Finding an Authentic Mexican Taco Shop

by Culinary Spelunker / Sep 16, 2011 /
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It’s fortuitous: My first posting for Wandering Educators as the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor falls in September. Just in time for Mexico’s Independence Day, celebrated today, the 16th. Mexican cuisine  happens to be one of my family’s all-time favorites. My husband spent two years in college as a service volunteer in Mexico. He carried with  him a journal to record his thoughts, antics (mostly in lively cartoon lay-out)—and recipes that he described in as much detail as he could  get from the people who dished up everything from shredded pork flautas to elotes, horchata, paletas. Our kids have been sampling rich  Mexican sauces like mole and breaded, fried thin cut steak called  milanesa, and more since they were little. Don’t worry, as time goes on I’ll come back to pass along recipes for each. But today I wanted to offer a way to get a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine no matter where you are. It’s time to go on a hunt for taquerias.


Exploring Mexico's markets

Exploring Mexico's markets



Literally translated, taquerias are taco shops. But please don’t confuse these tacos with the American version--hard, crisped yellow taco shells that chew at the insides of your mouth. Mexican tacos bear little resemblance. Starting with a double layer of just-made soft, white corn tortillas that are briefly heated over a hot burner, the tacos are then served open-faced with filling in the middle and finely diced cilantro and onions. Usually, you’ll find a selection of salsas to drizzle on top. No ground beef. No lettuce and tomato. Not even cheese. Well, sometimes you might have crumbled queso fresco on top  (the nearest American equivalent would be a cross between a mild feta and ricotta).


Throughout Mexico, you’ll find taquerias dotting the streets and even vendors selling tacos from carts. That brings up another important point—tacos are lunch food. Even in the U.S., most taquerias are only open for lunch. Try a dinner date and you’ll be disappointed. There are a few ways to find a good taqueria in your area. Start with an online search, just not for ‘taqueria.’ A few hits might come up, but I’d be somewhat skeptical of a taco shop that has an extensive website. Taco shops are all about the tacos and promotion comes by word of mouth. Online, look for a Mexican grocer in your area. It may take some digging. Then pack up the kids and head to the grocers for some fresh ingredients and flavors you aren’t likely to find anywhere else; when you’re checking out, ask, “Where’s the best taqueria around  here?” New York. Colorado. Michigan. California. Ohio. Those are just  a few places we’ve tried out the taqueria query and then made our way  to a flavorful lunch. I remember in Denver the store clerk even  directed us to a competing grocery store, Avanza because they had a taqueria tucked inside, Tacos Junior (okay, full disclosure—my mouth is now watering). Note: the price per taco usually hovers around $2  per. Three tacos leaves me stuffed.


At a taqueria in Denver

At a taqueria in Denver



As far as what you’ll find at the taquerias, most offer an assortment of tacos and tortas (sandwiches made on a Kaiser-like roll usually with meat, tomato and lettuce held in place by a generous helping of refried beans and smeared avocado—is your mouth watering yet?). Let’s talk taco fillings. If it’s ground beef, you’re not in an authentic taco shop. Keep looking. Standard taco fillings include carnitas,  which are braised or roasted pork; carne asada, which is thinly sliced, barbecued steak; pollo, or chicken, often roasted or slow-cooked; tripetas, sautéed intestines (tastier than it sounds); lengua, beef tongue (my ten-year-old’s favorite); and hands-down the best taco— I can be a little biased about this, right?—tacos al pastor. (Honest, some people say that in reverential tones, myself included.)


Why such esteem for a lowly taco? Let me describe the process of making tacos al pastor. The pork is marinated sometimes as long as two days with a concoction of guajillo, pasilla, ancho and other chiles,  which soak in and give the meat a its characteristic reddish hue. Next the meat is placed on a vertical spit, sometimes called an auto doner, like the ones used for gyros. Juices from a fresh pineapple, placed at the top of the spit, drizzle down, its acids tenderizing the meat and giving it a slightly sweet bite. An onion is often just above the  pineapple. The meat rotates around until you place your order and the cook slices off crisped pieces onto your taco, usually adding a piece  of fresh pineapple along with the onions and cilantro. This is one taco filling I just can’t come close to imitating at home—yeah, I  might have plenty of kitchen gadgets, but an auto doner isn’t among them.


fresh tacos

fresh tacos



One more taco tidbit: Tacos al pastor have an interesting history. The tale in Mexico involves Lebanese immigrants using the same techniques for making Middle Eastern shawarma to create these tacos. In fact, in some areas the tacos are called tacos Arabes. Yes, Middle Eastern-Mexican fusion at its finest.


Now for condiments. Most taco shops seem to offer at least two choices of salsas, if not more. Look for a light-tasting, fresh pico de gallo and a hotter, redder chile-based salsa. You might also find a verde salsa made with green chiles and/or tomatillos (green fruit that looks  like small tomatoes but is actually more like a gooseberry) that are blended with chiles—this one should be spicy. Often, you can spy an  avocado-based sauce too. Not a guacamole, but fresh avocado that’s been pureed with lime, sour cream, oil, or all of the above, until it comes out easily from one of those bottles you’d find mustard in  elsewhere. Radish and lime slices should also be available on your table. Squeeze the lime onto your taco before you eat, and the radishes? Well, those are for quelling the heat on your tongue if you happen to be a spicy taco aficionado (my teen falls into that category).


Ready to track down authentic tacos? Have I convinced you that it’s worth the hunt? One last word of advice—taco shops are generally  tucked away in strip malls and Mexican grocers. Don’t let that throw you off. Though the exterior—and usually the interior—of taquerias are  unassuming, the taco flavors aren’t. Expect bold flavors and fresh ingredients.


Taqueria in Columbus, Ohio

Taqueria in Columbus, Ohio



Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering
. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and


All photos courtesy and copyright Kristen J. Gough 

Comments (3)

  • Carol Voigts

    10 years 1 month ago

    We have a wonderful taco shop out in Marilla , Michigan, that's open just on weekends for takeout!  What a find.  She makes the tortillas too. Carol Voigts --RETIRED!!!

  • Alex Berger

    10 years 4 weeks ago

    Ahh, this had my mouth watering. I think one of the hardest parts of my move from Phoenix to Copenhagen has been the lack of good Mexican food, a former staple of my diet!

  • laradunston

    10 years 1 week ago

    Great post! I do love tacos - and tacos al pastor in particular!

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