I'm gonna say a word. Your job is to describe the first image that comes into your head. Ready?
What'd it look like? Hard yellow shell stuffed with a moist ground meat filling with shredded lettuce and cheese? Or maybe some battered and fried fish stuffed into a soft corn tortilla with a smear of chipotle mayonnaise and a cabbage slaw. Or how about braised goat's head with a red hot salsa verde?
Tacos come in all shapes, sizes, colors, makes, and models, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't like at least some form of meat-shoved-in-thin-flatbread. Here's a quick guide to the most common types of tacos around. I'm sure we've missed a few, so feel free to chime in with anything you think should be included!
There are many regional variations, but the oldest, most widely consumed forms are made with soft white corn tortillas griddled on a comal until lightly charred or steamed until soft. They're small (usually no more than three or four inches across), and are eaten as a street snack.
Fillings can be anything from the battered and deep-fried fish of Baja to grasshopper-stuffed tacos de chapulines of Oaxaca, but they generally fall into one of three categories: griddled/spit-roasted meats, fried meats, or braised meats. Most restaurants or carts specialize in one category. The meaty fillings are finely chopped into tiny pieces on a block of wood known as a tronco with a sharp cleaver before serving. Traditionally, Mexican tacos come very simply adorned with diced onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges, pickled or grilled jalapeños, radishes, and a choice of salsas for the customer to add themselves. Of course, nowadays, fillings and condiments run a wide gamut. We'll get into that.
Tacos de Asador (Griddled Fillings)
Griddled fillings include meats cooked using dry heat methods like frying on a flat comal or roasting on a spit. The most common ones you'll find are carne asada (grilled steak), chorizo (a sour fresh Mexican sausage), pollo (chicken), or tripita (grilled tripe). Often served on a double stack of tortillas, guacamole is a common addition, particularly to strong-flavored grilled meats like tripe or stomach.
Tacos de Cazo (Fried Fillings)
Fried fillings are generally slow-cooked in a simmering pot of lard before being crisped up on a hot comal. In that way, it's analogous to French-style confit. The most popular of this style of cooking is carnitas, made by slow-cooking pork shoulder in lard until meltingly tender. Other common cuts are tripa (pork tripe), buche (pig's throat), and suadero (beef cuts, usually from the brisket).
Tacos de Cazuela (Braised or Simmered Fillings)
These tacos include head meats like cabeza (mixed face meat), sesos (braised brains), tromp (braised lips), and cachet (cheeks). Whole sheep or goat wrapped in maguey leaves are cooked in large steamers into barbacoa, then the meat is shredded and mixed with the juices that drip out while it cooks before being piled back into a double stack of tortillas.
There's no doubt that the quality of the tortilla and the filing are what define a good or bad taco, but the best taco in the world can be either brought down or elevated by the quality of its salsa (which, by the way, is Spanish for "sauce"). There are four common types of salsa typical to taquerias or carts (though obviously, there are many more variations on these depending on where you go):
A deep red salsa made with cooked dried chili peppers and aromatics. It's generally smoky, complex, and hot. It may or may not contain tomatoes.
A loose puree of avocado, lime, and aromatics, it's similar in flavor to guacamole, but far thinner, with a pourable consistency.
Salsa Casera (pico de gallo)
Fresh salsa made from raw chopped tomatoes, onion, chili peppers, and cilantro, though other vegetables and fruits can sometimes be used. It's often called pico de gallo (the beak of the rooster), and represents the three colors of the Mexican flag (red, white, and green).
Green salsa made from tomatillos, chilis, and cilantro. Bright, tart, and fresh tasting, it can range from mildly hot to downright fiery
And if you branch out to Fast Food or Taco Kit-style tacos, you'll also find...
This smooth, tomato-based sauce vaguely resembles watered down ketchup flavored with chili powder and perhaps a bit of cumin with heat levels ranging from "mild" to "fire," which when adapted to the Mexican scale translate as "mild" to "sort of mild." Even the hottest won't have any but the most light-tongued reaching for the water.
Made from cooked tomatoes and tomato purée, this is the stuff you'll find in the jars sold next to the tortilla chips. While they aren't the best choice for real tacos, they can make a great addition to kit-style tacos. Check out our taste test.
At some fast food taquerias, they use...
Weaponized Salsa Dispensers
These are caulk gun-like handheld devices designed to dispense a precise amount of sour cream, guacamole, or salsa onto an unwitting taco, burrito, or gordita.
SPECIALTY SOFT TACOS
These are some of the most popular regional variations on the soft taco theme that you'll find in Mexico and beyond.
Originally from Baja, the long peninsula off the Northwest coast of Mexico, fish tacos have been popular in Southern California for a long time and are finding greater popularity on these days on both coasts and everywhere in between (even the Cheesecake Factory has'em on the menu). Made with fresh fish either grilled or battered and deep fried, it comes served on a soft corn tortilla with a shredded cabbage slaw and a cream, mayonnaise, or sour cream-based dressing, often flavored with chipotle (smoked jalapeños), lime, or cilantro.
Remove the fried fish from a fish taco and replace it with grilled or fried shrimp and you've got shrimp tacos, also from Baja.
Tacos al Pastor or Tacos de Adobada
Meats cooked on vertical rotisseries. Very similar to Greek gyros or Middle Eastern shawarma, thin slices of marinated meats (like pork seasoned with adobo, for instance) are layered on top of each other on a long skewer, cooked via radiation in a vertical broiler, and sliced off in thin shreds as needed. You'll often find a pineapple, tomato, or onion stuck on the top of the stack to help flavor the meat as its juices drip down over the layers.
Tacos al Carbón
A specialty of Sonora, these tacos generally feature fast-cooking meats, most commonly thinly sliced beef steak, though stands specializing in tacos al carbón will often also serve chorizo, chicken, and/or organ meats like tripe and intestine. The meat is grilled on grates set over live coals, which impart a distinct smokiness and char them more deeply than those seared on a griddle. They're often accompanied by grilled green onions, sliced cucumbers, and radish.
Tacos de Canasta
Rarely found outside of Mexico, these tacos are made by stuffing corn tortillas with fillings like chorizo, potatoes, pork skin, or beans, then placed immediately inside a container lined with a cloth. The cloth is folded over the trap steam, and the tacos are then carried around until sold or eaten. In this manner, they get steamed as they sit, turning the tortilla extremely soft and fragile. So elusive are they that we couldn't even track down a photo of them in the wild.
Ok, so they may not be for everyone, and they're tough to find in the U.S., but tacos stuffed with fried chapulines (grasshoppers) can be quite tasty. They're crunchy and nutty and really quite delicious—as long as you close your eyes.
Tacos are generally a meaty snack, but there are a number of traditional vegetarian options. Tacos de Papa are filled with creamy potatoes, while squash blossoms, rajas (roasted pepper strips) or even nopales (cooked cactus paddle) are not uncommon. Perhaps the most famous (and one of the rarest) is stuffed with huitlacoche: kernels of corn that have been infected by corn smut, a fungus that turns them black. Often referred to as "Mexican Truffles," huitlacoche has an almost cheesy, earthy aroma that's truly fantastic inside a hot corn tortilla.
The style of taco served in San Francisco's Mission district, where burritos are really king. Along with meat, they come adorned with more burrito-friendly fillings, like cooked beans, refried beans, cheese, lettuce, and a variety of salsas. The archetypical mission-style taco comes from La Taqueria, on Mission Street.
With the popularization of Tex-Mex restaurants came a need for something other than Huevos Rancheros for breakfast. Breakfast tacos are a quick and easy option in the morning, consisting of a tortilla (often flour) filled with meat, eggs, and cheese. They're particularly popular in Texas, where you'll find everything from eggs and cheese to potatoes, bacon, and chorizo, like in the Suicide Taco at Rosie's Tamale House in Bee Cave.
Food Truck Fusion Tacos
With their simple mode of production and eminent snackability, tacos and food trucks naturally go hand in hand. While many rolling restaurants stick to the basics, serving either griddled or braised fillings, modern trucks veer from the creative to the just plain weird. The Kogi Barbecue Truck from L.A. can be attributed with popularizing this style, with their tasty, kimchi-stuffed concoctions. Note: These tacos don't actually have to come from a truck.
This is what happens when renowned chefs get their hands on tacos. Like most foods, they range from excellent—try the chicken and green chorizo version from Alex Stupak's hot new Empellón (our review here) or the awesome smoked and confited beef tongue in the Benny Lengua Taco at Ken Oringer's La Verdad in Boston—to the downright silly (like the raw Spicy Tuna Tartar Tacos at Todd English's Bonfire). What they all share in common is a particular chef's attempt to add a twist and upgrade to the classic.
Fancy-pants tacos can occasionally end up in the dreaded realm of Tacos Gringos (see next section)
Tacos Gringos (a.k.a. Yuppie Tacos)
Imagine an alien flying over the earth observing us through a telescope and taking notes so they can recreate an earth exhibit back on their home planet. Now, they may well get a bunch of things right, and at first glance, their replica of the earth might fool some people. But get down to the details, and the façade falls short. That's what gringo tacos are. Tacos that bear a resemblance to the Mexican original soft corn taco, but lose something (or several things) vital in preparation.
This often manifests itself in the following ways:
- Badly heated or stale tortillas that either get saturated with juice and fail, or crumble when you try and fold them.
- A vain attempt to up-scale-ify the meat. This can mean, for instance, using higher quality beef cooked medium rare and sliced into strips (thus making them impossible to consume without sliding out of the tortilla). Marked by high quality but low flavor.
- Odd fillings and salsas that compete rather than complement the main filling. The biggest offenders include corn and black bean relishes, or the dreaded mango salsa. Horrors!
- Soy-based vegan fillings. That's all there is to say about that.
For an example of tacos that offend on nearly all of these fronts, head to Papalote Mexican Grill in San Francisco's Mission District. Or better yet, don't.
Chinese Soft Tacos
I can't verify the following story, but it seems to make sense to me. Starting about ten years ago, Chinese immigrants to New York who planned on opening Chinese restaurants found the takeout Chinese restaurant market to be saturated. Rather than throwing in the towel, they instead opted to open cheap, fast, taco shops around the concept of tortillas cooked fresh to order. Hand over a couple bucks and the cook deposits a small ball of flour-based dough into a machine that rolls and grills the tortilla, which is then stuffed with toppings, usually limited to steak, chicken, or black beans. They often serve other NY Chinese Takeout staples like fried chicken with duck sauce and french fries.
Depending on the quality of the fillings, these can range from excellent to stomach-churning. Look for restaurants that look suspiciously like Chinese takeout joints with names like "Taco Mex" or "Fresh Mex" or "Tortilla Max." The combination of "taco" or "tortilla" in the name along with a Chinese cashier is a dead giveaway.
Indian tacos, sometimes called Navajo tacos, are a regional specialty, found in the American West and Midwest. They swap the tortilla for frybread, yeast-leavened disks of dough fried in lard or oil until puffy. Though you can find them at restaurants like Tim's Drive Inn in Oklahoma City (review here), they are more commonly served at pow-wows and Native American festivals.
Fast Food Soft Tacos
In the realm of soft tacos, fast food tacos are usually made with flour tortillas instead of corn, and rather than being served flat or rolled up, they're folded in half, mimicking the U-shape of a hard-shell crisp taco. Filling options generally include small bits of steak or chicken, a seasoned ground beef mixture, or refried beans, and they come topped with diced tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, shredded yellow cheese, and sour cream, with some sort of sauce served on the side.
Taco Bell's Cantina-style tacos, a recent (and now retired) limited-time offering, were more similar to traditional Mexican tacos, with soft corn tortillas and a garnish of onions and cilantro.
These are taco-based products that involve wrapping ingredients in soft flour tortillas. That's about all the similarity they have to real tacos. The McDonald's Snack Wraps is probably the most notable form of TLO, though Taco bell also serves several TLO's, like their Gorditas (not to be confused with the true deep-fried gorditas of Mexico) and their Chalupas. I strongly believe that this category only exists so that it can be avoided.
Here are some of the more common hard-shell taco varieties you'll see.
Probably the closest thing you'll find to a "traditional" hard taco. The fillings tend to be similar to a soft tacos, but the shells (usually made of corn flour) are fried until crisp before serving, folded in half to cup the filling. If fried flat, what you've got instead is a tostada (also delicious).
Tacos Dorados (aka Flautas or Taquitos)
Tacos stuffed with a simple filling of shredded chicken or beef, rolled up into cigar-shaped cylinders, and deep fried until crisp. They can be served to be eaten out of hand as-is, or served a few at a time on a plate drizzled with salsa and crema.
Taco Kit tacos
In 1950, New York restaurateur Juvenico Maldonado helped to make tacos a popular weeknight dinner in American homes when he patented a device to hold the tacos in U-shapes as they are deep-fried; after this was invented, grocery stores across the country began to sell taco kits, complete with hard shell tortillas, seasoning mix, and taco sauce.
If you grew up in a certain era (like the '80s), these are probably what you came to know as the taco when your mom declared one tuesday night a month (Taco Tuesdays!) as Taco Night. Brands like Old El Paso and Ortega make kits that contain a dozen hard taco shells, a squeeze bottle of ketchupy-sweet and tangy "taco sauce," and a packet of dried herbs and spices.
All you do is brown some beef, add some water and the seasoning packet, then serve it all at the table with accompaniments of your choice. Standard options include chopped tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, jarred salsa, some homemade guacamole (if you're lucky), and a couple cans of refried beans. People would stuff their tacos as they see fit, then try and eat them without letting the shells crack in half at the seam.
Closely related to the Taco Kit Taco, these are the industrial-scale version of the same. They're served on the same schedule (once a month, on a tuesday), but this time the filling is spooned into taco shells by cafeteria staff outfitted with hair nets and aprons. Taco filling doesn't fare well in steam tables, so its advisable to sprint down to the lunch hall as soon third period algebra lets out.
The cracklier, greasier, puffier cousin to hard shell tacos, puffy tacos are always made with a fresh corn flour dough. The dough gets pressed into disks of a specific thickness (it takes practice to get this right), then tossed into a deep frier where they gently puff up. They come served with typical hard taco-style fillings, including beef or chicken garnished with cheese, lettuce, and chopped tomatoes. A specialty of San Antonio, we like the ones from Los Barrios.
Chocolate cookie taco shells stuffed with ice cream and dipped in nuts. Need we say more? Here's how to make your own from scratch.
Fast Food Hard Tacos
There are almost too many styles of fast food tacos to enumerate, but the most popular are probably the hard corn-shelled version from Taco Bell, which comes with a choice of filling (usually a seasoned, paste-like beef mixture), the soft wheat tortilla version of the same, or the deep fried version from Jack-in-the-Box, which features a shredded beef mixture, plenty of cheese, and minimal toppings. Shells can be plain corn, or dyed bright red, coated in powdered cheese, etc. Straddling the line between Fast Food Taco, Tacos Dorados, and TLO's are the Go-Go Taquitos from 7-11, tube-shaped, deep fried tacos served off of a hot dog warmer.
This cross-bred lovechild of a taco and a quesadilla was created by Gabrielle Arnold of the blog Honest Fare. it's made by sandwiching cheese in between two tortillas, griddling them until melted, then wrapping the whole thing up around a taco filling.
Taco salads were created as a clever way to serve a 3,000 calorie meal under the guise of health food. They start with an oversized deep-fried bowl-like taco shell made of either wheat flour or corn. In the bowl goes a layer of lettuce followed by any or all of the following: grilled meats, refried pinto beans, black beans, chopped onion, tomato, peppers, salsas, grated cheese, sliced olives, pickled jalapeños, cheese sauce, sour cream, guacamole, diced avocados, and chili (did I miss anything here)? It's essentially cold nachos in which some of the chips have been replaced with chopped lettuce. Ideal for taco lovers on a diet...or...something like that.
UPDATE (7/14): Taco Dogs
The cutest, cuddliest taco of all. Don't eat these at home.
UPDATE (7/15): Taco Grande
Ok, so it may not be a taco you can eat, per se, but it must be the greatest song about Mexican food ever written. You see, I just gotta have a tostada, that's right, I want the whole enchilada. My only addiction has to do with a flour tortilla (I need a quesadilla). I love to stuff my face with tacos al carbón (with my friends or when I'm all alone).
UPDATE (7/15): Tacos Arabes
Tacos al pastor may be the Lebanese immigrants' take on tacos, but tacos arabes are the true taco-shawarma hybrid. Made with shawarma-style meat cooked on a vertical spit, they're sliced like tacos al pastor, served in either warm thin, Lebanese-style pita, or occasionally a flour tortilla, topped with taqueria-style condiments. You can find these in Puebla, as well as in many American cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, or New York (I recently spied them on the menu at the Tacos Morelos truck on Bedford and North 7th in Williamsburg.
Thanks to the commenters and readers who tipped me off to this omission!
And that's the whole tamale!
Make sure to let us know about any styles we missed in the comments!