From Al Pastor to Carne Asada: A Brief Guide To Classic Mexican Tacos

We'll always and forever love Mexican food because one bite speaks volumes. Eating at a street food stand gives you a lens into Mexican regional food specialties that have centuries (sometimes millenia!) worth of history. The food culture in Mexico City is so celebrated that it's even been designated an UNESCO intangible heritage. 

It’s almost impossible to eat your way through every street food stand in Mexico (though you can be sure we’re on a mission to do it!), but we’ve got a not-so-secret secret for you: Mexico City is like a one-stop shop for Mexican street food.

Many of the country’s regional foods collide on the streets of Mexico City so you can sample a major part of Mexico’s food while wandering the city. Realtiy is that the street food scene in Mexico City is so enormous that you could probably eat street food a year and not hit the same stand twice. So let’s just focus in on tacos, shall we? And even more specifically on the classic meat tacos of Mexico. 

Here is a brief glossary of the more common types of meat tacos you’ll encounter on the streets of Mexico City:

Al Pastor Tacos (aka Adobada) 

You see that vertical spit turning and slow-roasting a huge chunk of pork? You're at a taco stand specializing in al pastor where meat is slow-cooked on a trompo (aka a spit).

Al pastor translates to “like the shepherd,” in reference to the Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Mexico in the early 20th century. They brought shawarma with them and it eventually evolved into tacos árabes (a dish in Puebla where spit-roasted, seasoned lamb is served on a pita) and even further into al pastor.

Al pastor tacos are made by marinating meat (historically lamb but often pork nowadays) with Mexican-meets-Middle Eastern flavors like charred onions, garlic, achiote paste, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. After the pork butt is marinated overnight, it's layered onto the vertical spit and cooked for hours until the meat is tender, flame-licked, and caramelized.

How to know where to go for the best al pastro tacos? First of all, a legit al pastor joint only does al pastor and does it excellently. Most Mexicans say that the larger the trompo the better the spot (the rationale being the amount of meat they cook is an indicator of demand at a given taco stand). Oh and know that al pastor is major a nighttime taco since the trompo turns and cooks for hours before its ready (also because it’s a phenomenal cap to a night out on the town)!

Finally, in some parts of Mexico, like where we travel in Northern Baja California, al pastor is more commonly called adobada.

Barbacoa Tacos

Each region of Mexico has its particular way of making barbacoa -- the variations are endless, from the type of meat used and the type of condiments to the material used for wrapping the meat and even the baking or steaming process itself.

Traditionally in Mexico, barbacoa is made with lamb (though you’ll also see it made with beef or goat) that is wrapped meat in maguey (aka agave) leaves then slow-roasted overnight in an underground oven lined with hot stones.This dish is a Mexico City street food staple on the weekends where, as early as 8 AM, you can get your hands on barbacoa as tacos or served with consommé –– a soup made from the meat drippings and mixed with garbanzo beans and rice.

FYI, in the States, barbacoa may also refer to beef prepared in the same way.

Birria Tacos

Birria hails from the state of Jalisco and is an icon of cultural identity of the Jalisciences (people of Jalisco), but birria came out of necessity. In the 16th century the Spanish introduced goats to the region, the population quickly grew, and during a famine, locals turned to goats for survival.

Birria can mean slightly different things depending on where you are and who’s cooking. You may get a stew of deep red, spiced goat stew served with tortillas, condiments, and salsas. Or you may be service meat (often lamb, beef, or chicken) marinated in a chile rub then slow cooked and stuffted into sauce-dipped tortillas topped chopped onion, lime, cilantro, or shredded cabbage.

On thing's for sure: birria is known as a popular hangover cure and maybe this is why it’s mostly eaten in the mornings and early afternoons.

Carnitas Tacos

Speaking of meat, there is arguably no taco more about the meat than classic carnitas and we have the Mexican state of Michoacan to thank for this oh-so delicious dish.

The name carnitas translates to “little bits of meat” and pork is the star. To reach its most savory state, pork shoulder is slow cooked in lard then orange and garlic added. Once the shoulder is tender the pork is chopped (not shredded as you often find it stateside!) and served. Though even the name carnitas proves this taco is all about the meat, we believe the classic toppings of lots of lime and a good salsa make the dish!

Carne Asada Tacos (aka Al Carbon) 

For a quicker cooking meat preparation that doesn’t skimp on flavor, there is al carbon. The term al carbon refers to any sort of meat grilled over charcoal which results in a deep, smoky flavor.

Arguably the most well-known al carbon preparation out there is carne asada though there is one key difference. Yes, carne asada (marinated and grilled meat, usually beef) is grilled over charcoal, but afterward it’s chopped up and cooked on a flat-top grill before serving.

The Northern Mexican state of Sonora has roots in raising cattle so it's only natural that is it the home of carne asada. You’ll find tacos served on flour tortillas in this region, though more on that below.

Cochinita Pibil Taco 

A marinade of orange juice and achiote makes this slow-roasted pork juicy and tender, and it’s what to eat in Mexico when you’re in the Yucatán (and of course, during your Mexico City meat taco tour). Cochinita means baby pig, and pibil translated means buried.

And traditionally, the marinated pork is swaddled in banana leaves before roasting in an underground pit. You’ll find cochinita pibil served with pickled red onions although a heads up for your clothes while eating; the achiote turns the meat bright orange.

The traditional way to make Yucatecan cochinita pibil is to bury a pig in a steaming, smouldering, stone-lined pit and cook it slowly for many hours. The pork has first been marinated with a bright red paste of achiote seeds, garlic, spices and bitter orange juice, and then wrapped in banana leaves. This tender meat is pulled and served simply in its own juices with hot tortillas and pickled onion.

Tacos De Canasta

Literally translated tacos de canasta are “basket tacos", meaning these Mexican tacos are arranged and piled into a basket for taqueros to sell on the go. The basket is covered with cloth and plastic so the tacos keep warm and moist (tacos de canasta are also known as tacos al vapor or sudados in other parts of the country) until you inevitably cross paths with them.

These tacos come with a variety of fillings including beans, potato, and chicharron (pork skin). And reportedly, San Vicente Xiloxochitla in the state of Tlaxcala is the birthplace of tacos de canasta.

Tinga Tacos

Another Puebla specialty you’ll find in Mexico City is tinga or “stew” tacos. We'er talking meat (generally chicken or pork) that is slow-cooked in a combo of tomato, onion, garlic, chipotle and a bit of cane sugar, or piloncillo. Top your Tinga tacos with chopped onion, cilantro, lime and cheese.

Tortillas 

When it comes to tortillas, tacos are usually made with corn tortillas, though the northern regions tend to favor flour because corn was hard to grow in these parts of Mexico. And if you’re wondering why corn tortillas don’t come any bigger than the variety of flour tortillas, it’s because of gluten. That is, since corn doesn’t have gluten they can only get so big. So, unless you’re traveling through Mexico’s border states, corn tortillas are the way to go.

Salivating yet? Then pack your bags, because we're heading back to Mexico City soon

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Opening photo by Christine Han

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