Sorry to tell you this, but those hard-shell tacos with cheddar cheese, lettuce, and mild sauce aren't tacos. If you want to know what the real stuff is, take a look at these Mexican culinary wonders.
Born and raised in Mexico, I’ve always admired our culture and traditions, but perhaps what makes me the proudest is our amazing gastronomy (I mean, it was even named Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO). As a country that has always been a melting pot of different cultures and civilizations, we’re as diverse as it gets, and it only gives us an endless catalog of possibilities, not only in terms of culture, but also the food. Perhaps what brings together all of these amazing dishes and flavors is actually our famous tacos, but let me tell you that unless you haven’t been to Mexico, there are so many traditional ones you’ve probably never heard of. And, I’m sorry to tell you, you have no idea how much you’re missing out on. Those hard-shell things people like to call tacos are nothing compared to the delicious kinds we enjoy every single day, at very affordable prices, and basically, everywhere you go in this country. So, if you really want to know what the real thing is, keep on reading about unusual types of Mexican tacos. A piece of advice: be sure you have some tissues with you because you might end up drooling a lot!
These are one of my ultimate favorites. “De hoyo” literally means that they’re made in a hole in the ground. There are three main types that are widely popular and considered to be one of the main traditional Mexican dishes of all. Barbacoa (that has nothing to do with American barbecue), mixiotes, and cochinita pibil are amazing delicacies that could only get their intense and amazing flavors thanks to this process of creating a furnace in the ground.
Barbacoa is lamb wrapped in banana leaves. It’s cooked in the hole with a casserole underneath; as the meat cooks, it naturally releases juice, which is in itself another delicacy we call consomé. Once the meat is done, it’s served in the same leaves and accompanied with soft corn tortillas. In the traditional way, you’re served something called “salsa borracha,” which could be literally translated as “drunk sauce,” made with peppers and pulque (an alcoholic drink made from the maguey plant).
Cochinita Pibil is a traditional dish made in Yucatán, a state in South-Eastern Mexico, that dates back to the Maya. It’s prepared like barbacoa, though it’s made with pork and seasoned with orange juice and a natural pigment called axiote. It’s often served with purple onions and the highly spicy habanero sauce.
The mixiote is a bit different. This has been a dish made mainly in central Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Back then, it was made both in earth holes or steamed. It takes its name from a natural film taken from the maguey plant called mixiote. This can be made with any kind of meat or vegetables, seasoned with axiote and other spices.
Another great type of taco is the amazing “tacos de carnitas,” made from pork. The traditional way to prepare this treat is by seasoning the pork with some herbs, orange juice, and tequesquite (a pre-Hispanic type of salt). These are put in water on a copper casserole and fried with lard. There are many carnitas stalls all over the country, so they're quite accessible and delicious.
Perhaps one of the most tacos ever, especially in Mexico City, tacos al pastor are really affordable and simply exquisite. Inspired by the classic preparation of shawarma, the meat (sometimes a mix of pork and beef, though most of the time only pork) is seasoned with axiote and red peppers to give it that unmistakable reddish hue. Once seasoned, the meat is assembled on a metal stick called “trompo” that rotates so it's evenly cooked. These tacos are often served on very small tortillas and accompanied with some onion, coriander, red or green sauce, and a small piece of pineapple.
If you were to travel to the north of the country, mainly in states with a coast, you’ll find the traditional fish and seafood tacos. These come in flour and corn tortillas, and the fillings depend a lot on the restaurant you’re going. The most famous ones are fried battered fish or shrimp accompanied with some sort of chipotle sauce. But in this case, there are tons of varieties that depend on the cook.
The taco placero might be one of the simplest and fastest ways to eat tacos, but nonetheless one of the most delicious one. Here in Mexico, we have something called chicharrón. Essentially, it’s fried pork skin you can find everywhere, and it’s also quite cheap. The taco placero is basically the tortilla, some pieces of chicharrón, avocado slices, steamed or grilled nopal (prickly pear), some fresh cheese, and sauce. A simple taco packed with flavor.
So far, all the types of tacos we’ve presented here are quite affordable, but perhaps the cheapest taco all over the country is the taco de canasta. They're tortillas with various fillings (like beans, chicharrón, potato, and chorizo), cooked in steam. They’re assembled inside a basket ("canasta" in Spanish) that keeps them warm and moist. In some other parts of the country, these are called tacos sudados (or sweaty tacos) because the basket linings are often plastic bags that make them sweat. The beauty of these is that the basket is placed on a bike, so the taquero can go to different spots to sell these treats. For only $1 US dollar, you can have about five of these popular tacos. Quite a deal, isn’t it?
Now, let’s go to the complete opposite in price ranges: bugs. You would think these would be really affordable, but they’re actually very expensive delicacies (especially if you go to a restaurant). Bugs have been eaten since time immemorial in these regions, and to be honest, though they look strange at first, they are really tasty. The most popular ones are chapulines (a type of cricket), escamoles (ant larvae, and probably the most expensive ones), maguey worms, jumiles (stink bugs), and in some extreme cases, scorpions. The preparations differ from place to place, but that intense and unique flavor is the same throughout the country. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
And talking about things that some people would consider strange, let’s talk about some of my dad’s favorite tacos ever, those made with guts (and other animal parts that aren’t that common). The most popular are tripa (intestine), lengua (tongue), eyeballs, brains, and in some taquerías, you’ll find also testicles, and uterus (mainly prepared "carnitas" style). These delicacies can be found in “puestos de lámina,” which are street stalls. Would you dare try these?
Another “puesto de lámina” or Mexican street food favorite, is the classic “taco de guisado.” Guisado literally means dish or preparation, so you can actually try some of the most popular and traditional Mexican dishes served in taco form. From mole, filled peppers, meat prepared in a wide variety of sauces, and so many other tasty dishes. These tacos are often served with rice cooked Mexican style (which we call red rice because it’s prepared with a tomato sauce), some beans, and your favorite dish. These are also quite affordable, since you can get a couple of these for about a dollar (beverage not included).
I know I wrote the word barbecue, but it’s not really what you have in mind. Yes, it’s made on a grill, but the ingredients are quite different. Generally eaten at family gatherings, the grill is just an excuse to hang out and spend some time with those you love. As for the food, the common elements that are grilled are beef steaks, arrachera (hanger steak), chorizo, and longaniza (two types of sausage), pearl onions, nopales, and peppers.
Last but definitely not least, we have another popular traditional dish called tacos dorados or flautas. These are basically rolled tacos fried in oil. They can be filled with whatever you can think of but perhaps the most popular fillers are chicken, potato, shredded beef, or barbacoa (our first taco suggestion). These are commonly served with sour cream, fresh cheese, chopped onions, lettuce, and sauce, though you can find in some regions of the country something called flautas ahogadas, which are the fried tacos submerged in hot sauce.
You might think this list is long, but it’s actually nothing compared with the wide variety of possibilities when it comes to tacos. Actually, we make tacos of basically everything, so the possibilities are endless. That’s why I love our traditional gastronomy so much.
Here are other Mexican wonders you should know about: