HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


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?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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.

              2. The short answer is: there is no typical level of heat. Keep exploring with gusto. You will find tacos that you are completely comfortable eating.

                Unlike a post above, I would not recommend ordering chicken.

                Of course, at some point you would do well to build up your tolerance to the heat. You're missing out on some of the most amazing food on the planet.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Steve

                  you've never had good chicken tacos? Man, I've had some that are amazing... just depends on the place whether they are good or not...

                  1. re: adamclyde

                    Usually (not always) bad things happen to chicken off the bone. I do not doubt your experiences, I simply find they are the exception. When going to an unknown taqueira for the first time, I'll go for some form of pork or goat and then on to beef before I'll try chicken.

                    However, the next time I am up in your neck of the woods, I will surely ask you for your taco recs. I'd love to find a chicken taco to rave about.

                    1. re: Steve

                      I agree about that... I generally never start with chicken tacos. But... I've been surprised on more than one occasion.

                      Unfortunately the place near here me who had amazing tacos just closed. sniff...

                2. I am a non-Mexican American living in Mexico. The tacos here in Puerto Vallarta generally are pretty bland. This is why there are usually many different salsas and chilis available at the stands for people to add as much heat and spice as they personally choose. The al Pastor is marinated but I've never had it where I would call it hot, spicy yes, but not hot.

                  1. I think there's some significant regional variation within Mexico in the spicing of the meats, which is refelcted in the differences we find here in the U.S. In the end I think it depends on the regional origin and tastes of the owner, cook, and local Mexican population.

                    1. Woodside Al is right, the heat may depend upon where in Mexico the owner/cook(s) are from as there are huge regional differences and the migratory patterns have changed in recent years.

                      I agree with the recommendations to try carnitas and chicken, both of which should not be too spicy, nor should they be bland. I've had some really fabulous chicken tacos (in Mexico)that were no more than some smoky grilled chicken on a tiny, hot corn tortilla, dressed with a shower of chopped white onion and cilantro to which I usually add the ubiquitous salsa verde, which can vary in heat level. And carnitas, well, when done right that's just about the best thing in the world. Soft, hot corn tortillas, crispy, succulent pork, cilantro....taco heaven :-D

                      Two taco fillings I haven't seen recommended yet are bistec and pibil. Bistec is steak seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper and then grilled. It's chopped into small pieces rendering any tougher steaks very edible.

                      Pibil is pork that is marinated wrapped in banana leaves and then roasted. While the marinade does contain some chiles the other ingredients seem to temper them pretty well so that you end up with some pretty flavorful pork with only hints of heat. Served up with some of the softly pickled red onions, taco de pibil are a wonderful treat. Pibil is a specialty of the Yucatan.

                      Mashed potato can be used as a taco filling and it is delicious, but a lot depends upon how good the mashed potatoes are. There are also any number of stewy fillings that go into tacos. The heat level on these will vary accoding to the cook. If you can, ask for a little taste - una prueba - before ordering to see if you like it or not. They may, or may not honor your request. I'm guessing that if they aren't really busy, they'd give you a taste.

                      There are also taquitos, which can also go by the name of rolled tacos, tacos dorados, or even flautas, though in my neck of the woods (San Diego, CA) flautas are made with flour tortillas. Taquitos are corn tortillas wrapped around a small amount of filling, usually beef, pork, chicken or (the best) mashed potatoes, deep fried and then served with a copious amounts of guacamole. Generally, I think they are a delightful excuse to eat guacamole, but they are not an American invention. I've seen and eaten them in the interior of Mexico, though they are served with less guacamole. I've also seen and eaten taquitos that, after frying, have been cut into thirds and added to a rich and spicy beef broth, making a satisfying soup. Enhanced wtih the ever present chopped white onion, cilantro and lime, this is a terrific regional taco variant.


                      6 Replies
                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        Wow, I don't think I've had cochinita pibil since visiting the Yucatan in 1997. I should get back there some day...

                        I translated a recipe (using Alta Vista's Babelfish) I found on yucatan.com.mx. Probably the most appealing one that isn't quite right was:

                        Spanish: 125 gramos de manteca de cerdo
                        English: 125 grams of pig butter

                        1. re: Jefferson

                          Mantequilla is butter... Gosh darn Babelfish... as you can guess, it's Pig Lard...

                          And if you ever make it to L.A., there are several great restarants and a Taco Hut that serves pretty mean Cochinita! :)


                          1. re: Jefferson

                            Cochinita Pibil is really easy to make. I usually end up using a recipe from one of Rick Bayless' cookbooks.

                            Gotta love babelfish though. I'm pretty sure 125 gramos de manteca de cerdo is about 4 1/2 oz of good old rendered pork fat, also known as lard :-)

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              no way. from now on, I'm calling lard "pig butter." that just sounds so much cooler!

                              wife: what's that white stuff in that tub in the fridge?
                              me: That? Oh, that's pig butter. Want some? It's great on toast.

                              I'm totally going to like this.

                              1. re: adamclyde

                                Butter is "mantequilla" in most of latin America, but is "manteca" in some regions. Mantequilla de cerdo or manteca de cerdo, however, is always lard!

                        2. My authority is Juanita, the Mexican lady for whom I was a private duty nurse years ago. She made delicious tacos for her large family. This is how: make a simmered braised chicken Mexican style with a very light tomato sauce. Bone it. Take a corn tortilla. Heat about 1/2" oli in a big frying pan. Put some chicken meat in the tortilla and fold into a half moon. Fry on both sides. That IS a taco - delicious. Not at all spicy.

                          1. Update: it was the guacamole!

                            On a return trip to the taqueria I described in my original post, I made a startling discovery: the guacamole I had dribbled onto my tacos during my first visit (foolishly without tasting ahead of time) was tongue-scorchingly hot! Now, the al pastor was certainly spicier than the other fillings I tried, but it appears the real culprit was the guac. Color me naieve, I guess. I knew guac could be spicy on occasion, but I'd never run into a version nearly as volcanic as this. Luckily, I thought to sample the guac by itself this time. Problem solved. Without the guacamole, I could even put a little of the less spicy salsa on my tacos without being overwhelmed. Anyone else ever run into really, really hot guac at their local taqueria?

                            1. Sounds like your condiment was not guacamole at all but a kind of salsa verde made, in part, with avocado (that is if you really could tell it was avocado). Not usually blazing hot, though that is a question of individual taste.

                              1. The sauce could have been green tomatillo sauce,not guacamole
                                which isn't usually hot.They may also have made a salsa verde with serrano or jalepeno peppers.
                                And as someone said,it does depend on where the cooks and owner are from.Some places the food is not hot in Mexico,and in other regions yes.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: HollyDolly

                                  There's little question in my mind it was guacamole, the thin kind common in taquerias, creamy and definitely made from avocado. I wasn't the only one who thought it was pretty spicy--the server also commented it was very hot.

                                  1. re: Low Country Jon

                                    Steve and HollyDolly are probably correct. There are hot salsas in Mexico made of avocado, but these are not called "guacamole".

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      They're usually called "salsa de aguacate". And some of them are incendiary.