Mexico, Travel

How Are Authentic Mexican Tacos Different from American Tacos?

Tacos y’all. Photo by Thomassin Mickaël.

Last week I gave a tour of Guanajuato as I’ve experienced it, and I devoted part of that post to my quest for good local tacos. One reader said my description made her doubt her longstanding aversion to tacos. That surprised me, because I can’t imagine having an aversion to tacos.

But I sometimes forget that Americans eat tacos that are definitely not tacos by Mexican standards. And I think that’s a shame because it means people are missing out on a lot of amazing meals.

So this week I’m taking it upon myself to be your taco ambassador. With pictures!

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Midwest Taco Night

First let me describe what counted as “tacos” when I was a kid. Growing up white in Wisconsin, we stayed pretty close to baked chicken or baked pork chops or an occasional oven broiled steak. I don’t remember even having Chinese food till I was nine or so. So you can imagine that our tacos, when we had them, were far from adventurous.

But I also think many readers will find them familiar. My mom would start by putting ground hamburger meat into a big pan. As it cooked she mixed a packet of store-bought taco seasoning into it. (Actually, for all I know you mix the meat and seasoning first; I’ve never had the dubious distinction of authoring a batch of these tacos.) While that was browning up she would chop a head of lettuce, dice a few tomatoes, and if things were getting crazy maybe even dice an onion.

When all this was done we’d shove it in into bright yellow “crispy” tortillas. I don’t think we even knew the word tortilla, we just said taco shells. The taco shells had been deep fried weeks before in a factory, and as I recall the packaging went to some lengths to make sure they weren’t all smashed to bits.

Over these little Frito pockets we would shake shredded cheddar cheese, drizzle some jarred salsa and maybe even blob a little sour cream. Voila! C’est le tacos.

(Eventually, as I grew older, we had to have a fight in the store over where to get Mild or Medium salsa. Living on the edge.)

Not bad, for a white guy. Photo by Kevin033.

Now I want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with these tacos. In fact, they’re really good. Like really good… for junk food. I’ve been to bars where their happy hour included these tacos and I wanted to kiss someone (I probably did). If someone says we’re getting together Friday night for movies, beer and this kind of tacos—I’m there. Kids really like them, too.

(Although I was weird in that respect. I think I may have thrown a fit when taco night rolled around, or just made one or two small ones and gotten the heck out of there. But that’s not because these tacos are bad, it’s because I was a picky eater. Like a really picky eater. Like I should be dead or diabetic by now.)

So these tacos are great, except for one thing: they’re not tacos. Or at least, they wouldn’t be recognized as tacos in the home country of tacos. They have nothing in common.

There’s also little variation. Anglo Americans sometimes prefer “soft” tacos, which is getting closer to real tacos in theory except now we’re using flour tortillas (???) instead of corn. In fact, as far as I can tell gueros (that’s you, fair-skinned English-speaking people) will choose flour tortillas over corn tortillas any chance they can get.

So let’s look at how Mexican tacos are different.

Nom. Photo by Bobbie Bowers.

Oh Thank God Actual Tacos

Basically every ingredient in Mexican tacos is different. For example:

  • They are soft tacos.
  • The tortillas are always corn. If that sounds bad to you remember these are not cold, dry, sandpapery store-bought corn tortillas. These were freshly pressed at the tortillería 30 feet away or made by the taquero’s mom. They are hot, steaming, moist and ready to fall apart in your mouth.
  • There is never lettuce*, tomato*, or shredded cheese. Rarely there may be sour cream available at a taquería or public market but it’s not common. (*Okay there may be a “salad” of lettuce and tomato that comes on the side of the plate but that’s not part of the taco now is it? Stop putting it on the taco.)
  • There usually isn’t cheese at all. If there was cheese it would be called something different. More on that later.
  • The meat is what makes the taco and it is never hamburger. You have dozens of meats to choose from. Most taquerías have at least five or six any given day.
  • Common toppings are finely diced white onion and cilantro. Not everyone adds this; it’s up to the customer. Sometimes you might also be offered radish slices, half an onion grilled to the point of browning, or a whole pepper prepared on the grill or fried in oil.
  • You are offered unlimited slices of fresh limes.  They’re heaped in bowls all over the place. You squeeze these over your tacos like the amazing slices of heavenly existence that they are.

So imagine strips of fresh grilled steak spritzed in lime juice on a taco like the one above. Or pork meat with a tangy marinade spit-roasted and shaved off paper thin seconds before it falls on your taco. Or ground Spanish sausage, or… well, I’ll spare you.

The point isn’t just that it’s amazing, it’s that it’s a totally different meal than Anglo tacos.

The salsa is also different. You have everything from heaps of diced tomatoes to bland red salsa to piquant red salsa to smoky chipotle to burn-your-mouth-green-salsa (the green is usually hottest). Every taco stand has at least three different kinds, often house specialties that they take pride in. Sometimes there’s guacamole too. That’s the great thing about legit tacos: you basically build them yourself. You can load them up, try new combinations and make it as spicy or not spicy as you want. I want to repeat that:

Mexican tacos are not spicy. You make them as spicy as you want. (Usually.)

Photo by John Verive

Where Can You Find These Tacos in the US or Canada?

If you’re asking this question I assume you’re Caucasian. That means you have a problem: no one wants to sell you these tacos.

These tacos do exist in the United States, all over the place. Some of the best tacos I’ve ever had were in a small town in Illinois; runner up was South Dakota. But the problem is that the restaurants that make them are 100% sure you as a white person do not want them. Even if you ask for real Mexican tacos they still assume you want the fake ones because when white people say “give me the real thing” they usually mean “give me what I’m already used to but tell me it’s the real thing.” They’ve probably even served real real Mexican tacos to white people in the past, and then had them sent back because “you forgot the cheese” or “this isn’t what I ordered.” That person got you off the taco list. Sadly, like Cain’s children, sometimes we must pay for other people’s sins.

But with some finagling you can get these tacos. For starters go to a Mexican restaurant run by a Mexican family, not a chain restaurant (the word taquería is a good sign). Pluses if mostly Mexican Americans eat there and the staff have to fetch a brother or sister who speaks English to take your order.

Second, you’re going have to describe what you want. Sometimes it’ll be on the menu as tacos mexicanos (or I’ve seen it as chivatacos in Texas) but more likely you’ll have to explain. “Tacos like they do in Mexico… with cilantro and onion, no cheese.” Maybe learn those words in Spanish before you go.

If it’s slow they might be excited that a gringo wants real tacos. They might start to like you. If it’s busy they may not pay you much attention so confirm you’re really getting what you asked for. And make a point of asking for corn tortillas, because they’re really really sure you want flour ones.

(Do squeeze some of those limes on there, though, and add some salsa. Otherwise you’ll be coming to me complaining that “there was no flavor.”)

Some advantages of this kind of taco:

  • They’re amazing.
  • They’re not “greasy” the way people think (Americanized) Mexican food is.
  • They’re a lot healthier, with no white flour, no deep frying, and no pile of fat from dairy.
  • They’re pretty affordable. At a sit-down taquería in the US expect to pay $1.00-$2.00 per taco or maybe $7 for a big plate with side dishes. (In Mexico, they range 5-15 pesos each or 40-60 for a full order. 5 pesos is about 40 cents.)
Mexican burritos as made by Don Quique, a great cook and a total bastard. Photo by André.

Mexico City burritos made by Don Quique, a great cook and a total bastard. Photo by André.

A Genus Not a Species

The other cool thing about tacos in Mexico is that it’s not really just a single dish. There are hundreds of types of tacos. And while the word usually means the thing I described above, “taco” is family of foods, with all kinds of strange taco relatives hanging out together:

  • Taco: it’s a taco
  • Burrito: it’s a really big taco
  • Quesadilla: it’s a taco with cheese
  • Gringa: it’s a really big taco with cheese
  • Sincronazada: it’s two tacos smashed together with cheese
  • Enchilada: it’s a taco smothered in spicy sauce
  • Enmolada: it’s a taco smothered in mole sauce
  • Taco Sudado: it’s a steamed taco
  • Flauta: it’s a deep-fried taco
  • Chimichanga: I’ve never actually seen these in Mexico, but if they exist it’s a really big deep-fried taco

The list goes on. In Spanish any of those could simply be called a taco in context, and it makes perfect sense. (Some of those do use flour tortillas, by the way.)

Now one thing I have to give to the United States is we really improved the burrito. The California burrito beats the pants off the Mexican burrito and anyone who says different is on the pixie dust. Don’t get me wrong, Mexican burritos are delicious. But that thing the size of a chair leg stuffed with rice, beans, guacamole, meat and sauce? That’s 100% Yoo-nited States engineering right there. Take that, Hitler!

Still, despite that one victory, we pretty much massacre tacos. Some of my Mexican friends are under the impression that to an American, “tacos” are what Taco Bell serves. And the worst part is I have to tell them that, in many cases, that is what Americans think. And that makes me die inside.

So if you get a chance get out there and try some real tacos.

Got a question on food in Mexico? I’ll do my best to answer. Leave me a comment!

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15 thoughts on “How Are Authentic Mexican Tacos Different from American Tacos?

  1. There was a fantastic little taquería in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois just off campus from the University. I stopped in there once to get lunch and when served authentic tacos I thought I had died and gone to heaven. They, unfortunately, ended up shutting down after a fire severely damaged not only their storefront but a few others adjacent to them.

    Luckily, there was an excellent, family-owned Mexican restaurant (El Toro) in the area. If you happen to find yourself in CU, I recommend their Chile Colorado, but ask for corn tortillas; they usually serve it with flour.

    • Nice. Thanks for this tip, Dash. I don’t have specific plans to head that way but I’ve learned never to rule out ending up somewhere… and Champaign-Urbana does catch my interest.

  2. Dena says:

    Dash, have you been back since Maize opened on Green Street? All corn tortillas, lots of options for fillings, made of yum!

  3. MercyFire says:

    Excellent article, Andre! Will have to try this at home. American Tacos are one of those meals I throw together out of desperation (usually because I forgot to thaw something else) and don’t really look forward to eating. Will definitely have to give the real thing a go. Thanks!

    • Go for it. I would definitely try to hit up a taquería so you can try them firsthand before attempting to replicate. For meat choices on a DIY basis, pulled pork (WITHOUT barbeque sauce) would make a good option.

      The tough part will be getting the tortillas right. Buy small (6″ or less) corn tortillas. You can try microwaving them if you want; if so try doing it in a covered container with a few drops of water. Alternately you can heat up a pan (no oil or very light spray coating) over high heat and just throw the tortillas onto it. Before you throw each tortilla on, moisten your hand at the sink and lightly brush your fingers over the tortilla so it´s slightly moist. Keep a cover over the pan while the tortillas are in it. You’ll know when to flip them because the tortilla will be rising up from the pan with air bubbles inside. You want slight browning on one or both sides.}

      As the tortillas come out of the pan put them in a stack wrapped in a towel to keep them warm and moist. Keep the towel over them tightly or throw the wrapped stack in a covered container. They’re meant to be served hot and moist just seconds before assembling and eating the tacos. Neat trick from Mexico: as you take individual tortillas out of the container to build tacos, take them from the bottom. That way only the top tortilla gets cold and insulates the ones beneath it. If you draw from the top the next top tortilla is always cold by the time you reach for it.

      Obviously, keep the stack wrapped/covered except when grabbing another tortilla from it.

      • Alien Mind Girl says:

        Oh, man, I feel silly for never thinking of that trick of getting the bottom tortillas.

        In regards to doing pre-bought tortillas at home… the Mexican grocer near my house has pre made dough rounds for making tortillas with, in the cold section. I have never tried them, but I thought it was a brilliant idea (even though I am guessing that it would probably take ME just as long to finish cooking a dough round as it would for a real Mexican to crank out several from scratch).

  4. Alien Mind Girl says:

    Ha!!!!
    Ok, fine, I will have some tacos. :) Thank you.
    I will even try near-home tacos, which I have been intimidated by because I KNOW how dreadful my Spanish skills must be.

    When I was in Costa Rica, juice usually came con leche. A la, I had mora con leche everywhere possible. Do they do that in Mexico? (I don’t remember seeing that in Mexico or Mexican businesses at home, but I am being really hopeful here because… I want some.)

    • Yeah, they’ll add milk to almost anything here given half the chance. I’m sure I’ve seen juice/milk drinks.

      But the most common beverage is agua fresca, basically house made juice dumped into water or soda water with ice. It’s so common/popular that if you ask for “agua” in a restaurant you will get this unless you specify you want “agua natural.”

  5. This is your mother. I was and am an excellent cook. You were the pickiest eater in the world. When you were about 12 yrs old I made from scratch chinese fried rice and sweet sour chicken. You ate and then said “finally, real food”!. I was not happy AND you were impossible to please. Don’t ever expect another double chocolate cake again either. Well….maybe if you come home soon, I miss you. Mom

  6. Beth says:

    Kate, you crack me up.

    Andre: so now you have me wondering: would Mexicans ever have “taco night” at home with their families and make their type of tacos? Or do they just not do that because they are so cheap and you can get more meat options, etc at a shop?

    • Sure. I smell all kinds of amazing things cooking in my neighborhood and the default way of serving most dishes in Mexico is with a covered dish of fresh, steaming tortillas. Everything from stew to grilled meats to a quick dish of rice and beans gets spooned into tortillas. So in that sense almost any dinner at home is taco night.

      But as far as making taquería style tacos at home… I’m sure people do but I’m not really sure. Some of the classic taco meats are a little involved to cook at home (like a whole hog’s head or spit roasted pastor). But I bet they do homemade tacos of all kinds.

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