You can’t deny the sheer popularity of the taco, what is regarded as Mexico’s most versatile dish. Here, we suggest the tastiest variations to chase up across Mexico.
The beauty of a taco is two-fold. First, there is the simplicity: a palm-sized portion of corn or wheat tortilla, that can be equally eaten on the go or in classy restaurants. Second, the flavor: tacos can take almost any filling, so there are always new variations to try. Though the origins of the word taco are largely unknown, in certain dialects it can mean plug, thick piece of wood, wedge or, our favorite, a stocky person.
One of the most popular varieties of tacos in Mexico is the al pastor, made with spit-grilled meat (often pork) and sometimes combined with chopped pineapples for sweetness. Considered a quintessentially Mexican dish, al pastor actually came from the Lebanese immigrant community that began arriving in the 1890s and are closely linked with shepherds (indeed, they’re sometimes simply referred to as “shepherd-style”). The Middle Eastern community opened restaurants and used familiar preparation methods, including the shawarma, but added a dash of Mexican flavor in deference to their new home. Today, they can be found in just about any street-food outlet.
Another beloved taco variation iscarnitas (or “little meats”): pork shoulder braised or simmered in lard. The wonderfully juicy meat is often served with onion, chopped coriander and spicy salsa verde. The dish originated in the western state of Michoacán and is essentially the same recipe as pulled pork. The traditional method of cooking carnitas is using a copper pot that disperses the heat evenly for three to four hours. If cooked correctly, the shredded meat should be slightly crispy at the ends and the pork so tender that it can be shredded into individual pieces.
A favorite in central Mexico, suadero tacos are made from a thin-cut of beef taken from the ribs. The meat, which is similar to brisket (the lower chest of a cow), has a smooth texture and is typically fried and chopped into tiny pieces. Suadero is often hard to chew, so the chopping is essential and is usually done over a tree trunk. Mexico City street-food stands are still the best place to try these tacos, as the capital is most associated with them.
Tacos de cochinita pibil at Taco Lounge, Guadalajara
These are legendary and are associated with eastern coast of Mexico. In essence, tacos de cochinita pibil are slow-roasted pork tacos. Traditional cochinita is made with a suckling pig, which is marinated in citrus juice, seasoned with the orange-red condiment annatto derived from achiote, wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted. The dish even appears as a recurring theme in Robert Rodriguez’s 2003 film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In the movie, Johnny Depp’s character enjoys cochinita so much that he feels compelled to kill the chef every time he tries it. The mouthwatering dish is also used as a taco filling throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. The pork is combined in a tortilla with chopped coriander, lime and pickled red onions.
For this traditional dish, a snapper fish is split in half from head to tail before being marinated in a mixture of achiote paste, beer and chilies. The fish is then grilled over hot coals in a wood-fired oven and served with salsa and warm tortillas. These barbecued fish tacos originated in the coastal state of Nayarit, but are now popular throughout the country and are a regular feature on the menus of seafood restaurants. They make a pleasant change from the usual meat-laden tacos and are best sampled with a chilled white wine.
An odd choice – but not for Mexicans. Tacos de chapulines, or grasshopper tacos, are most closely associated with the southern state of Oaxaca. The insects are only collected during the rainy season between May and early September. After being washed, the grasshoppers are toasted with lime, garlic and salt. The finished product is very salty, sour and crunchy. Besides Oaxaca, chapulines are still found in traditional towns such as Puebla and Cuernavaca. Some Mexico City markets also stock the daring delicacy. Most often, grasshoppers are sprinkled over tender meat, giving the dish a delightful crunch.