The traditional taco follows a similar recipe in taquerias everywhere: a protein wrapped in a tortilla – most often corn – and topped with onion and cilantro. The protein is typically beef, chicken, lamb or pork, but fish tacos are also traditional in Baja and other coastal regions, and goat (cabrito and chivo) tacos are common south of the border. There are variations to the basic recipe, of course, but this one occurs often enough that it’s the rule. One thing to bear in mind, and here we quote the great humanitarian and lover of all things taco, Chris Castro (a regular consultant for us on Mexican cuisine): “No taqueria is a one-stop shop. People figure out what the taqueria does well, and they go there for those tacos.”
1) Taco Lorenza: What is it? Carne asada Sonoran style. The beef is chopped very fine, and then added to a corn tortilla that’s been fried crispy on the plancha. The taco is topped with a cabbage slaw and very mild red salsa. Traditionally, it’s eaten like a tostada. Where can you find it? Yaqui’s is the only one we found, but it, too, is a must-have experience.
2) Cabeza: What is it? Literally, it’s head; the bulk of the meat comes from the cheeks, but small, flavorful bits are tucked in around the bone. The texture is very tender and oily, with a punch of beef flavor. Where can you find it? Tacos San Pedro .
3) Chile Rojo: What is it? Braised pork – often shoulder – in a red sauce, the heat of which will vary according to the peppers used by the taqueria. You’ll find it as carne adovada in many places, including La Fondita in Del City. Where can you find it? Taqueria Rafita’s and Taqueria Cardenas SLP had the best we found.
4) Tripa: What is it? Tripa, or tripe, is the small intestine of an animal. At a taqueria, that usually means beef, and while many people have experienced tripe in menudo, it’s a very popular taco filling as well, especially when it’s cooked extra crispy. Where can you find it? The very best version we found – and they will usually ask if you want it crispy – is at Los Comales.
5) Chile Verde: What is it? The sister of chile rojo: braised pork in a green sauce. These tend to run far hotter than the red, so be careful if you’re heat sensitive. Where can you find it? Taqueria Rafita’s. They run neck and neck with Los Comales on this dish, and Cardenas is excellent, too.
6) Barbacoa: What is it? This depends on the taqueria, but traditionally it’s beef, often beef cheek, slow-roasted and seasoned to be mild. In Mexico, goat is used regularly, but most Americans have never developed a taste for goat. Where can you find it: La Esquina (pictured) has excellent barbacoa, as does the Mi Ranchito truck. On the east side, Taqueria La Fondita (Del City) was a pleasant surprise.
7) Lengua: What is it? Beef tongue. Cooked properly, it’s tender and bland, so the seasoning matters. Most often, you will find it chopped, meaning texture isn’t an issue. Where can you find it? Mi Ranchito and Tacos San Pedro have excellent versions, and for the adventurous, Tarasco serves it sliced thick, rather than chopped, which can be visually off-putting.
8) Camaron: What is it? Grilled shrimp taco, Baja style. Like pescado, it’s served with slaw and sauce. Where can you find it? Hacienda Tacos serves theirs with chipotle aioli for a smoky kick, and Yucatan Taco Stand just straight up serves them spicy. Shrimp tacos are common in taquerias- it’s inexpensive and tasty protein, after all- but the ones at Abel’s, 1492 and The Mayan are worth driving for.
9) Al Pastor: What is it? Because it was inspired by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, it’s spit-roasted pork when done the original way. Locally, pastor is blended with pineapples and chiles to make a slightly sweet, moderately spicy pork taco. Where can you find it? To see it on the spit (trompo in Spanish), check out the Chelino’s Meat Market, but excellent examples abound, including Café Siete and La Esquina.
10) Pescado: What is it? Fried or grilled fish tacos originated in Baja, where they’re served with a cabbage slaw, pico and a sauce. Jicama or cabbage slaw is common, and the sauce is often an aioli of some sort. Where can you find it? Revolución and Barrios have a pretty traditional style in a non-traditional setting, and you can find good ones at Yaqui’s, Los Desvelados and Tierra Caliente.
11) Carne Asada: What is it? Marinated, grilled beef, and while it’s a staple of taquerias, it’s more difficult than we expected to find an excellent version. Where can you find it? Two of the trucks – Taqueria Sanchez and Mi Ranchito – have great versions, and so do La Esquina and La Fondita.
12) Carnitas: What is it? Slow-cooked, pulled pork, just like at your favorite barbecue joint, but carnitas are deep-flash-fried before serving. Where can you find it? Pretty much every taqueria, but La Esquina and Tacos San Pedro are famous for theirs.
13) Desebrada or Deshebrada: What is it? Shredded beef, slow cooked with onions, garlic, chiles and occasionally tomatillos or tomatoes. Depending on the taqueria, the desebrada may start as flank or skirt steak, or a roast like chuck. Where can you find it? Most taquerias will have a version, especially those that have a large lunch counter like the mercados La Esquina and La Michoacana.
14) Pabellon: What is it? It’s the South American version of desebrada. (In Cuba, it’s ropa vieja.) The chile blend is very different given the vast difference in regions and climates, but it’s nearly always very mild in taquerias. Where can you find it? 1492 has it in both locations, and it’s a must-have taco in the city.
15) Buche: What is it? Pork stomach. This one can be a bit of a challenge for non-adventurous eaters, but when prepared properly, it’s delicious. Where can you find it? The best and consistent was at Carnitas & Tacos El Tarasco. At El Jalisciense, the edges came out a little charred, which made the texture more pleasant.
16) Cochinita Pibil: What is it? Pork shoulder, braised with achiote paste and citrus. The traditional dish calls for bitter oranges, so it’s not sweet, but it is tender and intensely flavorful. Where can you find it? The Mayan, Yaqui’s and 1492.