Know Your Tacos: A Culinary Expedition through Mexico – Part One

Updated: Jan 22

Bienvenidos a México! A land where vibrant culture and tantalizing cuisine converge to create a culinary paradise. For expatriates and visitors seeking an authentic taste of Mexico’s street food scene, there’s no better place to start than with the iconic taco. 

 

In this two-part series, I’ll delve into the intricacies of various tacos, uncovering the narratives behind their origins, and offering insights into their unique flavours and presentations. This week covers tacos al pastor, carnitas, and tacos de canasta. Part two will tantalize with carne asada, tacos de birria, and tacos guisado.  (Update: Part Two has now been released – read it here)

 

Now, let’s get our tummies rumbling!

 

Taco #1 – Tacos al Pastor

Origin: Puebla

 

Tacos al pastor, or “shepherd style” tacos, boast a fascinating history influenced by Lebanese immigrants in Mexico. In the 1930s, this culinary fusion emerged, blending the concept of cooking marinated meat on a vertical spit with the flavours of Mexican spices. Today, tacos al pastor are a testament to this delicious cultural marriage.

 
Worker handling tacos al pastor meat on the vertical rotisserie spit

Photo by Dennis Schrader on Unsplash

Thin slices of marinated pork, carved from vertical rotisserie, are artfully placed…or thrown!… on small tortillas. Vendors of el pastor are known for their flair! The traditional garnish of pineapple chunks, onions, and cilantro adds a burst of colour and flavour to this already mouthwatering creation.

 
The immediately identifiable savoury and slightly tangy profile of a taco al pastor come from the achiote paste, guajillo chili, and various spices infused into the pork. The sweetness of grilled pineapple complements the spiciness, resulting in a flavour explosion with every bite.
 

To order with confidence, simply specify the number of Tacos al Pastor you desire and whether you’d like them “con todo” (with everything) or customized to your liking. You may also be asked whether you prefer “maiz” or “harina” (corn or flour) for your tortilla; corn is more traditional but flour is not uncommon.

 
hand squeezing lime onto plate of taco al pastor garnished with cilantro and onion

Photo by Israel Albornoz on Unsplash

Garnish Options: Over and above the standard pineapple, onion, and cilantro, elevate your experience with a squeeze of lime, a drizzle of salsa, or a dollop of guacamole.

 

Taco #2 – Carnitas

Origin: Michoacán

 

Carnitas, translating to “little meats,” hail from the state of Michoacán and have been a Mexican culinary gem since the 1920s. Slow-cooked to perfection in a deep metal vat of its own fat (almost like confit), these pork tacos are renowned for their tender texture and robust flavours. 

 

Your local carnitas vendor is a hard-working man/woman! Often beginning the simmering process long before sunrise, they are ready and waiting to provide a cure to the ailing late-nighters of yesterday. Easily missed if you’re not an early riser (or still awake), carnitas are usually sold out by the close of lunchtime.

 
Carnitas, typically shredded or chopped at the moment you order them, are presented on small tortillas alongside diced onions, fresh cilantro, and a wedge of lime. Slow-cooking imparts a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, with flavours intensified by marination in a blend of herbs, orange juice, and spices. The result is a savoury, juicy, and incredibly flavourful taco.
 
row of carnitas tacos in corn tortilla garnished with cilantro and white onion

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

When ordering Carnitas tacos, you can start simply by asking the vendor for a “maciza” (100% lean pork meat) or dive into the variety of cuts available, including “cueritos” (pork skin), “buche” (pork stomach), “chicharron” (fatty pork meat), and “cachete” (pork cheek). Mix and match or choose your favourite for a personalized experience.

 

Garnish Options: Enhance your taco with salsa verde, salsa roja, or pickled jalapeños for an extra layer of yum. Also clarify if you’d like flour tortilla, as default would most likely be corn.

 

Taco #3 – Tacos de Canasta

Origin: Tlaxcala

 

Located 120 kilometres east of Mexico City, Tlaxcala is the birthplace of the taco de canasta, or “basket tacos”. Beginning back in the 1950s, these tacos were originally considered peasant food, prepared for and consumed by agricultural or blue-collar workers in the area. Today, equally popular among businessmen and students, tacos de canasta are frequently sold off the back of bicycles and enjoyed right there on the spot!

 
Canasta tacos are a visual delight, stacked inside a large woven basket lined with paper, towels, and a plastic bag, typically blue. The basket showcases a variety of fillings such as “chicharrón prensado” (pressed pork cracklings), “frijoles” (refried beans), or “papas con chorizo” (potatoes with spicy sausage). With the range of flavours, tacos de canasta provide a delightful culinary journey in a single basket.
 
hand holding small taco de canesta

Photo by Kevin Liang on Unsplash

To prepare tacos de canasta, the basket is layered with pre-filled tacos, followed by a layer of onion (sometimes with dried chili peppers), and then bathed in a scoop of hot seasoned oil. This process is repeated until the basket is filled. Quickly, the plastic bag is sealed up and covered in blankets, preserving the temperature and humidity, and allowing the tacos to stay warm for up to 4–6 hours.

 

Garnish Options: Canasta Tacos are typically served with salsa, lime wedges, and sometimes radishes. Experiment with different combinations to find your perfect flavour profile.

 

Now that I’ve given you, hungry reader, history and helpful tips on three common Mexican tacos you will find around town, follow your senses and your hunger to embark on your own culinary odyssey through La Paz’s diverse taco landscape. 

 

Each taco tells a story of cultural fusion, regional history, and culinary craftsmanship. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll explore three more tantalizing taco varieties waiting for you on the streets of Baja California Sur. 

 

Buen provecho!

 

By: Terri Lynn Manna

 

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