The diversity in types of Mexican tacos goes far deeper than meets the eye. There is such a wide variety in different meats, vegetables, and spices, the taco should probably be considered its own food group… We’ve put together a roadmap to help you understand some of the most popular Mexican tacos that will make your tongue smile.
Al Pastor Taco
One of the most world-renowned and popular tacos in Mexico is the Al Pastor. In Spanish, ‘Pastor’ means shepherd, which was a nickname that was given to Lebanese merchants who came to Mexico City in the early 90s. Back in Lebanon, the style of shwarma meat or a slow-turning vertical rotisserie was a popular part of their food culture. When these immigrants came to Mexico, they brought with them this style which was the foundation of the Al Pastor taco. This taco consists of pork which is marinated in guajillo chiles and achiote which is an orange-red paste that comes from a tree that’s native to Mexico. The pork is cooked on a trompo spit which was adopted from the Lebanese immigrants, and shaved off into thin crispy slices and placed into a tortilla. It’s most commonly accompanied by pineapple, onion, and cilantro.
Another very popular Mexican taco is called carnitas. The literal translation of carnitas is ‘little meats.’ The Mexican version of pulled pork, this type of taco is composed of shredded pork shoulder that’s simmered or braised in its own fat and a number of different herbs and spices. This cooking technique makes it very tender. Some of the different herbs and spices that are often used to cook carnitas meat are garlic, salt, cumin, bay leaves, chili, oregano, thyme, and marjoram. The traditional method of cooking carnitas is done in a copper pot so the heat is dispersed evenly. This type of taco is said to have originated in the Michoacán state of central Mexico.
In most of Mexico, barbacoa tacos are typically prepared with goat or sheep meat. However, in parts of Northern Mexico and in the US sometimes a barbacoa taco is prepared with beef cheeks or head meat. Making barbacoa consists of slow-cooking over an open fire inside of a hole that is dug into a ground. The meat is covered by maguey leaves to help steam the meat into a soft and tender state. The origins of barbacoa style cooking actually come from the Taino people of the nearby Caribbean.
Birria and barbacoa tacos are quite similar and sometimes confused. While it depends on the region, birria often starts off as barbacoa, then an extra step is added where the meat is simmered in a spicy guajillo-chili broth which comes from the Jalisco region of Mexico. The birria meat is slow-cooked in the broth which makes it consistently moist and tender. It is often cooked for special occasions such as weddings and on Sundays in Mexico City by street vendors.
Often known as simply a common snack in Mexico and across Latin America, Chicharron is also a popular taco filler. Chicharron is typically fried pork skin, also known as pork rinds, which is typically crunchy and crispy in texture. However, when used in a taco, chicharron is often simmered in a variety of spices which gives it a soft and chewier flavor. Not only is chicharron often used as the primary meat in tacos when cooked and simmered, but it’s also often used as a taco topper to add some crunch.
The Spaniards brought many things to Mexico during their time of rule. From religion to architecture to cattle, Spanish influence is everywhere in Mexico. One of the most popular Mexican tacos was also a product of Spanish influence. While traditional Spanish chorizo was typically made up of a number of different types of meat, Mexican chorizo is almost always composed of minced pork. The meat is cooked and seasoned with spicy chili peppers then placed in a natural casing and aged by air drying for up to a week. The capital of chorizo in Mexico is the city of Toluca.
Lengua means ‘tongue’ in Spanish and that’s exactly what this taco is composed of. While many people might be hesitant to try tongue thinking it might be overly chewy in texture, if it’s cooked right it’s quite the opposite. Beef tongue meat is usually slow-cooked for hours which results in a very soft and smooth texture. Because of this, it is not typically over chewy and this unique type of meat offers a very unique flavor to other beef cuts. Eating beef tongue dates back to the Paleolithic period and lengua tacos are common all over Mexico.
Often associated with Mexico City, the Suadero taco is made with beef that is cooked for long periods of time then seared and chopped into small pieces. It’s usually marinated in orange and lemon juice the night before. This gives the meat a soft and smooth texture. Suadero is typically the meat located between the leg and the belly of the cow. It’s a very popular taco in central Mexico and a must-try if you are visiting Mexico’s capital. It’s compared to beef brisket, but not prepared in exactly the same way.
If you prefer lighter meat, tinga tacos are a great option. The chicken tinga taco is composed of shredded chicken mixed with a sauce that contains smokey chipotle chiles in adobe, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. This very tasty taco is said to have originated in Puebla, Mexico a city of about 1.5 million people just a couple hours from the capital. The smoked chipotle chiles are the heart of the delicious flavor that comes from tinga chicken tacos. What many people don’t realize is that chipotle chilies are simply smoked and dried jalapenos.