Mexicans, generally, are a busy, hard-working people. Though they have their family meals, these tend to be later in the evening.
Usually during the day, folks are looking for something fast, cheap and good. And in the evenings, the party animals are out, and when the munchies hit, they are looking for the same thing. Heck that was why the taco was invented. Tacos had a bad name up in the States for years because no one knew what a taco was. You would go to Taco Tuesday at a church fair or something and it was this weird crunchy shell, ground beef with an odd chili powder, shredded cheddar, chopped tomato and iceberg lettuce. Que? Luckily we are starting to come around as more and more authentic tacos have been appearing in American cities.
Here in Mexico, the taco is the national nosh. Wagons everywhere serving them up to lines of people. How can you tell if the stand you are eyeing is safe to eat at? First, if there are a ton of people there, clearly the vendor has a good reputation – including clean food. Second, check out the cooking conditions. Many taco makers these days wear hair nets and gloves. They serve their creations on plates covered with a clean plastic baggie. Check out the condiments – are the limes and onions fresh? Is the meat looking healthy? If all that checks out, dig in.
The base of a taco is the tortilla. There are two types of tortillas – wheat flour (harina) and corn (maíz) – both are soft. You can find discussions of the great wheat vs corn tortilla social struggle – wheat is more European, corn is more Native – but it’s taco time so let’s save the politics for later. Wheat flour tortillas are better for bigger things like burritos and gringas; while corn is usually the default tortilla for tacos. Plus, corn tortillas are gluten free.
A standard taco is chopped steak (bistec or res) – usually ribeye, sirloin, or a cut from the shoulder called diezmillo. The chef grills the steaks, then chops it with a humongous curved cleaver in a convex wooden block. Then they add chopped white onions and cilantro (verduras). Normally, they fry six tortillas, smaller than you’d expect, and double up each and create three tacos per order. They usually throw some lime on the plate.
You can ask for grilled onion (cebollitas) or grilled jalapeno, and there is always some kind of homemade salsa or two or three around. Unlike in the States, you don’t pay upfront. You leisurely find a place nearby to relax and eat, order more if you’d like, get a soda (refresco), and when you’re all done you pay. How these folks remember the tabs on a busy Friday night is a world mystery.
Also you will see inscrutable lists taped up or on chalkboards, usually handwritten and misspelled, of other taco offerings – these names and choices change around different regions so the list can’t be exhaustive, however, here is an incomplete guide:
Asada – (grilled) – grilled steak, carne asada implies a softer texture of meat
Barbacoa – Though the word probably comes from the same root as ‘barbecue,’ it is way different. They steam meat in the ground covered with maguey leaves. Around here it’s usually mutton, but they also do beef and chicken. It’s very tender, has strong flavors and always served with consome, a clear soup.
Cabeza – (head) – steamed cow’s head, produces a beefy flavor, usually put in steamed tacos (al vapor)
Canasta – (basket) – you don’t see this at stands but on front stoops of houses, where the locals steam tacos in woven baskets – making a delicious, but slippery taco. They are stuffed with savory potatoes, refried beans, steamed pork skins (chicharron), or head meat (cabeza). Also called al Vapor.
al Carbon – carbon means charcoal – these have char-grilled meat
Carnitas – (little meats) – proof the universe cares about us. Slow-cooked pulled pork – not like American barbecue – but straight up, tender pork. You will see the different cuts in the pan. Tell them if you want it more juicy (jugoso) so they can add a little of the fat and juices.
Chicharron – (pork rind or fat back) – usually this snack is fried for a way tastier improvement over potato chips, but when its steamed, it can be put in a taco with attendant chilies.
Chorizo – a red, Mexican sausage, not generally spicy. This is usually a breakfast meat, but they will chop it up for tacos as well.
Gringa – (white girl) not meant to be offensive – it is steak and melted cheese rolled into a wheat tortilla – if you are missing cheeseburgers – this is your order.
Lengua – tongue – this is prepared from beef tongue braised with garlic and onion – it has a soft texture and is great with spicy salsa.
Longaniza – sausage – this is a pork sausage prepared with spices and chilis, a little spicier than chorizo.
Pastor – (shepherd style) – think of a pork gyro – in fact it is prepared on a shawarma grill; but instead of lamb they marinate the pork in chili, annatto (achiote) and pineapple. They put it on the vertical spit, trompo, and top it with a chunk of onion and pineapple, then spins around in the flame.
al Vapor – (steamed) – see Canasta.