There is nothing more Mexican than tacos, REAL tacos that is. If your idea of a taco is a crispy taco shell filled with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning and topped with lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream, I’ve got news for you: that is not a taco. Authentic Mexican tacos are simple, with one one or two ingredients and a few toppings to choose from. However, when you go out to get tacos there is a wealth of options for what goes inside.
Every taco starts with a tortilla, usually made fresh from corn masa. This humble tortilla (or two) is then loaded up with whatever type of meat or veggie you would like, cheese optional. Obviously the place you go to will determine what your options are, but below I’ve presented some common options for both sit-down taco places and stand-around-a-tall-table-on-the-sidewalk-stuffing-your-face places.
Bistek: One of the most common tacos, they’re very thinly sliced steak cut up into bite sized pieces
Costilla: This means rib and it is indeed the rib bone and all the surrounding flavorful meat.
Chuleta: Pork chops.
Suadero: This is beef rib meat as well but braised until super tender, served without the bone.
Chorizo: Not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, Mexican chorizo is pork sausage that crumbles when it’s cooked and has a red color due to the spices inside. It’s pretty fatty but (I think) delicious.
Lengua: This means tongue and it is literally a cow’s tongue. Sometimes it is cut up and sometimes presented in its entire glory atop your tortilla.
Cabeza: The head. I tend not to eat meat that is a recognizable body part so I’m not sure how this tastes or where exactly on the head of a cow this comes from but that is the general area.
Ojo: Continuing with abnormal (for Americans) cow body parts, we have the eye! It’s cut up and I cannot attest to the taste.
Cachete: This means cheek. This makes me narrow down cabeza to not include the cheek but again, I cannot attest to the taste.
Tripa: And to round out the section of things Americans think are gross to eat, we have tripe. Yup, that’s the intestine of a cow, yummmmm.
Campechanos: So this generally means a little bit of everything. It’s usually bistek and chorizo though sometimes it’ll mean suadero and chorizo.
Cochinada: When all the various meats are being cooked up on the grill and scooped into your taco, a little bit of meat invariably gets left behind. Once lots and lots of tacos have been made the left behind meat adds up and has gotten quite crunchy. Instead of throwing away these crunchy bits of bistek or suadero (or both) they put them in their own special taco.
Arrachera: Steak that has been aggressively tenderized and marinated to form a tender and flavorful piece of beef.
Carnitas: Pork that has been braised and simmered until it gets to a sort of melt in your mouth level of tender.
Barbacoa: Generally sheep’s meat that is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground filled with coal and covered in banana leaves and then with dirt to slow cook for hours and hours. The category of barbacoa has a lot of different options when you go to order according to the body type. You won’t find these tacos when you go out to a taco joint because they are breakfast tacos! They’re super popular to get as you’re leaving the city for the weekend and there are a plethora of places or tents that line the highways leaving Mexico City.
Al Pastor: This should almost be its own category as taco places can easily be distinguished between those that don’t serve al pastor and those that proudly display their trompo on the sidewalk or entrance. This type of preparation was influenced by the Lebanese population in Mexico and it’s basically pork sliced up and marinated in a very involved mixture of spices, chiles, and sometimes even a touch of citrus. The marinated pieces of meat are then pierced onto a metal spike to form the trompo, topped with a pineapple. The trompo gets spun around to cook evenly beside the (preferable) coal fire on one side. As people order tacos al pastor someone slices downwards on the trompo to get the meat for their taco.
You’ll see the trompo changing its shape as the day/night goes on, getting skinnier as more and more is cut off. I consider myself an almost vegetarian but I make an exception for al pastor, it is so delicious.
Real vegetarians don’t despair, there are pretty much always vegetarian taco options wherever you go, though admittedly much less variety.
Nopales: A type of cactus that is widely eaten in Mexico, it is cut into strips and either sautéed or grilled.
Hongos: Mushrooms cooked up until they’re nice and juicy. If you get it with cheese they might call it a Quesongo.
Rajas: Poblano peppers cooked with crema (Mexican sour cream but lighter) or cheese. They can occasionally be spicy so if you don’t tolerate any spiciness this may not be the greatest option for you.
Quesadillas: Mexico is divided between those who believe a quesadilla needs to contain cheese (pretty much all of Mexico) and those who believe the cheese in a quesadilla is optional (Mexico City residents). The argument of the chilangos is that quesadilla doesn’t come from the word queso but rather a náhuatl word which means folded. So if you go somewhere in Mexico City and order a quesadilla they may ask you if you want it with cheese (I was so confused the first time this happened to me). However, most taco places tend to assume that when you order a quesadilla there you want cheese. You can get a quesadilla with just cheese but also with meat or veg inside as well. So what still confuses me is what the difference is between say a mushroom taco with cheese and a mushroom quesadilla (besides the quesadilla being served folded and the taco open). Is it just the folded part? Anyone have any knowledge/ideas they want to share?
Volcanoes: This means volcano and it is an open tortilla that they’ve crunched up a bit on the grill and then top with cheese so it’s all melted and overflowing, hence the volcano. You can get this with some sort of meat on top as well.
Gringas: So this is basically a taco al pastor with cheese but is made with two flour tortillas laid out flat with all the cheesy al pastorness in between (I’m assuming the name comes from the use of a flour tortilla and maybe even the style being similar to how we make quesadillas in the U.S.). It is definitely delicious and having two larger tortillas makes it more food than a regular taco.
Alambres: This is potentially my favorite thing to order when getting tacos. It’s a mixture of meat (usually al pastor) and sautéed onions and peppers held together by gooey cheese. You get this mixture on a plate and then get tortillas on the side so you can make your own tacos.
On the side at a sit down place you can get such items as guacamole, chicharón de queso (cheese cooked on the grill until made into a thin crispy sheet), queso fundido (melted cheese with other things thrown in sometimes served with tortillas), cebollitas (green onions cooked in soy sauce), or frijoles charros (pinto beans served at almost the consistency of a soup with bacon or some similar meat and onions and such). A lot of places will also give you chips and the salsas for your tacos are available on the table for dipping.
Pretty much anywhere you go for food in Mexico has aguas frescas: water flavored with fruit, flowers or rice with a fair amount of sugar. Taco places are no different and you can almost always find the agua fresca staples: agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) and horchata (like rice milk but made with water. Fun fact: horchata was originally and sometimes still is made from melon seeds). You’ll probably also be able to find a limonada (limeade) pretty much anywhere and of course there will probably be chelas (the very Mexican word for cerveza which is beer).
How to Order:
Like I mentioned at the beginning, do not expect your taco to come with lettuce, cheddar cheese and sour cream. You will get the meat or veggie you have requested and the normal toppings are diced onions and cilantro. If you get one of the al pastor options, your taco or gringa will also come with chopped pineapple. So if they ask you if you want your taco “con todo,” they are referring to those two or three things. If you would prefer to not have one of those toppings just let them know. Salsas are at your table for you to choose which one you’d like and how much but be careful, salsas can be really spicy! Fun story, when my Mom visited Mexico I took her to a taco place and she loaded up a chip with a salsa that has some avocado in it so it looks sort of like guac but is really quite spicy and she was almost unable to eat the rest of her meal. It was quite funny for everyone else but I’ve never seen her eyes get that big! I always sample tiny drops first to see if the spice level is appropriate for my taste before loading up my tacos. And of course you can’t forget to squeeze some lime juice on top, the fresh acidity really brings out the rest of the flavors.
Whatever you decide to order, make sure to enjoy every last finger lick.