The term taco refers to a world that’s at once very narrow and very broad.
“It’s anything wrapped in a corn or flour tortilla that you can eat standing up without any pretense,” says West Coast taco ace Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos.
East Coast virtuoso Alex Stupak of Empellón—whose cookbook, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, drops this fall—agrees: “A taco is a tortilla that has something you’re compelled to eat on top of it.”
So to make a taco, you definitely need a tortilla and a topping. But to make a great taco, you can and should assemble several divine layers of ingredients—from the tortilla on the bottom, to the meat and salsa on top. Each addition should play off the others’ spices, flavors, and textures, but most of all, whatever you add to your taco should be something you love to eat, not just a combination you saw on a menu or dump-and-stir TV show.
In other words, rather than a product of exact ingredients and techniques, today’s best tacos are adherents to only two rules: you have to count texture and taste as your highest priority, and you have to use only the best tortillas.
To explain these two rules in enough detail that you’ll never be confused by the dish again, we’ve enlisted our East Coast and West Coast experts to help you get in the habit of crafting fresh tacos at home.
1. The tortilla
A good tortilla is pliable, warm, and tastes like corn, and you must have one to make a great taco. “If you ask a sushi chef, what’s more important, the fish or the rice, they’ll say it’s the rice first,” says Stupak. “In the world of tacos, the best filling on earth will not make a bad tortilla good.” He suggests making tortillas yourself, preferably with masa (dough made from soaking, then grinding whole corn kernels) bought from a good-quality tortilleria, which you’re likely to find in nearby Mexican neighborhoods; he’ll sell you some at Empellón Al Pastor if you ask. You can also rehydrate masa harina (fine corn flour), following the tortilla recipe on the bag, before pressing and cooking the tortillas. Avila extends the seal of approval to premade tortillas if you seek out the best ones you can find early in the day when they’re still hot, then keep them warm in a sealed container. Later that day, if they’ve stiffened a bit, he’ll reheat them in a little butter until they’re soft for most tacos, but ever so slightly crisp for tacos filled with heftier fillings.
Though you may have seen taquerias pile two tortillas beneath their fillings, you don’t need to do this. It’s a preventative measure in case a not-super-fresh tortilla cracks when you lift it to eat. “It’s kind of like putting two trash bags in a trash can,” says Stupak.
2. The salsas
According to Stupak, the soul of Mexican cooking is found in its sauces. Good salsa is so easy to make from everyday ingredients that you shouldn’t ever have to pick up jars of ready-made stuff again. Here are a few go-tos: for green salsa, blend raw or roasted tomatillos with white onion, garlic, lime juice, jalapeños, and cilantro; for dark red ancho salsa, blend soaked dried ancho peppers with raw or roasted tomatoes, white onion, and garlic; for pico de gallo, mince white onion,jalapeño, tomato, and cilantro, then mix them with lime juice and a little oil. You can experiment with chiles and vegetables, or you can stick to pico de gallo. No matter your preference, always add some fresh or dried chilies. You have to have “some spice on the backend,” says Avila.
And, if you’re looking to play around, salsa is your vehicle. Take one meat, like slow-cooked, falling apart short ribs. “Now you could put a raw bright, grassy salsa verde, you could do tomatillo-chipotle, or dried red chili salsa,” says Stupak. All three will give you different tacos with different personalities.” If you’re serving friends, one meat and many salsas offers a festive but easy way to present a make-your-own taco spread.
3. The guacamole
Unlike salsa, guacamole is not a requirement for tacos. But there’s a reason that the green mash shows up often. Guac can contribute fattiness and heft to your taco, but make sure you have contrasting textures to offset its gooeyness. To make guacamole for tacos, keep ingredients to a minimum: a little lime juice, some chopped white onion, a bit of cilantro, salt, and your barely mashed avocado are all you really need.
Most home cooks tend to over-cheese our tacos. We’re just used to melting cheese on our Mexican food, probably thanks to the burritos and enchiladas we eat on the regular at Tex-Mex–style joints. But while we’re not in search of authenticity in this taco endeavor, I still recommend trying some out crumbles of queso fresco instead of shredded Jack. Queso’s mild flavor cools the heat of your salsa, intensifies the taste of your other proteins, and looks pretty as a garnish.
Beware of unequivocal softness when you assemble your taco. Thinly sliced cabbage, onions, pickles, and radishes are all weapons in the battle against textural monotony. So are the crispy edges of grilled meats or handfuls of toasted pepitas. But find something. “It’s got to have some crunch,” says Avila.
6. Grilled meats
With condiments like salsas and sliced cabbage ready to go, you’ll have to figure out what goes between them and the tortilla. Here’s one way to look at it: “When you’re contemplating fillings, whether traditional or off-the-wall, you want something that can live in textural harmony with that tortilla,” says Stupak. Chewy grilled meats find immediate harmony with their cornmeal wrapper, making steak, chicken breast, or salmon good choices. Grill steaks to your liking, then cut the meat against the grain into small bites. Chicken can be cooked in larger pieces but should be chopped down to bite-size before adding to the taco. Grilled sausages, from chorizo to merguez, are flavor-packed centerpieces for excellent tacos.
7. Braised meats
Default to braised meats when you’re planning on tacos for a crowd. There’s a reason brisket and pork butt are so popular at taco joints and food trucks: they’re inexpensive, available in bulk, and best made ahead. You can braise your beef for hours in Negra Modelo or your pork in chipotle, but you might as well experiment too. Take inspiration, like Avila, from the food of other cultures; you might try a version of France’s cassoulet or Texas’s brisket wrapped up into a taco.
Because the tortilla itself should be made (or warmed) at the very last minute, Stupak notes that “in terms of making tacos convenient, you want to identify what can be prepared well in advance.” Like homemade salsa, braised meats are on that list.
8. Veggie fillings
There aren’t that many common menu items at taquerias beyond carnitas, pollo asado, carne asada, barbacoa, and lengua. You can stray from the typical at home, working instead with what you have on hand. “If you’re on the coast, and you can get good fish, use it,” says Avila. “If you can get good pork, use that. If you can only afford vegetables, then get vegetables and cook them well.” This is a welcome notion if you’re an actual vegetarian. When going this route, think especially hard about texture: Without the toothsome chewiness of meat, you’ll want to make sure there’s something to bite into. Seared mushrooms are a good option, as are long-cooked pinto beans, roasted poblano strips, or nopales. At Guerrilla, Avila’s known for his roasted artichoke tacos, one of the only standbys on an ever-evolving menu. Here, I battered and fried pieces of sweet potatoes, then paired them with sliced onions, salsa verde, pico de gallo, and queso fresco.
9. Fried fish
People have fished on the Baja peninsula for centuries, so it’s no surprise that tacos from this coastal region feature the freshest catches. We often see fish fried in tacos, and it’s no wonder—against the softness of the tortilla, the tempura crunch of a fish’s crisp exterior is addictive. To make an ideal seafood filling, dip pieces of any fish into a batter made from 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of seltzer (throw in some salt and any spices you like), then fry in a few inches of hot oil. “I couldn’t fathom eating a fried fish taco without gobs of mayo and cabbage,” says Stupak. (Of course, you can make tacos from grilled, sautéed, canned, baked, or even raw fish, too.)
10. Breakfast tacos
Austin’s not the only place in the world where you can eat good breakfast tacos. At home, a couple of fried eggs or a one-egg omelet instantly transform a tortilla into breakfast. You never want your taco to be bland, and breakfast tacos in particular beg for some spice in their salsa, some crunch from radishes or onions, and plenty of herbs. In breakfast tacos—all tacos, really—you don’t have to stick to cilantro as your herb, says Avila. Use parsley, purslane, or especially tarragon, which plays well with eggs. This freedom to taco as you choose extends to any ingredients that make your mouth water. “Anything you like that can make something brighter or tastier,” says Avila. “There’s no right or wrong.”