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Aug 13, 2006 09:22 AM

A question about authentic tacos . . .

My wife and I finally took the plunge into the local taqueria scene. The place we visited has a reputation as one of the best taquerias in our area, and it seemed very authentic (as evidenced by the fact my wife and I were the only ones in the place speaking English). Anyway, we really enjoyed the experience, and I loved the flavor of the tacos I tried, especially the beef cheek one, but I had one reservation: the heat. I have a mid to low tolerance for spicy foods, and the building heat of the tacos became somewhat distracting before I had finished the meal. The spice came from the meat itself, with the taco al pastor even hotter than the beef cheek taco. I guess the meat is marinated in spices, or chiles are added during cooking, or both. With the base level of heat present, I couldn't stand to add more than a slight drizzle of salsa, offered in multiple versions, all of which also seemed very hot.

So my question is, is this typical? I'd like to hear some experienced taco hounds chime in with their opinions. Are authentic tacos usually spicy across the board? With the exception of fish tacos for example, would I be on a fool's quest to search for a milder version of an authentic taco? Is that a contradiction in terms?

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  1. Al pastor is generally marinated in chiles and other spices. Often tacos are served with a "hot sauce" as well as a cilantro/onion mix, so you could request no hot salsa. Milser fillinf options include carnitas (pork), lengua (tongue), or baja style (fried) fish.

    1 Reply
    1. re: _tm_

      Alot of taco fillings will marinated in a type of chile mixture. As mentioned above, carnitas may be your best option. You can also tone down some of the heat by adding a decent squeeze of lime to you tacos before eating.

    2. Generally (at least where I live) most of the meats aren't spicy. Here at least the cabeza is very beefy and like a stewed pot roast. Usually lengua or asada or pollo or carnitas will be mild though some places may have a spicy version. But al pastor should have a spicy rub, and I would avoid that choice until you build up your tolerance.

      The other issue may be the salsas. Most salsas prepared for a Mexican clientele will be on the spicy side. Because the heat from chilies is not instantaneous (unlike wasabi for example), you may not always be sure of what is making your mouth hot. You probably should try little tastes of each meat choice just to be sure of which ones are mild and which spicy.


      1. Eat chiles every day and within a few weeks the small amount that's in some taqueria meats will seem very mild.

        2 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Or you could burn out your tastebuds, like I did twice. Once on an habanero concoction called salsa infierno and once on Atomic Fireballs. I had it so bad, that at one point some non-salty items tasted salty. I ratcheted my salsa consumption back a notch or two, but wouldn't you know it, I was able to tolerate habanero salsa this past weekend.

          2. Most of the meats at the taco places in Los Angeles are not spicy in themselves, even the al pastor. Your tacos may have already had salsa on them. Next time order without salsa, and then add salsa yourself from the salsa bar. While some places will only have one or two HOT salsas, others will have a variety, and some won't be spicy.

            1. the spiciness of al pastor really depends on how the individual place cooks them. I've had some very benign, some fiery hot.

              Generally, chicken tacos don't have a lot of heat to them. They often aren't the most flavorful either, but that obviously depends. So you may want to try that next time.

              My all time favorite commonplace taco is carnitas. At a good place, its meltingly tender and extremely flavorful. And it is, at its basic, simply pork. Salsa on the side. Good, amazing stuff.

              Many times (most times) I've had straight beef tacos or carne asada, the beef is just seasoned, but not spicy at all.

              Don't give up, but try a few different kinds and ask them, if you can, to not put salsa on it - you can do that on the side.

              Tacos are too good to ignore!!!

              2 Replies
              1. re: adamclyde

                Don't worry, I'm not giving up--other than the heat, my first authentic taqueria experience was all positive.

                I should have been more specific in my original post and mentioned that I did ask for my tacos without sauce/salsa, so the meat was definitely the source of the heat. And the al pastor was definitely the main culprit. I tried the cabeza taco first, and while it was spicier than I like, it was bearable. Then I tried the taco al pastor, and suddenly everything tasted spicy, including my Sprite! My mouth didn't cool down until I dug into a piece of tres leches. Dairy to the rescue!

                Thanks to all for sharing your knowledge with this taco novice.

                1. re: Low Country Jon

                  carne asada is a good choice to get flavorful meat (grilled beef) with no marinating or heat added at the cooking stage.