you know how to use it.
My favorite place for carne asada tacos is Menudería & Carnes Asadas Alfonso in Mercado de Abastos but I feel like I should spend a little more time in Hermosillo, Torreon, and Monterrey before making any recommendations.
TACOS DE CECINA
Cecina is a type of meat that has been salt-cured. In Mexico, the most common type of cecina is a completely dehydrated style that resembles beef jerky and is sold at the Oxxo long road trips. The best type of cecina involves an artisanal process from a little town in the middle of nowhere.
In the State of Morelos, there is a small town with a dry climate called Yecapixtla. Yecapixtla is famous for making cecina the old fashioned way. Red meat, usually beef, is cut into paper-thin sheets that can run as long as ten feet. The meat is salted and left in the sun for ten minutes on each side. This activity is done at midday when the sun is out and shining strong. A little bit of pork lard is added to preserve the flavor of the meat. The meat is later cooked on a grill or a comal to make tacos.
In Morelos, it is common to eat tacos de cecina with cream, cheese, avocado, nopales and some green salsa.
You are not going to see cecina from Yecapixtla all over the place. I’ve yet to visit Yecapixtla but I found cecina from Tecapixtla in Mexico City’s Del Valle neighborhood an exceptional neighborhood fonda called Los Chamorros de Tlacoquemécatl. They have a neon sign advertising the cecina from Yecapixtla and I fell in love with the place even though the roof was dripping onto our table. The tepache, chamorros, and cecina were out of this world and the restaurants around the Tlacoquemecatl Park are worth traveling for.
TACOS DE CABEZA: LENGUA, CACHETE AND CARNAZA
There are a lot of cuts of meat that I grew up oblivious to in the United States. It wasn’t until I moved to Mexico that I got to taste these delicacies. I’m less interested in dry, tough meat than I am in tender and juicy cuts.
Cow tongue, if it cooked properly in a pressure cooker is one of the best cuts on this list. The cachete is the cheek. It is a very tender cut of meat but it isn’t a loin. It comes off in small pieces. If you have ever been into sushi, the hamachi kama is the cheek of the yellowtail. In Japan, it is one of the most prized cuts of a fish. The same applies to the beef cachete. It’s a tender, juicy piece of meat but has a ton of flavor. The carnaza is much like the cachete but a not quite as tender. The cachete has a little more fat and the carnaza is a hint drier. You have to try these tacos.
My favorite places to get lengua, cachete and carnaza specialize in just the beef head. They usually sell 250 g orders rather than tacos. These used to be my favorite tacos after a hard night of drinking. I don’t drink any more but I still love the experience of rolling into the taco stand at 3 am for a place of lengua, cachete and carnaza tacos.
TACOS DE TRIPA
Tripe tacos are usually made out of beef intestine. They are boiled and fried crispy. These are some of the best tacos that lots of recent arrivals won’t have anything to do with. I highly recommend you let go of what you think you know about eating and try something new. Perfectly cooked tripe tacos taste like crispy bacon tacos.
I first tried tacos de tripa outside the Estado Jalisco after watching Atlas play my Tijuana Xolos. It changed my life. After trying these tacos and loving them, I am a lot more likely to try new foods that I used to detest without reason.
Tacos El Rojo Tripas in Santa Teresita has my favorites. The salsas will light you up but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
TACOS DE HIGADO ENCEBOLLADO
Liver and onion tacos are another favorite that has grown on me. My mom hates liver and onions but my grandmother loved it. It was never prepared in my house growing up. I first tried tacos de higado before a bull fight at the Plaza Nuevo Progreso. The quality of food outside of a famous bull ring is going to be high quality. The vendors are owners who have been working the same stall for decades. They put a lot more care into their food than an employee at a Chargers game selling hotdogs.
I’ve come to love the food scene outside the bull rings. Most of the aficionados are older and look for recipes that might not be as common as they once were. There is a lot of culinary history in a stadium parking lot. Plus, drinking a full-bodied Rioja out of a Spanish wine bladder really compliments the liver and onion tacos.
TACOS DE MORONGA
La moronga is a blood sausage that is very common to find in the Hidalgo style barbacoa de borrego restaurants. In Spain, it’s called Morcilla but it’s mixed with other ingredients. In Mexico, the moronga is mixed with some peppers and onions, and reduced to a tender sausage-like consistency. The sausage has a minerally flavor because of the high iron content of the blood. It’s worth a try if you have never had it before.
TACOS DE TUETANO
Bone marrow tacos are kind of a guilty pleasure. I try no to order these too often because I am worried about my cholesterol levels. They are rich and delicious but really need some salt and salsa to be top-notch. The juice from the bone marrow soaks into the tortilla enriching the flavor of a quality corn tortilla.
The place where I used to order bone marrow tacos went out of business so I am open to recommendations. I’m willing to travel for some excellent tacos.
TACOS DE VAPOR
Tacos de vapor come in a lot of different styles but what they all have in common is the steam table. The steam lets the filling and the tortilla fuse together. These are usually breakfast tacos and there is usually someone squeezing fresh juice.
At my local tacos de vapor restaurant the choices are frijol (bean), picadillo (ground beef), deshebrada (shreaded beef), chicharon (pork skin), and papa (potatoe). I am always a sucker for the tacos de frijol but I tend to split my order between chicharon and frijol, drenching the plate two salsas, cabbage and pickled carrots. This is one of the best breakfasts on the planet.
TACOS DE CANASTA
Tacos sold out of a basket (canasta) look a lot like the tacos de vapor and have many of the same fillings. However, rather than using a steam table to heat the tacos and incorporate the filling into the tortilla, a small amount of hot oil is poured over the tacos before the basket is sealed. The basket is lined with plastic to maintain the temperature. The tacos finish cooking on the way from the kitchen to wherever they will be sold.
It’s common to see tacos de canasta sold off the back of a bicycle in Mexico City. The bike also holds the salsa bar on the back.
TACOS DE GUISADO
Guisados are different traditional foods that are prepared in advance and served on demand. A normal tacos de guisado restaurant may have up to 15 different plates on any given day. Some dishes are only served on holidays like Christmas and lent. I always start with some lengua en salsa verde, chicharon en salsa de chiles, chorizo con papa, rajas con crema, and the tinga de pollo. There will usually be some color of mole sauce and a variety of proteins. A sign of a good guisado restaurant is an ample salsa bar and earthenware pots heating the guisados on a comal.
Tacos Moy is my favorite guisados taco shop. They have meat and vegetarian options. The highlight of Tacos Moy is the salsa bar. They have a collection of salsas that few tacos shops have like the peanut sauce. Another place that I really enjoy in Los Angeles is called Guisados. They have a few locations now but the Boyle Heights neighborhood is special.
The taco dorado is a staple sold by every shop that sells the torta ahogada. They are usually filled with beans or potato, and occasionally include some kind of meat. They are prepared ahead of time, traditionally with last night’s leftovers, and then taken to work the next day. The torta ahogada stands will top the tacos with Jalisco style carnitas, some cabbage, onion, and tomato sauce.
A great play on the traditional taco dorado, Puerco Espada lets you pick your taco and then pick the style of ceviche you want to put on top. Options like traditional fish ceviche, green shrimp ceviche, and smoked marlin are all excellent.
Oaxaca was a life changing experience for me. In a very short period of time I sampled a lot of new foods and experienced new flavors. One of my favorite tacos was the breakfast taco of eggs cooked on a clay comal with hoja santa. I had spent my entire life eating eggs cooked on a frying pan with oil or butter. I’m sure the quality of the ingredients has something to do with it but the clay comal adds a distinct flavor. I still dream about breakfasts in Oaxaca and these eggs are part of the reason why.
In all fairness, that was described on the menu as a tlayuda and not a taco but it’s the best picture I have. What I am trying to emphasize is that not only do we eat crickets but they are absolutely delicious. You can find chapulines, crickets in Nahuatl, all over the place but they are never going to be as good as they are in Oaxaca. I first tried chapulines in the Mercadito del Este de Los Angeles and enjoyed them. The chapulines I ate in Oaxaca were fresh, crispy and came in an assortment of flavors like chile and lime.
Chapulines are a great place to enter the world of edible insects. I found the ants to be a touch on the bitter side. The jumiles are next to impossible to find and it’s best to eat those live. I also tried the escamoles, ant larva, but the flavor is so mild that it left me unimpressed. When you are in Oaxaca, you have to try the chapulines.
TACOS DE QUELITES
Quelites are a group of herbs (green leafy vegetables or bitter greens) that grow in the cornfields. There is a symbiotic relationship between plants in a traditional cornfield, called a milpa in Mexico. In industrial agriculture the quelites are considered weeds that are prevented with pesticides. For a long time, quelites were considered poor people’s food but more recently they have been elevated in high-end restaurants because of their unique flavor and cultural significance. These were an important source of calories for the Mesoamerican population in pre-hispanic times.
When the quelite is prepared in a taco, it will usually be sautéed with onions and chile similar to a sautéed spinach. They are absolutely delicious and you should order them when you see them.
Alejandra Flores and Jorge Vallejo’s famous Mexico City restaurant, Quintonil, is named after a species of quelites. Their goal is to “express Mexican flavors with a personal touch” and they named their restaurant after this ingredient. It’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of this plant and the milpa in general.
I tried quelites for the first time at Xokol in Guadalajara and will order them every time I see them on the menu.
TACO DE FRIJOL (BEAN TACOS)
A great taco de frijol is something that I see at the beach more often than in the city. The ingredients need to be of the highest quality. It’s not the same thing to make a bean taco with industrial agriculture as it is to make one with heirloom varietals.
The pork lard seeps out of the beans on to the tortilla making the tacos almost crispy. I always order a dozen tacos de frijol to-go because I love them so much.
At my favorite seafood place in Tecomán, Colima the bean tacos are cooked on an open fire on the same rack they use to cook the zarandeado whole fish
Setas are a type of oyster mushroom that grow wild in many parts of Mexico. They are also farm-raised however the rainy season marks the beginning of the wild mushroom season. You will see restaurants all over Mexico City advertising wild-harvested oyster mushrooms on the specials list. These mushrooms are so meaty you will have a hard time realizing the tacos are 100% vegan.
At palReal Café in Guadalajara, the tacos de setas are prepared in a chile adobo and served with guacamole and verdolagas (a class of quelite).
TACOS DE CHILE RELLENO
It wasn’t until I started reviewing my photos that I realized how often I eat tacos made of chile relleno. The relleno (filling) is often cheese but my favorite was done with shrimp. It’s always a gamble ordering a taco de chile relleno because you don’t know how hot the chile pepper is going to be. Chile poblanos are usually not very hot but that chile aneheim (chile California) will light you up from time to time.
TYPES OF TACOS: SEAFOOD TACOS
In my personal opinion, there are two basic types of fish tacos. The Baja fish taco with tempura-style beer batter is ubiquitous just about everywhere you go. The other option is to order a whole fish which will be served with a stack of tortillas. I love the celebration of Baja California culture all over Mexico but I prefer ordering the zarandeado whole fish and making my own tacos.
The taco gobernador (registered trademark) is a shrimp and poblano chile quesadilla that is cooked on the grill. The story goes that Francisco Labastida Ochoa was getting ready to run for governorship of Sinaloa. He was a regular customer of Los Arcos and while eating at the Los Arcos restaurant in Mazatlan, would constantly tell the owner, Eduardo Armando Angulo Salomón, about a taco that his wife would make at home. Francisco goes on to win the governorship of Sinaloa and the taco became famous. There are restaurants all over Mexico that serve the Taco Gobernador but nobody does it as well as Los Arcos!
TACOS DE PULPO
I don’t know if there is a traditional recipe for octopus tacos but you should try them whenever you see them on a menu. In my experience, they have been off the hook. At Save in Guadalajara, the octopus taco is served with cheese, guajillo chile strips and fried leeks. Celebrity Chef Antonio Delivier has another style that they serve at La Panga del Impostor with octopus and chicharon de cerdo in a red chile sauce. They are both out of this world good but a modern take on coastal cuisine.
Tacos are no longer just street food. You can find tacos on the San Pelligrino world’s best list now. In Pujol, which I haven’t had the chance to visit just yet, there is an omakase style taco tasting. These are not your traditional tacos but they are worth a look.
Restaurante Alcalde is not your typical taco shop. In fact, it is one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in Latin America but they also happen to have one of the best tacos in Guadalajara. The frijoles puercos appetizer is an absolute gem. The beans are cooked with pork neck and served with chorizo powder and burnt chile powder. It has been on the menu since they opened and is one of their best selling dishes.
Chancho cooks whole pigs in a Chinese style caja china and makes wonderful pork belly tacos with korean gochujong spice rub, a homemade fruit vinager and avocado. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck makes a mean Korean taco as well.
QUESADILLA SIN QUESO
I don’t know about you but when someone tells me there are quesadillas without cheese, that sure looks like a taco to me. This is a crab quesadilla without cheese in Mexico City’s Mercado del Mar. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious.
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