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Tacos versus fajitas - is there really any difference?

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There's a current thread about what kind of beef to use for fajitas. We never use that term, rather soft tacos. But it seems the fillings are all the same. In restaurants I see the fajitas comes out on a sizzling platter but the sides are the usual ones. Is there a true difference or is it just semantics?

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  1. For me, tacos are served in corn tortillas, fajitas in (slightly larger) flour tortillas. Also, fajitas are served with grilled bell peppers and onions.

    As for toppings, I suppose guacamole, cheese, and sour cream (among tons of other items) can be used for either.

    1. With fajitas I expect a DIY aspect - you get the ingredients and assemble yourself, whereas with tacos they come pre-assembled. I also expect flour tortillas with fajitas and corn with tacos (depending on the restaurant).

      Other than that, I suppose you COULD find the same ingredients in both, but I usually don't. Fajitas are almost always grilled meat with grilled onion and peppers, all tossed with some type of seasoning, and the accoutrements are always lettuce, cheese, tomato, beans and rice. Tacos can be just about anything - sometimes braised meat, sometimes breaded/deep-fried meat, sometimes slices from the pastor, etc. - and the toppings range from standard lettuce/tomato/cheese to various types of slaw, salsas, avocado, etc.

      1 Reply
      1. re: biondanonima

        Thanks. I should have noted that my comparison is with all meats being grilled.

      2. I agree with Philly Ray. Tacos crisp or soft = corn tortillas. Flour for fajitas.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Candy

          We can get high quality, locally made corn tortillas so that's our preference. If we can't get those, then we use flour. Since the crisp shell is an American invention, popularized by Taco Bell :), I don't EVER have that.

          1. re: c oliver

            I was eating crisp corn tacos since I got teeth, that is way before Taco Bell. My family is from the Arizona& Mexican and also the New Mexican borders. The the southeast corner of AZ. Sonoran Mexican style of cooking is what I was raised with. Stacked enchiladas instead of rolled, the corn tortillas for the enchiladas are lightly fried, leathery, then get dipped in the sauce. Then usually cheese, onion, etc. They get stacked up popped into the oven, shredded lettuce garnish and my favorite, a fried egg on top. You won't normally find these north of Tucson.

            1. re: Candy

              Crispy fried tortillas, sure. But as I understand it the crispy taco shell was invited on THIS side of the Mexican border and was popularized by Taco Bell.

              http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2011...

              And I'm also familiar with the "stacked enchiladas" which originated in New Mexico:

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enchilada

              1. re: c oliver

                I am glad you clarified that because as a child in the late 50's I distinctly remember dining on *real* tacos that were crispy and fried in San Francisco. My late brother and I spent partial summers there with my much older sister and her husband. They lived out in Excelsior. We would all get on the Muni bus and go dine at dives/cafes/lunch counters/diners all over the city.

              2. re: Candy

                That's what I'm talkin' about...

                I don't like fajitas because the meat is all mixed up with onions and bell peppers, and I like my ingredients separate, minus the bell peppers, which to me have no right being there- should be roasted green chiles or nothing.

                To me, they all get the corn tortilla treatment, if it's a flour tortilla, it's a burro, burrito, or chimichanga (when it's fried, but I do't even think that's from Mexico)

          2. For me, tacos are a "sandwich" and fajitas are a type of filling. So fajitas can be served as a taco but not the other way around.

            Fajitas, literally "little sashes", are strips of beef/chicken and strips of peppers/onion.

            I prefer tearing piece of tortilla to accompany my fajitas instead of composing a complete taco. Some bites get more guac, some bites get more cheese.

            2 Replies
            1. re: seamunky

              Oh, I think that's a good distinction. When I make a taco, everything gets added in the kitchen. If I'm out and order a "plate," (I never order fajitas but do other things.) then like you I'll pull off pieces of tortillas or a chip and pile things on that. Thanks.

              1. re: seamunky

                Yes, that's exactly the difference. Fajitas refers to the style of cooking the meat and vegetables. Fajitas need not be served with tortillas at all.

                Taco and fajitas as terms are not parallel nor interchangeable.

              2. One could argue that all Americanized Mexican is the same (see, e.g., The Onion's great headline "Taco Bell's Five Ingredients Combined In Totally New Way").

                But there are subtle differences, as described below. Most beef tacos are ground beef. Once you get into carne asada then you're closer to steak fajitas (minus the grilled veggies). In any case, why bother getting hung up on terminology?

                3 Replies
                1. re: ferret

                  Ah, but I NEVER fix or order ground beef tacos :) Not hung up at all.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    I did a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in years. We had a pound of ground beef and no other meat, but otherwise all the makings for great tacos. Semi-soft shell. They get griddled for a minute or so

                    1. re: EWSflash

                      We go for the super (un)healthy way. VERY lightly fry the (always) corn tortillas in lard. Just til they have a few spots of color. Block between paper towels, sprinkle with salt and go for it!

                      There's a very small, relatively local chain in our area and their ground beef tacos are 99 cents and the shredded beef are maybe 30 cents more. Those ground ones are quite tasty. (I'd forgotten that when I posted previously.)

                2. I am a native of San Diego. I grew up eating tacos.
                  I never had fajitas until I moved to Texas for college.

                  Fajitas are Tex-Mex. Traditionally skirt steak, served on a sizzling cast iron skillet with peppers and onions. Accompanied by soft flour tortillas and sides of guacamole, shredded cheese and salsa.

                  Tacos are (were?) traditionally fried corn tortillas in that classic half-moon (folded) shape, filled with beef (shredded or ground) as well as lettuce, tomato, cheese etc.. Obviously chicken and fish tacos are now popular as well and "soft tacos" can be made with corn or flour tortillas. What differentiates them from ,burritos, taquitos etc. is the half-moon shape.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: pedalfaster

                    Ah, Tex-Mex. Appears you're right about that. Thanks.

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fajita

                    1. re: pedalfaster

                      "Fajitas are Tex-Mex."

                      Yes. And Mexico's a big country. Even bigger if you include former Mexico like Texas, Arizona, California, etc. etc. No reason to get too shirty about these regional distinctions.

                      1. re: ratgirlagogo

                        Isn't "Tex-Mex" a Texas way of cooking, not Mexican? And it seems from what we're reading here and elsewhere that fajitas originated in Texas. That doesn't make anything wrong or right, just clarifying.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          Yes, of course, except that Texas used to be part of Mexico and I guess I'm saying that that counts, for me. It's still so Mexican culturally, like that whole part of the country. (Native Californian speaking - it's been such a great thing for me as a New York transplant that New York has gotten such a Mexican influence in recent decades.) I don't think we'd have fajitas or Mission burritos or Hatch chile sauce otherwise.

                          1. re: ratgirlagogo

                            I guess my point is that Tex-Mex is Texan not Mexican.

                            I'm curious about the "Mexican influence" in NYC. I'd thought it was negligible. But perhaps that's the subject for another thread :)

                            1. re: c oliver

                              Whoah.
                              Yes, a seperate thread..... There have been vast improvements in mexican options in nyc (manhattan) in recent years, i would not call it negligible at this point, but as a born and bread CA girl who grew up on some legit mexican food nyc has a loonnnggg way to go.
                              There are many "mexican" restaurants but few who are authentic, affordable (um, $14 guacamole?!?), or delicious....

                              1. re: Ttrockwood

                                I SO adore NYC but I ain't buying into $14 guac :) Thanks for the the feedback.

                                1. re: Ttrockwood

                                  One can find better and cheaper Mexican restaurants outside of Manhattan. Thirty years ago it was difficult to find even a bad expensive Mexican restaurant anywhere near here. And beyond that as you said, a new thread would be required....

                      2. Hmm. I use many of the same fillings, except with tacos, I tend to use raw veggie ingredients (letttuce, pico de gallo, onion, pepper) and in fajitas, grilled veg. I've also never used white fish in fajitas--shrimp only.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: pinehurst

                          Honestly our "soft tacos" are actually "small folded burritos" cause we add rice and beans and cheese :)

                        2. You put the fajita meat (specifically beef skirt that has been seasoned and grilled and then cut against the grain into strips) into the tortilla and then you have a fajita taco or in Spanish, a taco de fajita.

                          1. Simply put, a taco is a corn tortilla (or 2 if small) wrapped around a filling. Frying a tortilla before filling to make a hard shell, or frying the filled taco are variations. While a flour tortilla can be used in the same way, the result is usually not called a taco.

                            The origin of the name is unclear. There is a Spanish word 'taco' that means (among other things) a the heal of a shoe.

                            The first 'fajitas' that I had was in Austin at a conference. The caterer grilled beef (flank), and sliced it after cooking. I don't recall the sides and tortillas. The name means little strips or belts. I don't know if that refers more to strips of meat cut across the grain, or the use of flank steak itself.

                            The various ideas that we expect in restaurant versions evolved from that, facilitating individual preparation and serving, and catering to different tastes. I'm thinking of precut meat that is grilled, matching strips of onion and bell pepper, the sizzling serving platter, chicken and shrimp alternatives.

                            I don't see the use of tortillas, corn or flour, as an essential part of fajitas. They are a common side in Tex-Mex restaurants.

                            Tacos are widespread through out Mexico, and common as street food. Fajitas have their roots in the beef culture of northern Mexico and Texas.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: paulj

                              Great piece of writing. Thanks.

                            2. Just to be thorough, I checked in my copy of El Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana and there is no entry for fajitas. I checked under that term, under arrachera (skirt), falda (flank, and yes, I know falda means skirt in English but it refers to barriga or flank in Spanish), under tacos al carbón, and under beef. Not there. I hold the conviction that fajitas (as grilled skirt steak cut into strips as the "fajitas" and served in tortillas to make tacos de fajita) are originally norteñas and tejanas and moved into Tex-Mex cuisine and then greater US food culture from there, and in other regions called carne arrachera. Now we have shrimp fajitas, mushroom fajitas, etc., coming on a sizzler plate, all fine. But fajita meaning just the specific meat is the original meaning.

                              As far as tacos, I strongly dismiss any assertion that a food item made with a filling put into a small flour tortilla is not called a taco. Flour tortillas are very common in regional norteño and tejano cuisines. You can get into larger tortillas de agua and tortillas for burritos, but the smaller sized wheat flour tortillas definitely make tacos.

                              El Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana has under the entry for taco: "An antojito (hard to translate that, but like a small meal/snack) which is prepared with a tortilla of corn or wheat flour and stuffed with some food, and folded or rolled. It can be eaten alone or accompanied by any salsa. Generally, the name (of the taco) is connected to the filling, the taco's texture, or the way it is prepared or presented for sale." (Translation mine.) After the entry for "taco," there are entries for 38 different types of common regional or nationally prepared tacos.

                              1. Fajitas= DIY
                                Tacos= assembled in the kitchen
                                (Assuming restaurant situation)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Ttrockwood

                                  I don't think that's so. If I'm at a restaurant and I have a plate of carnitas in front of me, and I take some of that meat and put it into a tortilla, fold it and eat it I've made a taco at the table, DIY-style.
                                  That plate of carnitas could never be a plate of fajitas, even though it's meat and I folded a tortilla around it myself rather than having it "assembled in the kitchen"

                                2. To me, soft tacos are beef or chicken, simmered in taco seasonings until you can shred them, then rolled in a warm flour tortilla with your favorite toppings.

                                  Fajitas are chicken or steak strips quickly stir fried with onions, green peppers and red peppers in a sauce consisting of equal parts honey and soy sauce. Wrapped in a warm flour tortilla with your favorite toppings.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: AngelaID

                                    Well, those are certainly different twists :) And those fajitas definitely belong on the 'fusion food' thread, don't they?

                                  2. I'm in SoCal. If I order fajitas, I'll get a platter of sliced beef, chicken or shrimp served with sauteed onions and peppers. The meat is usually grilled and then sliced. The usual accompaniments are salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. Some places will give you cheese but most don't. They'll ask you if you want corn or flour tortillas on the side.

                                    If I order a taco at a taqueria, I'll get a "street taco" -- 2 small corn tortillas with meat, cilantro, and onions and some sort of salsa. Sometimes radish or pickled/grilled jalepeno on the side. I rarely see tacos with ground meat; the usuals are carne asada, chicken (pollo) and pork (carnitas). Each place will have a couple twists on the fillings, like beef tongue, etc. At chain restaurants, they usually specify crunchy taco/hard taco versus soft taco. Depending on the place, a soft taco comes in a flour tortilla, a hard taco could be a fried corn tortilla or a friend flour tortilla, and a taqueria style or street taco is as described above.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: boogiebaby

                                      The difference is most obvious when you compare the 'street taco' (taco truck) with the restaurant platter.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        You mean a restaurant platter with tacos?

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          quoting from the previous post: "a platter of sliced beef, chicken or shrimp served with sauteed onions and peppers. "

                                        2. re: paulj

                                          Fajitas come with peppers and onions. Tacos don't. They usually come with onions and cilantro, street taco style, or with cheese and lettuce, Like how Taco Bell has. You don't get tacos with onions and peppers in them. Likewise, you don't get fajitas topped with cheese and lettuce.

                                      2. I've never had a fried fajita.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                          Explain please.

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            Some taco shells are fried, some aren't.

                                            I've never had a fajita that in which the tortilla was fried. So, texture-wise, there could be a great difference.

                                            'Tis all.

                                            1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                              Gotcha. Thanks.

                                        2. My Austincentric experience has been that what constitutes fajitas has been expanded way beyond strips of skirt steak and now seems to encompass most anything that has been marinated and grilled and is served on a hot comal. It invariably leads to a build it yourself soft taco, most typically with beef or chicken, peppers, and onions but sometimes venturing into shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes, and squash. It comes with soft flour tortillas, shredded cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream. If you order a soft taco you typically get the same meats, less of the grilled vegetables, and add-ones other than pico at an additional charge. Tacos is a big world embracing breakfast tacos, soft tacos, crispy tacos, and my personal favorite, corn tacos that are slightly puffy and somewhere between crisp and soft, stuff with carnitas. So I'd say it is more than semantics and more than just one difference. Of course somewhere around the third or fourth Dos Equis Amber they all seem sort of similar as you root around under the shreds of lettuce for remnants of guacamole and are too sozzled to ask for more salsa.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: tim irvine

                                            2005 Austin history of fajitas
                                            http://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2...

                                            http://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2...
                                            It probably was the Sonny Falcon version that I tasted in Austin in 1984.

                                            1. re: paulj

                                              Thanks. Nice bit of history. My first encounter with anything in the vein of fajitas was Ninfa's tacos al carbon in Houston in the mid 70s. It was a real rush.

                                            2. re: tim irvine

                                              Sozzled. Like :)

                                              I think your experience is mine. They're not hard and fast terms. And I turn almost everything into a 'soft taco.' At home we like to very lightly fry in lard til a few brown spot, blot on paper towels and sprinkle a tiny bit of salt on. They have a bit of crisp but still fold easily. And in a restaurant I'm either tearing off pieces of tortilla or using chips to make little 'piles' of just the right goodies --- a little rice, a few beans, the meat, guac, salsa is usually the order of appearance.

                                            3. I love a good Tacos al Carbon platter at a Mexican place. Comes with retried beans, pico, sour cream and guac on the same plate. None of that pesky rice. Kind of a lazy mans fajita minus the onions and peppers.

                                              Also, I have never seen cheese on a fajita set-up.

                                              1. My impression is that tacos are in tortillas (can be hard American-Taco Bell style or soft) whereas fajitas are a plate of strips of beef. The word "fajita" even means little strip. However, it's been many years since I've seen or eaten either one.

                                                1. Sopes and tacos are more closely related to each other and their fillings can be used interchangeably. A good question HERE would be "is there really any difference?".