Things you should know to Travel in Mexico : TACO 101
By: Playa Mia Grand Beach & Water Park / 10 Feb 2017
Despite the "Taco" part in its name, the Company with the Bell last name has little ado with what "real McCoy" is. This is likely why it has not thrived beyond the southern border. I gather the following information in an attempt to develop the taco mysteries to uninitiated foreigners; luckily, it will give you a glimpse of the infinite array of color, textures, tastes and even cooking methods that make tacos the most popular meal across the country.
First is first and Taco 101 starts with what a taco is and what is not. In accordance with the "on-line Oxford dictionary", a taco is "A Mexican dish consisting of a folded or rolled tortilla filled with various mixtures, such as seasoned mince, chicken, or beans". Notice it says and not "a rigid-u-shaped-ready-to-fill fried corn form". A taco starts with a soft, freshly made tortilla; then throw something in to fill it, roll it or fold it and chomp it away. If a rolled taco is deep-fried, it becomes a "flauta" (flute). When folded taco is slightly fried, it is a "quesadilla". Now if the tortilla is first fried flat to put something atop it is a "Tostada".
A taco is usually made with two tortillas so, if filling moisture breaks the inner one, second will keep everything still inside. Neat isn't it? Then, there is never such a taco if it is not sprinkled with a tasty hot "salsa", usually made with "chiles" (hot peppers), garlic and either green or red tomato; and then, scattered with some freshly chopped onion and coriander.
Few Mexicans eat no tacos at all, deceased ones most of them. "El taco" discriminate no one, not even vegans. It is eaten the same at a street shack or at a top-notch restaurant. Taco is deeply entangled in Mexico's everyday life. "Taco" is likely the most emblematic element of Mexican cuisine, a world's favorite for its elaborate and exotic dishes. The history of this iconic meal goes as far as the pre-Hispanic era when natives used the tortilla as an edible dish or spoon.
So far we know now what a taco is, despite its filling; however, the most popular tacos are famous because of its filling. Let's now review the most notorious fillings.
Carnes al carbon (charcoal grilled meat) Nice beef or pork cuts cooked on the grill make these tacos great. They belong to northern states; however, you can find these at nice establishments in central Mexico. "La arrachera" (beef skirt) is the star of this group.
"Taco Structure" (deep-fried pork)
The following tacos are rated "R"; so if you have a record of heart diseases, skip to the next paragraph, otherwise keep reading for the best-eaten tacos all across the country. "Las carnitas" y "el chicharrón" are in-fat deep-fried Pork, and when I said pork, I meant it. Meat, chops, skin, brain, cheeks, guts, stomach, skin, ears, snout, liver, kidney, hoofs, tongue, genitals…. Everything. Even though these tacos may sound gross, believe me, they are superb. "El chicharrón", which is puffy and crunchy skin, when put into a tortilla with a fresh slice of cheese and another of avocado, becomes a traditional taco "placero".
"Los tacos al pastor" (shepherd style tacos)
These are not of no lesser importance than "tacos de Carnitas" in a "healthy" Mexican diet. Known coast to coast, border to border, these are actually more popular than "carnitas" ones. Their success come from the tasty mix of chiles and condiments in which the meat is marinated and to the fact the meat is slowly cooked in a vertical spinning griller right at the door of every eatery offering it, in other words, is a huge bait for hungry ones. I've seen humongous meat stacks of about 100 lb come to and end in a jiffy. Cooked the same way is the meat for "tacos árabes" (Arabian tacos) but the marinade is done with onion, parsley, cumin and thyme. These ones belong to the central state of Puebla and they are frankly quite delicious. Both cases have likely the same origin as Turkish immigrants brought their dönner kabob, however, pork substituted lamb to better suit our palate, for the shepherd relief.
"Tacos de canasta" (basket tacos)
Mashed potatoes, smashed beans, chicharrón or sausage and peppers are classical fillings for the popular "tacos de canasta"; however, the filling is not the important thing here, but the procedure, which is what gives these tacos their final touch. Once all tacos are filled and folded they are placed lay by lay, with chopped onion in between lays, into a thermal food container, conveniently set in advance using a large plastic bag, sack paper and a piece of cloth, usually a table cloth. Once everything is fitted in, a hot concoction of oil, basil, garlic, and peppers is poured in to soak the tacos. Everything is immediately wrapped for a while to make them "sweat". Certainly nothing like these oily delicacies.
A traditional Mexican barbecue is cooking, underground, a young goat or a lamb covered with maguey leaves. This method uses slow cooking and meat own juices to concentrate flavor and tender the meat. Even though these tacos are mostly appreciated in northern states, the Yucatan on the east applies the same method to an annatto seasoned pork to create the world renown "cochinita pibil", served always with the hottest "habanero chile" sauce and pickled red onion. These ones are a hit!
"Tacos de cabeza"
Visiting Jalisco state, a few years ago, I was treated to a local favorite: "tacos de cabeza de res", which literally stands for cow head tacos. Cheek, snout, ears, tongue and eyes are steam cooked to tender this western taste, served with nothing but salt and fresh coriander and sauce. To be honest, I tried some with meat, however, I couldn't eat one of "eyes" as I couldn't stand the idea of an eye staring at me from my taco just before I bite it. Vegan sounded to me as an option then, at least for a while.
Fried tacos are rather known as "flautas" (flutes). They are usually filled with boiled chicken or beef. These large fried tacos are served topped with chopped lettuce and onion, tomato sauce, sour cream, cheese crumbles and sliced avocado. These tacos have been acknowledged as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. A humble filling-less, smaller version is served in Yucatan and has the Mayan name of "codzitos" or "hollow rolls", served with tomato sauce and cheese crumbles.
"Fritangas" and "guisados"
These two kinds of tacos are the most popular in central Mexico. The "fritangas" are the kind of tacos you can find anywhere mainly at Mexico city in small booths on every street. Basically, it is nothing but fried beef finely chopped served in a tortilla with green or red sauce and topped with onion and coriander. "Chorizo" sausage or tender "nana" (guts) come along too in the menu. The ones I truly care for are the ones known as "tacos de guisados" (stews). Even though you can find them in every city, they are not as popular as in central Mexico. Here, a wide variety of "guisados" are displayed for you to choose as fillings for your tacos, however, sometimes, there are so many options which are almost impossible to make a choice. The best strategy here is to try the ones that appeal you the most, once you have made up your mind, ask for a set of those you really care for… although, most likely, you will be already stuffed by then!
Pre-hispanic tacos or "there's a bug in my taco!"
A special mention is a most for these tacos which tradition and exquisiteness made them transcend time up to our days. One thing is sure; they are not for the faints of heart. Insects and plants play a main role. While some of these delicacies are eaten raw and even alive, most of them are dried and seasoned with salt, lime, and a hot sauce before they land in a guacamole spread on a freshly made tortilla. They are also considered delicious when deep-fried or braised. Charales (small fresh water fishes), Acociles (Cry fish), Jumiles (stink bug) (these are eaten alive), Chapulines (grasshoppers), Escamoles (ant larvae and pupae), Chinicuiles (agave worms), Chicatanas (giant ants), Huitlacoche(This smut is a fungal corn disease), Nopales(cactus) and a large list. Mmm-mmm, "slimy.. yet satisfying!" Isn't it?
Taco scholars still debate which burrito filling was first. Purists are inclined to believe the one with beans and cheese is even first than egg and chicken. That is why "machaca" style eggs or chicken fajitas come with beans and cheese in this northern specialty It also uses a large flour tortilla instead of corn. Machaca is dried meat, mostly beef, very popular to mix with eggs or salsas to fit the burritos. "Fajitas" (strips) are fried chicken or beef strips mixed with bell peppers, onions, and spices.
My very favorite selection of tacos are "tacos de mariscos" or seafood tacos. These tacos come in a vast array along Mexican coasts and rivers. A smoked Marlin taco is a must in Baja California, octopus cooked in its own ink in Veracruz, "a la talla" style fish in Acapulco. Roasted Pejelagarto in Tabasco (yes, Tabasco is a Mexican state). Despite the fact that many claims to have "the best" seafood tacos along the country, a fact is a fact, Cozumel has the best seafood tacos of the universe (I do not mean to be too chauvinistic, just honest). Breaded shrimp or fish taco topped with mayonnaise and red onion slices is simply mouth-watering. Fish ceviche, snail salad, "garlic soaked shrimps", pink snail ceviche, they are all superb!
Just to chew by
It does not matter if fillings are breaded, grilled, fried, oven, roasted, raw or even alive, the fact is that "Its Majesty" the taco reigns from Tijuana to Cozumel, over rich, poor, good, bad and even ugly ones. In the city or in the country, for a quick lunch or a heavy meal, for breakfast or dinner, the taco is, in sum, a cornerstone of our culture and identity.
No sovereign is such without a queen, and its "taconess" is not an exception. This is why no taco is served, all over Mexico, without the company of a tasty Salsa! However, that is a history for some other day.