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Jan 15, 2007 08:35 PM

The Great USA Taco Encyclopedia

I remember in the early 90's, meeting people in L.A's suburbs who had never had an authentic Mexican taco. All they knew where the 1950's / Taco Bell variety... hard shell, "taco seasoned" ground beef, yellow cheese etc.,. I then proceeded to evangelize dozens of gringos. Shortly thereafter immigration from Mexico accelerated... and within 10 years, most Californians knew about the real deal.

Fast forward to a Sunday in 2002, as I stumbled along Broadway in Manhattan - had met a business colleague in the SoHo district for lunch... two Martinis, two bottles of wine (shared), a lemoncello then a McCallen tour of SoHo jazz clubs & lounges - I see a sign for Mexican Food... and its said tacos etc., so I walk in.

I realized the place was run by Chinese people right off the bat, but I somehow reasoned that Manhattan - with all its sophistication & cutting edge cuisine - surely had authentic tacos, right? Well I order in a haze, and then waited for what would turn out to be the worst tacos I had since eating Los Angeles United School District's worst rendition. And no, it wasn't isolated. The rest of the week I noticed terrible renditions of Mexican cuisine all over Manhattan with rarely a whiff of authenticity in the air.

Fast forward roughly 4 years later... some credible 'Hounds talk about authentic tacos showing up all over Manhatttan. In my own travels since then... I had some decent tacos in the Greenpoint neighborhood, as well as places like Raleigh, Atlanta & Centralia (Washington).

So the marvelous, unequaled, simple & humble taco has truly made its way from sea to shining sea. But what is the state of the taco? Do Chowhounds all over the country have good sources of the representative continuum?

I am hoping for two things:

(1) We can use this thread to document all the variety of tacos available in the U.S.
(2) We can document the geographical dispersion of tacos.

To accomplish these goals, please participate in the following way.

(1) I am going to list the standard tacos that I see in most places, then everyone can add additional taco variations (not yet mentioned). Please include your Board, a description of the taco, and what is best version you've encountered (in the U.S.).

(2) Those that are from regions where large scale Mexican immigration is a relatively new phenomenon (within the last 10 years) please let us know what which types of tacos have made it your domains.

To start, I would describe the basic taco as follows:

> Two Soft Corn Tortillas (either steamed, griddled with fat, or griddled without fat)
> Broiled, Griddled, Grilled or Roasted Meats
> Garniched with your choice of chopped raw onions, cilantro, wedge of lime, and your choice of salsas.

The basic varieties:

Carne Asada (Faux)... usually griddled chuck, chopped into very small squares, seasoned only with salt. (In Mexico these are typically known as Carne a la Plancha)

Carne Asada (True)... usually skirt or flank steak, grilled, seasoned only with salt. When they are grilled over wood, they carry the additional label of Al Carbon which is the more common name in Mexico.

Al Pastor.... usually thin pork steaks, alternating with a onion slices roasted on a vertical spit. The pork is marinated in a complimentary Adobo that usually has Achiote, Dried Chiles, Vinegar, Allspice, Garlic, Mexican Oregano etc., In addition, a pineapple is placed at the top of the spit.. so that the juices will keep the meat moist & glaze it.

Adobada aka Faux Al Pastor... similar to Al Pastor but griddle or grilled with no Pineapple juice baste.

Carnitas... slow cooked, crisped pulled pork. The cooking liquid is usually seasoned with orange juice & garlic.

Pollo al Carbon... Grilled Chicken Breast.. just s&p.

Lengua.... broiled beef tongue... s&p.

Cabeza.... usually cheeks carved from a baked beef head.

Other Beef Head cuts... brains, eyes, lips etc.... s&p

Other popular - but not quite as ubiquitous - varieties include:

Barbacoa (Faux).... usually beef that has been marinated in a dark chile paste, flavored with cloves, allspice, garlic, thyme, marjoram, Mexican oregano, vinegar etc., Then slow roasted until fall apart tender. Its Faux because its not cooked in a pit like they do in Mexico lacking the important smokey dimension... and because the preferred meat in Mexico is lamb.

Tripas.... fried intestines.

Chicharron... fried pork skins.

Buche.... broiled tripe.

Baja Fish Tacos.... White fish in beer batter, fried garnished with raw cabbage, cream sauce, salsa & a wedge of lime.

Now for my contribution of less common taco varieties:

At Taqueria La Super Rica in Santa Barbara, California (this was the place that Julia Child frequented)....

Rajas... (Poblano Strips in Cheese Fondue)
Ongos con Chorizo (Mushrooms & Chorizo in Cheese Fondue)

At Loteria Grill near Beverly Hills, California:

Deshebrada (Slow cooked beef) designated by Conde Nast as one of the top 5 dishes in North America.
Setas con Epazote (Crimini Mushrooms with Epazote)

At Huarache Azteca in El Monte, California

Tinga de Pollo (Slow cooked shredded chicken, sauteed with onions, then sauced with Tomato-Chipotle, garnished with Queso Fresco)
Suadero (Basically griddled hanger steak)

At Birrieria La Barca in El Monte, California

Birria (slow cooked goat in a complex dried chile, herb & spice sauce)... served with its spicy Au Jus.

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  1. Nice.

    How does the durado ... deep-fried taco fit into all of this. I had them first in the San Diego area, but now that I'm looking, I find them in real Mexican joints in the Bay Area.

    I think maybe the Taco Bell taco got based on this. The Jack in the Box taco, if you thing about it, is a durado ... deep-fried.

    As to fish tacos, there seem to be variations in different parts of Mexico ... as well as Mexican joints in the Bay Area ... I mean Mexican joints ... not the places that would ever make Zagut or usually even Chowhound or other food forums.

    I've been finding that al pastor sometimes just means marinated in the Bay Area.

    Suardo is available in the Bay Area and just seems to mean a particular part of the cow.Sometimes called rose meat in the Bay Area. The link to this discussion seems to got lost in the migration to the new site. Another taco filling topic.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rworange

      Hey RW,

      Dorado is definitely a legitimate variation. The Jack in the Box tacos tend to be a bit more authentic than Taco Bell even though they still feature yellow cheese. But the "meat" flavor is similar to a Picadillo con Adobo (which is also kind of like a spicy sloppy joe)... and the combination of greasy & crunchy (without the uniform crispness of Taco Bell's uber processed shell)... should be familar to most Mexicans.

      In addition to Picadillo tacos dorados... you will also find a fish version of tinga, as well as vegetables that are the most common filling in dorados.... parboiled greens with garlic, coursely mashed potatoes or beans etc.,

      Yes, there are multiple variations on fish tacos. I kind of like the fish in red, creamy sauce at the stand in Emeryville (the food court with all the independent vendors).... the only bad thing about it was the bell peppers... otherwise pretty tasty... o yea its also a fun mess!

      Come on K.... you are one of the top sleuths... I am sure you have some to add here. If you don't have anything to add, I am afraid this is going to be a very short-lived thread.

    2. A lot of those fillings sound so good- we usually don't get that kind of variety, at least not where I frequent in the Northern NJ area.

      My faves are usually the lengua, chorizo and cecina, which is beef that has been dried out a bit to concentrate the flavor. (I love the salsa verde on that one) The marinated beef is generally called carne enchilada, and is usually the spiciest of the fillings served.

      3 Replies
      1. re: TongoRad

        Thanks Tongo.... quick question is the carne enchilada made from the dried beef?

        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          I ordered some yesterday and watched closely this time as it was cooked- it doesn't seem to be. What they put on the flat top was a pretty vibrant red, and not just from the chile powder. It also doesn't have that deep, almost livery, quality that the cecina has. I'm assuming that they use the same cut as the bistek, only marinated.

          1. re: TongoRad

            Okay.... that is just another variety I haven't encountered :)

            Any idea what chiles & spices must be on the top? BTW, it is really red it probably includes Achiote or Paprika.

            Although Paprika is just another variety of chile.

      2. I lived in Austin, TX between 1996-99 and devoured breakfast tacos on a weekend-ly basis. I miss them very much as well as migas (which are not chilaquiles no matter how many Californians think they are). I write about this time & place since you seem to have the LA scene down.

        My favorites were at Tamale House #3 on Airport Blvd. You could mix and match fillings, I usually got one rice and cheese and one potato and bacon. Loaded with this completely delicious fresh, finely chopped salsa you'd squirt out of plastic bottles. I think they used small flour tortillas rather than corn, but I could be mistaken.

        I wonder if any current Austinites or Texans could give an update of the breakfast taco scene?

        5 Replies
        1. re: ks in la

          Yeah, Migas rarely make it into California menus... its more of a Chihuahua dish... which of course is right across the river from Texas. I also see Migas show up quite a bit in Portland & Seattle where people are more likely to eat a hearty breakfast. Californians are more like Sashimi, Non-Fat Cream Cheese & Herbal Tea :)

          Migas for those curious, are dried bread cubes sauteed in with spicy scrambled eggs.

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            This is a great thread by the way, Eat_Nopal!

            I always had migas with tortilla strips or chips in scrambled eggs - so delicious! It is surprising to me that breakfast tacos aren't as common here as breakfast burritos. But regional variation is a good thing overall.

            1. re: ks in la

              Yes, I think you are right it is tortilla strips, not stale bread.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                As I understand it:
                Migas, the Spanish dish, is made with stale bread.
                Migas, the Mexican dish, is made with tortillas (usually).
                Migas, the Tex-Mex dish, is made with tortilla chips (usually).

                1. re: larochelle

                  And migas, the Portuguese dish (at least as I've had it in Portugal when dining with locals), is basically just a pile of lightly flavored bread crumbs, served as a starchy side dish, no eggs.

                  Edit: Oops! Just noticed this is another two-year-old post resurrection. Please add your voice to this request:

        2. Thanks for the informative post, Nopal.

          I would've never known there was such a thing as faux and true carne asada; I encountered my first faux version at one of the local taco trucks here just a bit ago. I had been wondering why the meat was all cubed up like that, and your post just enlightened me on that.

          2 Replies
          1. re: josquared

            Yeah... I don't mean to disparage it all. I think - just like inexpensive Chinese places - they bring great value by taking an inexpensive, tough, grizzely cut of meat and making it quite edible.

            In Mexico, they are more likely to name & seperate the various cuts that would normally end up like this... diezmillo, palomilla etc., so you know what you are getting and can appreciate the various difference... and I really don't understand why taqueros here don't do that.

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              I didn't take your comments as disparaging it at all. Like you mentioned, it was definitely edible, and even tastier than some "true" carne asada tacos I've had.

          2. Is the Huarache Azteca you mentioned related to the one in Oakland? The one in Oakland also has chicken tinga, and they also have real barbacoa on the weekends.

            I've also had beef tinga.

            There have been several discussions about what part of a cow "suardero" is, and it was finally determined that it is what's most commonly called the "plate": the belly cut to the rear of the brisket and under the ribs.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Its possible they are related, but Huaraches are so ubiquitous in Mexico City... and Tinga, Barbacoa & Suadero are such an institution there... and of course chilangos (that is what other Mexicans refer to us as) are usually steeped in all things Aztec... that I am sure the Huarache Azteca name graces many, many places around the world.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                Here's a photo of a Huarache at La Reina de Roma, near Mercado Medellín, Colonia Roma Sur, México, D.F.
                Another, less elaborate, perhaps, but "earthy" and good: These might be "tlacoyos"??

                1. re: Anonimo

                  Personally, I am always confused by the terms... I used to think Huarache was a Mexico City term, Chancla the Oaxacan term & Tlacoyo the Tlaxcalan term... but someone assured me that is not the case, in Tlaxcala the Tlacoyos have some fundamental difference (which currently escapes me).