We’ve all heard of tacos. That’s too easy. But have you heard of el pastor or cochonita pibil? Or what about mixing it up with sopes, gorditas and panuchos,  oh my! Don’t worry, we’ve got your tastebuds covered

Real Mexican Tacos

The first time you see a real Mexican taco menu will make you want to run out of the taqueria. At least, one thing rings true about Mexico: tacos are ubiquitous, eaten everywhere, every day. Tacos to Mexicans are what the gourmet meal is to the French (just ask UNESCO).

Today you’ll find tacos in both rickety street carts and gourmet restaurants alike. “Tacos are a way of life,” said Enrique Olvera, one of Mexico’s most renowned chefs (Pujol).

To clarify, tacos are soft, usually small, round corn tortillas topped off with your choice of filling. Spoiler alert: the filling is what gives each taco its name. On a Mexican menu, it’s the filling that’s listed. We explain the must-try ones below.

Their name also changes depending on the filling or cooking style, for example, tacos guisados are filled with homemade stewed meats, while canasta tacos are ‘basket tacos’ that cook in their own steam in a covered basket (also known as ‘Tacos Sudados’, “sweaty tacos’).

But let’s not stop there. Corn masa in Mexico is squeezed into every shape and form: thin, thick, large, small, fried, crunchy, in the shape of a sandal… you name it. And with each different preparation comes another new name to learn. Read on how to tell a tlcoyo from a tlyuda.

What Mexicans can do with corn keeps it far from becoming repetitive. Add to that all the regional varieties and family recipes, and you could be discovering authentic Mexican tacos for years.

A History of Mexican Tacos


Tacos take you first on a journey through Mexico’s indigenous history, when corn and bean paste were staples; then drags you through the country’s tumultuous history, when colonialists and immigrants brought new ingredients and cooking techniques. You’ll see traces of Spanish, French, Lebanese, and more.

The word taco is thought to have come from the Nahuatl word ‘tlahco,’ which is roughly translated as “half” or “in the middle” a reference to how tortillas were prepared.

The origin of tacos is unconfirmed, although references from 1500BC show the Olmecs in Chiapas used a process of nixtamalization – soaking corn, then cooking it in lime water – a part of the tortilla-making process. In a book by university professor Jeffrey Pilcher, “Global Taco: A Globally History of Mexican Food,” he additionally notes records of Moctezuma using a ‘tortilla spoon,’ and working men using tortillas as a portable way to transport their meats and stews.

While it would be impossible to list every regional version and the potential names you will find, here are some of the main types of tortillas you have to try.

Traditional Mexican Tacos

arrachera real mexican taco

Mexican Taco Fillings

Many types of tacos have long and interesting tales behind their origin, usually hailing from a particular people or zone in Mexico. After many years of migration, today you can find popular regional specialties all over Mexico, although more so in the megalopolis of Mexico City, which has received the great influx of internal movement than any other state.

What is more familiar, no matter where you go, are the standard fillings:

  • chorizo or longaniza – usually pork sausage, with spices
  • beef (res), steak (bistec), or arrachera – marinated, thin skirt steak
  • chicken (pollo) or tinga – shredded chicken, tomato and chipotle
  • chicharron – fried pork belly or rind
  • cecina – salted and thinly sliced meat
  • carne asada – roast meat, usually with a marinate
  • suadadero – a smooth beef cut from between the belly and leg
  • campechano – a diced mixture of a bunch of meats, typically found in Campeche or Tabasco.
barbacoa authentic mx food

Tacos de Barbacoa

Maya claim the barbecue as a pre-hispanic specialty, based on their long practice of cooking meats in underground pits lined with hot embers and stones. Barbacoa meats combine smoky flavors derived from the slow, long cooking process, as well as traditional marinate flavours, such as achiote. The perfect side is salsa de molcajete (sauce made with a Mexican mortar and pestle with grilled tomato, chili and garlic). The meat is traditionally cooked wrapped in banana or cactus leaves, so it is succulent and falls off the bone. There are the two main ideas about the origin of the word barbecue: the Maya Baalbak’Kaab (meat covered with earth) or from the Carribean Taíno barabicu (sacred firepit, using wooden scaffolding).

Cochinita Pibil

This is Yucatecan food at its best, hailing from the Caribbean state where Cancun is located. Its popularity means that today, you can find this dish all around Mexico. This dish is named after the traditional Maya oven ‘pib,’ which involves cooking with hot coals in a hole under a layer of dirt. The key to this pre-Hispanic recipe is slow-roasting pork in a marinate of ground annatto – a red seed known as achiote – with contrasting notes of sweet orange and sour lemon juice. The end result is a rich-flavored, stripped pork that melts in your mouth. It’s a great filling for tacos or on top of a panucho, a small fried taco with frijol beans inside. Top it off with a squeeze of lime, habanero salsa, and pickled red onion.

birria mexico taco type

Tacos de Birria

The Birria capital is Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, where today you can still find decades-old family birria restaurants, with scrubbed down tables and hand-painted tiles. Birria is a spicy meat stew, traditionally made with goat, that gets its kick from the rich guajillo chili. You can also find it as a taco filling, with the flavor-packed meat broth (consume) served on the side. In the surrounding states, such as Michoacán, Durango, and Zacatecas, you’ll find regional varieties where beef birria is more common. The meat is slow-cooked in the broth until it is moist and tender. It is also considered a dish for special occasions, such as weddings.

Tacos de Carnitas

Today this taco filling is found all over Mexico, although it originally hails from the state of Michoacan. Carnitas (‘little meats’) is the result of slow-cooked pork in vats of broth and natural fats, which is then cut up finely – skin, fat and all – and chucked on a tortilla. You then garnish it with coriander or parsley, fresh onion, salsa, and guacamole. Do as the locals – wipe up the oils on your plate with your taco for extra flavor. You can order it in two styles: maciza, just white meat, or surtido, with all the bits cut in, fat, skin and all, and the tastiest.

authentic mexico food taco

Tacos al Pastor

Those who have been in the Middle East will recognize the rotisserie kebabs dotting Mexico’s streets. It’s not an old recipe in Mexico, created around the 1920–30s with the arrival of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, but it has become one of the most common tacos you can find all around the country. Tacos al pastor (‘in the shepherd style’) are made from carving thin strips of pork off a spit onto a corn tortilla, topped with red onion, coriander and roasted pineapple, which you can spot sitting on top of the rotiserrie. Sometimes they are called tacos arabes.

best authentic mexican food


Huitlacoche is known by many names, like “Mexican truffle,” “black gold,” or “corn mushroom.” The Aztecs thought it was a gift from god and considered it a delicacy. The reality is a little less glamorous. It’s a fungus (corn smut) that consumes the kernels as the corn grows. Far from ruining the corn however, it adds nutrients such as protein and amino acid. If done right, it can sell for a lot more money. It only grows in certain conditions, and you’ll usually see it around rainy season (from April to October), when you’ll even find it fresh in the markets. Add cheese and a taco… ¡Ándale!


Guisado means stew, and this refers to any variety of stewed meats or vegetables. This is a common Mexican street taco, and you’ll see vendors with a number of large clay pots filled with a variety of stewed meats and vegetables. This is where you’ll commonly find lots of vegetarian taco fillings, such as potato, spinach and nopales (cactus), although meat, like all things Mexican, will be there too. This is also where you get to taste family recipes.

alambre mexico food


Order alambre and you’ll get a sort of DIY taco plate that is the closest thing to fajitas that you will find in Mexico. The meat is traditionally cooked over an open flame on a wire or skewer, or alambre. The roasted meat is then cut up with grilled bell peppers, onions, bacon (or other variations that you can choose, like pork, chicken and chorizo). You can then order it to be covered in cheese. Next to this delicious mix comes a stack of fresh flour or corn tacos.

Seafood Tacos

A homage to Mexico’s extensive coastline is, of course, seafood tacos. Fish tacos are attributed to Baja California, although today you can find all types of seafood tacos around Mexico: mixed seafood (mariscos), octupus (pulpo), fish (pescado, often marlin), prawns (camarones), or even scallops if you want to be fancy (callo de hacha). The distinct difference is the topping: typically sliced cabbage, pico de gallo (sliced onion, tomato and chili), and a slash of lemon or chipotle mayonnaise. Along the pacific, you’ll also find variations like coconut and mango.


Unique & Weird Mexican Tacos

escamoles unique mexican tacos

Tacos de Escamoles

Escamoles – ant eggs – are the touted caviar of Mexico and are as delicious – if not more – and difficult to obtain. They are usually eaten sauteed or fried with a little butter, onion, and epazote (a pre-hispanic green herb), which is simple enough for the delicate cheesy flavor of the escamoles to shine through. You will find them served up any ole way, from tacos to gorditas (pictured above) to scrambled eggs. But you won’t find them often: they are only collected around March and April. They are a pricey delicacy, once enjoyed by Aztec Emperors for their high source of protein.

Tongue, head, and other parts

Sounds disgusting, tastes delicious. Mexico doesn’t let anything go to waste, which more recently has become a movement with the trendy name nose-to-tail. Depending on which part of Mexico you are, you can find tacos de lengua (tongue), cabeza (head), and fritanga (a bit of all the animal), to name a few. You will particularly find these types of tacos on the streets of Mexico City. Top it off with a slash of red or green salsa, diced onion and coriander or parsley, and you won’t be sorry you took the risk to try these surprisingly tasty tacos.


Grasshopper, Larvae or Worm Tacos

There are many Mexican taco fillings that might make you squirm but totally worth the gourmet exploration. Chapulines are a popular crunchy snack in Mexico, and you’ll see street vendors selling punnets of them like you would eat peanuts. If you can master mind over matter, the crispy spice-and-lemon kick is quite tasty, especially on a soft taco. That’s the easy step to master. Next, the challenge is to tackle tacos de gusanos de mamey (agave worms or lavae) or chinicuiles, the red-ink maguey and agave worm that is a delicacy, particularly found in Hidalgo and Oaxaca.

Types of Tacos & Tortillas

Tacos, Tlacoyos, and Tluydas, oh my!

The dizzying array of corn specialties in Mexico is hard to comprehend at first – tacos are but a slither of what’s on offer, and even they come in yellow, red, green and black corn.

Then come different sizes, shapes, consistencies and cooking styles, all which change the name. And just when you think you’re becoming a taco pro, you open hit up a small-town tacqueria and realize they have regional names.

Let’s take sopes, which are round tortillas with a raised edge. When they are simply topped with beans, salsa and fresh cheese, they are memelas (in Puebla and Oaxaca) or picadas (in Veracruz). If they are oval, they are tlacoyos.

If a taco is fried, it’s dorado (golden). A machete is a taco almost a meter long. And ‘carpa’ is when they fry the cheese on the outside… You start to see how there’s an almost endless list of tortilla types to remember.

In short, tacos are plentiful – and no matter the form, you should eat as many as you can.

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memelas regional mexican tacos
machetes mexican local tacos
flautas mexican authentic cuisine

Flautas, Panuchos & Salbutes

These corn tortillas sit in their own category because they are deep friend and crispy, rather than the usual soft-shell tacos. Panuchos are small, round crunchy pocket filled with refried bean; just choose your topping, and pick them up with your fingers. These are more modern inventions appearing in the Yucatan region around the 19th or 20th century. Salbutes are fried in a similar way until they puff up, minus the bean stuffing.

If you can fit one more in, try flautas (flutes) or tacos dorados (golden tacos), which are deep fried tortillas filled with potato, cheese or meat.

authentic mexican tacos canasta

“Basket” or “Sweaty” Tacos

Tacos de canasta or tacos sudados (or even al vapor) are true street-style Mexican tacos, said to have come from Tlaxcala. Tortillas are pre-prepared with fillings that can last a while, and then lightly fried. They are piled into a basket that has been lined with something to keep the heat in and all covered with a cloth. This holds in the heat and creates steam, which softens and moistens the tacos. It also keeps the tacos warm while a seller hawks their goods over the day. This is one of the quickest on-the-run meals you can find on Mexico’s streets. Just look for people carrying wicker baskets covered in colorful tea towels.


types mexican mini tacos sopes


Sope are small, thick tortillas with a pinched raised edge, making a great mini plate for your choice of filling. You might see them as picadita, especially in the state of Guerro. Today, you can find them served with almost any popular Mexican taco filling, usually offered as an antojito (starter). Some say the sope has evolved into other versions, such as the hurache or tlacoyo, although in appearance they are quite different. Perhaps a closer verion is the memela from Oaxaca and Puebla, which is simply served with refried beans, a spread of mole, green or red salsa, and a sprinkling of cheese.

tostada mexico cuisine

Tostadas & Tlayudas

Now we switch to thin, cracker-like tortillas. Tostadas are appetizers which combine crunchy and soft textures in a single bite. A tortilla is fried until it has a golden crunch – or as the name suggests, until ‘toasted’ – and then piled up with your choice of topping. Our favorite is with raw tuna or smoked salmon, avocado slices, chipotle mayonnaise and fried onion strips, although you can find all types of seafood and ceviche toppings, plus meat combinations as well. Add a drizzle of your choice of chili salsa, a squeeze of lime, and eat it with your fingers like a cracker.

Tlayudas are large, thin crispy tortillas topped with a spread of refried beans, lard, shredded cabbage or lettuce, and your choice of meat and salsa. You’ll mostly see these in Oaxaca, where they were created.


Gorditas – which roughly translates to ‘chubby’ – are thick round tortillas of corn or flour, which are usually grilled on a comal (hotplate) or sometimes fried with a little bit of oil or lard. They are typically slit open and stuffed with shredded meat and salad, although you will see them served in a number of ways around Mexico. You can also find sweet gorditas cooked on the site of streets, which combine corn flour, milk and a little sugar  – grab a bag and eat them plain, they’re delicious.

enchiladas mexicano dish


If you’re new to Mexican flavors, enchiladas are an easy (relatively bland) introduction. This dish dates to Maya times when locals in the Valley of Mexico wrapped corn tortillas around small fish. Today you’ll find every possible combination of plain stuffings: frijoles (beans), cheese, meat, eggs or seafood.

You can spice this dish up by ordering them as ‘enmoladas.’ The rolled tortillas are ‘bathed’ or covered in your choice of salsa or mole, then sprinkled with cheese, shredded lettuce or cabbage, and cream. This is a pretty cheap meal if you’re on a budget, usually coming in a set of three.

A traditional Yucatan version is ‘papadzule.’ The tortillas are stuffed with boiled egg, then coated in pumpkin seed sauce and a drizzle of tomato sauce.

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Images (CC Licence): Elton Rodriguez via Wikipedia (barbacoa), Saloca via Wikipedia (alambre), Lorena CM (carnitas, guisados), Marrovi via Wikipedia (gorditas), Pikist (tostada), City Foodsters (enchiladas, sopes), Javier Lastras (nopal salad), Samiiboy via Wikimedia (elote), AlejandroLinaresGarcia via Wikimedia (birria), ProtoplasmaKid via Wikimedia (tlacoyos), flautas (pixabay), City Foodsters (sopes, arrachera), fish tacos, Koffermejia via Wikipedia (picadas), Bernard DUPONT (crickets), T.Tseng (suadero, gusanos, tongue/head tacos), , Isaacvp via Wikimedia (gorditas de escamoles), Axochilt via Wikipedia (tinga).