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Let’s talk tacos; the unofficial national dish of Mexico, they’re as varied as they are delicious and can be found on practically every street corner. However, they are not made with hard, Dorito-like shells and are rarely topped with shredded lettuce, no matter what Taco Bells worldwide would have you believe. This is your essential guide to the best tacos in Mexico, including plenty of regional variations on the classic meat, tortilla and toppings combination.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s lay down the taco basics that every Mexican food lover should know. Authentic Mexican tacos, in their most common form, are served up with lightly but deliciously greasy corn tortillas as their staple base, and then loaded with the meats and fillings of your choice, before being topped off with cebollita y cilantro (diced onion and cilantro) and a whole host of spicy sauces, frijoles (beans) and a healthy squeeze of lime. To eat a taco, you need confidence, a big mouth and a solid grip – don’t set the taco down once you’ve picked it up, or you risk losing the fillings.
One of the most popular taco variations countrywide is the classic al pastor: spit-roasted, marinated pork with a hint of pineapple for sweetness, this filling was developed from the shawarma kebabs brought over by Lebanese immigrants. In Mexico City and State, you can enjoy tacos de suadero (beef, cuts from the leg), which are served in a greasy, rich sauce. Alternatively, the steamed, soft and ubiquitous tacos de canasta (lit. basket tacos), named for the baskets they’re served from, are also delicious.
Moving further afield, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo and Guanajuato all share an affinity for the aforementioned tacos de barbacoa, which are often stewed in pulque, while both Tlaxcala and Hidalgo also serve up tacos de mixiote (pit-barbecued meat) and chinicuiles (maguey worms). Guanajuato, on the other hand, offers a milder taco in the form of a taco de nata (creamy, tomatoey chicken).
Puebla is understandably known for tacos de guisados (stew), as well as tacos de mole, while Querétaro prefers tacos de carnero (mutton) or carnitas (deep fried pork). Tiny Aguascalientes favours the flavoursome tacos mineros (pork, potato and beans), and equally small Morelos has the excellently named tacos acorazados (lit. battleship tacos), which are formed with two tortillas and filled with rice and stew.
Finally, San Luis Potosí has its own brand of tacos known as tacos potosinos. These are soft, spicy tortillas filled with potato, carrot and cheese, plus lettuce and pickled chilies.
As a general rule, northern Mexican tacos are meat (specifically beef) heavy and tend to use flour rather than corn tortillas. In pretty much every northern state, tacos de carne asada (barbecued meat) and tacos de machaca (dried meat) are popular, although there are some regional specialities. Neighbouring Coahuila and Nuevo León are known for tacos de cabrito (roasted goat), Durango has its eponymous tacos de caldillo duranguense (beef stew, essentially), and Tamaulipas has tacos piratas, which are basically tacos de carne asada with cheese and avocado.
Zacatecas City has perhaps the most interesting taco variation, though: the taco envenenado (lit. poisoned taco), made from ‘poisoned’ beans, potatoes and often beef. They’re huge, deep-fried and spicy, so they’re not for the faint hearted! Fish tacos, like smoked marlin, can be found principally in Sonora, but also Tamaulipas, and Chihuahua and Durango are both known for tacos de barbacoa (beef cheek and lip stew).
Seafood tacos are big business in this outlying Mexican region, which consists of just two states: Baja California and Baja California Sur. In the Baja Peninsula, one of the most extravagant regional tacos is the taco de langosta con frijoles (lobster with beans). This variation, unlike most Mexican tacos, is served in a flour tortilla. Both Bajas are also known for smoked marlin tacos, and other prawn-filled concoctions.
Seafood tacos are perhaps one of the greatest culinary legacies the Mexican Pacific Coast has blessed us with. Typically made from either prawns or breaded white fish (very often marlin), these tacos are served up in traditional corn tortillas, before being topped with lettuce (they’re one of the only exceptions to the no-lettuce rule), spicy mayo and sometimes pico de gallo. Nayarit, in particular, enjoys tacos de pescado zarandeado (barbecued fish), while Sinaloa is more famous for tacos gobernador (bacon with fish or prawn and melted cheese).
A more regional taco found in this area of Mexico is the birria taco, which is popular in both Nayarit and Jalisco, the latter of which is birria’s state of origin. A slow-cooked goat (or lamb) stew, a healthy serving of birria is loaded into a tortilla and enjoyed for breakfast. Tacos de carnitas (deep-fried pork) are a common option in the state of Michoacán, and some would say they make for one of the best, most authentic taco fillings. If you want something a little more daring, try out Colima’s tacos de sesos (cow brains), or just play it safe with a taco de machaca (dried beef or venison) in Sinaloa.
If you want to get daring with your taco tastes, you must head to the south of Mexico. In both Guerrero and Oaxaca, you’ll find tacos de chapulines (grasshopper) all over the place, whereas in Chiapas you can give a taco de hormiga chicatana (flying ants) a try instead. If you’re not that into edible insects, various pork tacos can be enjoyed in all three states. Chiapas is known for tacos de lechón/ cochito (suckling pig), whereas Guerrero and Oaxaca are home to tacos de cecina (cured, dried meat). Alternatively, stick with beef and try tacos de tasajo (beef jerky). Due to its proximity to the Pacific Coast region, Guerrero is also a great spot for trying various fish tacos.
After the regional taco richness of the Pacific Coast, the offerings from the Gulf can seem a little pitiful. In Tabasco, one of Mexico’s least visited states, you’ll find some of the most original and unique ingredients. Tacos dorados de pejelagarto (freshwater gar) are popular, as are tacos that feature regional spices and seasoning like chaya. Veracruz has some equally unusual tacos, most notably the tacos de carne de mono (lit. monkey meat, but in reality, it’s just seasoned pork!). Alternatively, you can try tacos de cazón (a type of fish) or other seafood-filled creations.
The most well-known and tasty taco from the Yucatán Peninsula is undeniably the taco de cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), which can be found in all three states in the area, topped with pickled red onions. Both Quintana Roo and Yucatán offer tacos de pescado tikinxik (fish in achiote sauce), and from Campeche you have the eponymous campechano (mixed chorizo and beef), which can now be found countrywide.