A Taco Primer for Visitors
Published Jan 11, 2005 - (Updated Sep 12, 2012)
The humble taco was one of the first foods of Mexican origin to gain widespread popularity north of the border. Today, crispy taco shells filled with spiced ground beef, grated cheddar cheese, and chopped lettuce and tomato have become common fare in fast food restaurants and school cafeterias. Yet, visitors to Mexico will find something quite different when ordering a taco here. Probably the biggest surprise will be that the shell is soft, rather than crispy, but the differences don’t stop there. Everything from the meat to the garnishes to the sauces will be novel to the uninitiated.
And even within Mexico, styles of tacos vary from region to region. In the northern part of the country, the large flour tortillas, de harina, are more common, while in Puerto Vallarta and the southern part of the country in general, smaller corn tortillas, de maiz, are the rule. And even the corn tortillas vary, with sizes ranging from 3” to 6”. When using the smaller size, a couple are usually needed per taco.
The meat fillings also vary by region. Common in Puerto Vallarta are tacos of carne asada, slices of beef grilled over mesquite coals; arrachera, a spicier version from the north; carnitas, pork cooked in a style native to our state of Jalisco; and al pastor, sliced marinated pork stacked on a spit. Carnitas, a pig that has been cut up and cooked in lard with orange rind, is one way to be sure every part of the animal is used. For the squeamish, asking for maciza will ensure that your filling is just a nice piece of pork. The more adventurous may want to try buche, or cheeks, orejas, or ears, and corazon, or heart. Tacos al pastor, or shepherd’s tacos, are made from slices of pork stacked on a vertical spit called a trompo, or top, which turns slowly in front of a gas flame. Originally brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, this style of meat is then expertly shaved off by the taquero, or taco vendor, with a slice or two of pineapple for the special flavor it imparts.
Once the choice of meat has been made, it’s time for garnishes and sauces. The taquero may automatically add the garnishes or you may choose from among sliced radishes, cucumbers, cabbage, cilantro, chopped onions, grilled green onions and the ubiquitous lime wedges. Then come the salsas, or sauces. There will be several choices, depending on which meat you choose. If you’re unsure, try just a little at first. The flavors and spiciness vary and “liquid fire” could be the result. The dark red salsa is made from small, dried red chilies, and can be quite hot. The textured green salsa is made from green tomatillos, and may be less spicy. The light green salsa is made of avocados and has a flavor similar to guacamole. The milder red, green and white salsa, called pico de gallo, or rooster’s beak, in some areas, is called salsa Mexicana in Jalisco because the colors of the tomato, cilantro and onion also are the colors of the Mexican flag.
Tacos can be found practically everywhere, from established restaurants to taquerías, or permanent taco stands, to puestos, or the ambulatory carts that set up in the same place each morning. Should you be nervous about standards of cleanliness at the puestos? Maybe not nervous, but definitely aware. In making your choices, consider advice from locals, who will recommend the places they frequent, happy to send more business to their favorite stand. If there’s no one to ask, check around for a stand that has a lot of customers. Once again, the local people know where to go. Check whether there is water available for washing hands and utensils. Also, check how the money is handled. If there isn’t a person specifically designated to handle the money, a plastic bag or glove should be used to make change, and then removed before touching the food. However, one advantage to eating at a taco stand rather than a traditional restaurant is that everything is prepared right in front of you so you can observe what goes into it and be sure that it is fresh.
Remember, as you travel in a country where things may be new to you, that part of the adventure is trying new things or variations on familiar things. When it comes to food, you can still be adventurous, just keep your senses about you.