Here's what chefs say you need to prepare tacos like those you find in Mexico
Corn tortillas are more authentic than flour tortillas for a Mexican street taco.
By Althea Chang-Cook
For many people in the U.S., the typical taco is made using a premade taco shell consisting of a fried corn tortilla, plus seasoned ground beef, lettuce, and cheese. But that’s not exactly authentic.
The crunchy tortilla shell became popular in the U.S. because of fast food chains such as Taco Tia and Taco Bell, says Andrew Smith, author of “Fast Food: The Good, the Bad and the Hungry.” Using prefab shells was quicker than frying tortillas to order, Smith says. Plus, the shells have a longer shelf life.
As for a taco’s insides, Smith says ground beef, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauce were introduced in the U.S. as taco fillings in the 1950s partly because they’re similar to something many people already knew and loved: the hamburger.
Today, Mexican cuisine is the most popular international cuisine in the U.S. after Italian, according to research firm Mintel, and there’s growing interest in authentic ingredients and flavors. If you’re planning your next Taco Tuesday, consider making authentic Mexican street tacos using ingredients that chefs recommend.
Essentials for Mexican Street Tacos
While there’s room for interpretation when you’re cooking at home—you can set aside those measuring spoons if you like—there are some essentials to have on hand.
Soft Corn Tortillas
“Corn tortillas are 100 percent more authentic than flour,” says Jorge Gutierrez, chef at the restaurant Lona Cocina & Tequileria in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “In most areas of Mexico, you will widely find corn tortillas more easily than you’ll find flour,” he says.
In many areas of the U.S., premade soft corn tortillas are widely available. But if you want to go the extra mile for authenticity, you can make your own. Gutierrez says your best bet is to use a tortilla maker. (Shop at Amazon or Walmart.)
And to heat up tortillas, whether store-bought or homemade, right as you need them, you can use a comal (at Amazon or Target), which is a round, smooth, flat griddle, traditionally made of cast iron, for use over your stovetop. The comal can also be used to toast spices or roast peppers and other vegetables beforehand as well, Gutierrez says.
Cumin and garlic are common ingredients for seasoning meats, accentuating a savory aroma. Onion powder, oregano, and coriander are good ingredients to have on hand, and “home chefs should always have guajillo and achiote spices for Mexican cooking,” Gutierrez says. Guajillo is a type of chili pepper, and achiote is a spice also known as annato, made with seeds from the achiote tree. It’s sometimes described as a little bitter, spicy, and earthy all at once. Gutierrez says he also likes to incorporate tomatillo or habanero salsa, avocados, radishes, fresh onions or red pickled onions, and cilantro into his authentic street tacos.
Eddie Garza, a chef and author who was raised in Brownsville, Texas, and now lives in Los Angeles, makes a marinade consisting of puréed pineapple, achiote, red chilies, and other traditional herbs and spices for his vegan tacos al pastor. He says adding chipotle peppers imparts a smoky, meaty flavor to mushrooms or a wheat-based protein called seitan.
In addition to tacos al pastor, which are traditionally made with pork, carne asada is popular. That’s thinly sliced sirloin or chuck steak marinated with orange zest, salt, pepper, onions, and garlic. Nopales (cactus pads) and chicken or pork adobada, seasoned in Mexican adobo sauce, are also authentic main ingredients.
Anna Maria Hernandez Cibulsky, a private chef in Georgetown, Texas, who makes a living cooking in other people’s homes, makes chicken tinga tacos using shredded chicken (she says store-bought rotisserie chicken is a suitable stand-in at home if you’re strapped for time) cooked in a tomato-based sauce with onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, chipotle peppers, and adobo.
At some taco trucks or taco stands, you may also find tacos de lengua, which are made with beef tongue, and tacos de tripitas, which are made with cow intestines. You can make these at home as well if these ingredients are available near you.
For those who follow a plant-based diet, while some ingredients aren’t exactly traditional, they’re prepared in traditional ways. Garza makes faux fish tacos by marinating cauliflower in some of the authentic seasonings above, then dipping it in batter and frying it. He also makes tacos filled with homemade chorizo made with vital wheat gluten, a plant-based protein.
But before you begin making your authentic tacos at home, “I recommend turning on Mexican music to set the cooking mood,” Gutierrez says.
Kitchen Gear You Can Use for Mexican Street Tacos
When cooking from scratch, having the right kitchen gear can make easy work of all the slicing, chopping, blending, toasting, and grilling. The products below earned top marks in Consumer Reports’ extensive lab testing.
A good chef’s knife is a vital part of a kitchen arsenal, and many come as part of a kitchen knife set. Here are a few that performed best in Consumer Reports’ tests. Also check out our evaluations of mandolines, which slice ingredients uniformly.
Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Professional "S"
Wusthof Classic Ikon #8347
Wusthof Classic #8418
Food Processor and Chopper
Slicing and chopping onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients can be a challenge—and time-consuming. Check out these food processors and choppers if you want to avoid tears and a slick cutting board and get the job done quickly.
Oster Versa Pro Series BLSTVB-104-000 Food Processor Attachment
Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004
Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus DLC-2A
A blender can be a vital tool for making salsa, a staple in authentic Mexican cuisine. Here are a couple of top-rated ones in CR’s tests.
Some might say you’re not cooking your carne asada and other ingredients right if you’re not using cast iron. And cast iron is durable and versatile, and doesn’t cost a fortune. Here are a few cast-iron pans that performed well in CR’s lab tests and can be found for $25 or less.
Artisanal Kitchen Supply Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet (Bed Bath Beyond)
Lodge Cast Iron Pre-seasoned
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