Do you remember your first taco? I don’t remember the exact one, but I remember the type: hard corn tortilla (shells, we called them) ground beef seasoned with reddish brown storebought powder (Old El Paso, FTW), shredded lettuce, bright yellow shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, sour cream, and hot sauce. Growing up in the rural Midwest, this is just how we did tacos. It wasn’t until my teen years that I realized this was far from an authentic taco, and that the genuine article was one of the tastiest and most versatile dishes around.
What Is A Taco?
Before I really delve into the subject of tacos, I wanted to start with a basic definition. Defining such a broad and popular food will almost certainly lead to controversy (ask a New Yorker if Chicago deep dish is “real pizza” and you’ll see what I mean), but who doesn’t love a little friendly food debate? Webster’s dictionary defines a taco as “a crispy or soft corn or wheat tortilla that is folded or rolled and stuffed with a mixture (as of seasoned meat, cheese, and lettuce).”
This definition is certainly broad enough for my purposes, as it includes everything from barbacoa, onion, and cilantro on soft corn tortillas; to the taco night faire of my childhood; to the fancified lobster and caviar tacos you might see at some sleek restaurant. But is this definition too broad? Try and convince me that a quesadilla – or a burrito, for that matter – doesn’t fit this definition (I mean it: I would love to hear in the comments). One thing that is not debatable is that the taco is a beloved Mexican meal/snack, with regional variations throughout this diverse country. That’s why I wanted to explore some of the most popular iterations, as well as the components that all the best tacos have in common.
Of course, this is a very subjective question—some might say you can’t have a great taco without a big old glob of sour cream (and while I wholeheartedly disagree, I’m not here to judge). All I can do is think back on some of the tacos that have blown me away during my many travels throughout Mexico (and the United States, for that matter). One thing that all my favorite tacos certainly have in common is scratch-made tortillas–torn off from a mound of fresh masa, hand-pressed and thrown on the griddle. Pre-packaged tortillas may be cheaper and more convenient, but they just can’t give you that burst of fresh corn flavor that I love about tacos.
The other thing that all of my favorite tacos have had in common is fresh, scratch-made salsa (are you noticing a theme here?). Not only that, but a diverse array of scratch-made salsas: most of the restaurants and taco carts that you will find in Mexico have at least half a dozen salsas – of varying heat levels – displayed in self-serve bowls. And the colors are a beautiful rainbow of vibrant reds, greens, and oranges that capture they eye like a peacock’s feathers (they say in Mexico that you can tell a good taco stand from its salsas). Hungry yet? Alright, let’s dive into some of Mexico’s most popular regional tacos.
I’ve encountered a ton of different regional tacos during my travels throughout Mexico, but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Did you know that Mexico has 31 states (plus the federal district of Mexico City)? Many of these states – and even cities within them – have made their own contribution to the taco pantheon. Here are a few:
Monterrey, in northern Mexico, is home to tacos de cabrito, which translates to “little goat” (kid) tacos. Kid goat, often cooked whole over an open flame, is chopped up and stuffed into tacos. This centuries-old recipe goes back to the initial wave of Jewish immigrants who moved to Monterrey from Spain. In the northern state of Sonora (just south of Arizona), carne asada tacos reign supreme. These tender cubes of marinated steak are also very popular here in the States. On Mexico’s Baja Peninsula – along the Pacific coast, you’re as apt to find flour tortillas as corn. Often, these tortillas are filled with fresh-caught fish. Yum.
Finally – since it would take a whole book to describe every regional taco in Mexico – we have tacos al pastor. These pork tacos, cooked on a spit in the style of Middle Eastern shawarma, are synonymous with Central Mexico (where Mexico City and nearby Puebla are located). The similarities to Middle Eastern cooking are no coincidence: these delicious tacos can be traced back to the many Middle Eastern immigrants who settled in Central Mexico (“al pastor” roughly translates to “shepherd style,” a reference to the Middle Eastern practice of cooking lamb on a vertical spit). While I couldn’t try these meaty tacos, I saw them just about everywhere in Mexico City.
Speaking of Mexico City, Mexico’s massive capital is a great place to try tacos from every region of the country. I, for one, could spend weeks taqueria hopping in this tasty metropolis. Here are my top 5 taquerias in Mexico City:
Since tacos al pastor is such an important part of Mexico City’s culinary fabric, it is only fitting that I start with a place that specializes in these delicious spit-roasted pork tacos. El Tizoncito, located in the heart of Mexico City, claims to have invented tacos al pastor back in the 1960’s. This claim has been subject to much debate, but this iconic taqueria no doubt popularized this flavorful taco and has been serving some of the best versions of them for decades.
This popular taqueria, with several locations across the capital, also claims to have invented the al pastor taco. While it might be hard to determine who wins the prize for originality, you can always try both El Tizoncito and El Huequito and see which spot does the beloved taco better. You’re not going to find a tastier competition!
I am happy to report that this downtown taqueria is open 24/7, so no matter what time you fly into the capital, you are bound to start your trip off with some exceptional tacos. Los Cocuyos specializes in tacos that aren’t often found here in the States, like suadero (brisket) and tacos de cabeza (steamed cow head). This is a great place to try some traditional tacos.
Por Siempre Vegana
If you know me, you know this list wouldn’t be complete without a vegan taqueria! Por Siempre Vegana (“forever vegan”) is a popular streetside stall that slings vegan tacos and tortas. For my fellow vegans, this place is a godsend. And even if you are a card-carrying carnivore, this is a refreshing place to go to once you’ve broken out in the full-on meat sweats from all those pork and beef tacos.
Con Vista Al Mar
While Mexico’s best fish/seafood tacos are strung along the country’s miles of beautiful coastline, the capital certainly has its fair share. For one of the most popular and acclaimed seafood taquerias in Mexico City, check out Con Vista Al Mar (“with a view of the sea”). Specialties here include The Acapulco: a perfectly grilled fish taco with red cabbage slaw, fried beans, and a chile-mayo sauce.
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