Welcome to L.A. Week 2016. To celebrate the rich culinary life of Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week that explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its classic tacos, to its offbeat icons. Follow along on Twitter @firstwefeast.
From the moment the first tortilla was folded around a filling, the taco has contained multitudes. Spawning hundreds of permutations, the world-conquering food item has evolved from a denigrated poverty-marker to a boundary-pusher in the ranks of high-end cuisine. Firmly lodged within the American canon, the taco is a delicious, albeit fraught totem to the complex relationship we have with our southern neighbors. Even those who advocate building a wall of separation love a good taco. (“Fish Taco Fiesta!” appears on the menu in the cafe of the Trump Tower, after all.)
At its best, inhaling a taco is a pure, democratic pleasure—anyone can savor a hot tortilla, dripping salsa and juices onto the sidewalk, next to strangers at a lonchera. As with BBQ, pizza, and burgers, these experiences generate fiery debates, loyal attachments, and their own unique patois.
Taco slang, like the taco itself, is highly regionalized (even from one taquería to another) and includes plenty of specialized jargon rippling beneath a common, shared language. Taqueros are notorious for participating in the ribald chit-chat that develops on the street. “The taco eating experience, at least in Mexico, sometimes feels a bit like America in the 1950s,” says food blogger Bill Esparza. “The language is racist, for sure, but it’s a kind of a playful, mild racism.” Guero is used for anyone light-skinned, Chino for anyone of Asian descent; you’ll hear el gordo (the fat one) uttered without remorse.
If you don’t speak Spanish or are new to the game, this primer of taco-slang, technical terms, and linguistic shorthand will help you avoid blank stares and confusing snickers. But really, what’s a taco experience without a little ribbing from the people feeding you?
To create our vocabulary sheet, we enlisted the help from the following taco connoisseurs:
- Gustavo Arellano, editor at OC Weekly, author of Taco USA (@gustavoarellano)
- Bill Esparza, food blogger and founder of StreetGourmetLA (@streetgourmetla)
- Eddie Ruiz, chef at Corazon Y Miel (@corazonymiel)
- Hugo Duran, chef at Pichón, a Mexico City pop-up restaurant
I. The Basics
A flat cooking surface made of clay, steel, or aluminum. It’s used for searing meats, cooking potatoes, or warming tortillas. Known as the pre-Hispanic griddle.
A fry-up. The delicious mess that sits in the convex-steel cooking vessels, including a melange of meats, sausages, offal, cebollitas, and nopales.
A nickname the taquero is probably going to call you if you are fair-skinned.
Your friendly taco-maker.
To go and eat tacos.
The diet that keeps you going, comprised of all of the tastiest items in the Mexican canon: tacos, tortas, tamales, tlacoyos, tlayudas.
Roasted cambray onions.
A taco ordered with everything. This can mean cilantro and onion, but also salsa, cheese, or whatever else that particular taco is served with.
Translates to “the garden,” referring to cilantro and onion.
La salsa perrona
The hottest salsa in the line-up.—Arellano
Refers to cilantro and onion. The opposite of “americana,” which usually means lettuce, tomato, cheese, and sour cream.
The green herb with scalloped leaves that tastes like sharp, lemony petroleum. Taquerias put out bunches for you to pluck and chew while eating tacos.
Salsa so hot that it will burn on the way in and out.—Ruiz
Translates to “greens”; another term for cilantro and onion.
III. The Supporting Cast
Chicharron de queso
A crispy crust of cheese toasted on the comal. Similar to an Italian fricco.
Translates to “scab.” A corn tortilla layered with meat then cheese flipped over onto the comal and left to crisp and caramelize, then flipped over again and served.
A flour tortilla layered with meat and cheese, then topped with another flour tortilla.
Like a gringa but made with corn tortillas.
A flour tortilla layered with ham and cheese, then topped with another flour tortilla.
Soda de bote
Soda in a can.—Esparza
Soda is a glass bottle.—Esparza
Tortillas left to toast on the side of the comal (but not fried like tostadas) with meat and melted cheese.—Esparza
IV. So You Know What You’re Getting
Thrown together or improvised. A mix of something which varies from taqueria to taqueria, but is generally chorizo, bistec, and something else. Can also be applied to seafood mixtures like oysters, fish, and octopus.
A style of taco that is particularly messy; it’s a play on the word cochinita, or little pig. The taquero scrapes up all of the crispy, oily residue from the griddle and plops it onto a taco.—Duran
Double tortilla. (It’s true—not every taquería serves two.)
The dank bits, normally tripe.
All lean meat. Can be pork, chicken, lamb, sheep, cow. A request by the prudent orderer.
A taco filling made out of pig or sheep’s uterus.
Similar to cochinada; basically, pot scrapings.—Duran
All the things mixed together—fatty bits, lean, gristle, eyes. All in.
A taco filling made out of male parts, usually penis. Translates to “virile.”—Esparza
V. Use With Discretion
Badass. As in, this taco is fucking awesome!
Short for compañero, meaning buddy.
“Bring it on!” If a taquero looks at you and you reply échale, it insinuates, “I want it all, and I want it heavy!”—Ruiz
Short for paisano, an affectionate term meaning countryman. There are many taquerías named Tacos el Paisa. You know you’re a true regular if your taquero calls you this.
VI. When a Sexy Customer Approaches
Esa es pa chuparse los dedos.
So hot I want to lick my fingers.—Ruiz
Ese taco esta bien alimentado.
That taco is healthy. [Nudge nudge, wink wink.]—Ruiz
Works for me. As in, “Hey, we don’t have viril right now. You cool with nana?” “Sale.”
VII. Purely American
Avocado mash comes at a price. Most margarita mills and Mexican fast-food joints charge an additional fee to add guac to your tacos, burrito, and bowls. Ballers don’t think twice.
An American-style corn tortilla that is hard and crunchy.
A Mexican restaurant geared towards selling as many frozen margaritas, chips, and guacamole orders as possible. Popular with office workers, tourists, and ironic-eating hipsters. Señor Frogs is the archetype.
A popular weekday event in which non-Mexican restaurants hawk tacos to try and get people in the door. School cafeterias, bars, and middle-class family dinners are also places where Taco Tuesday thrives—just ask Guy Fieri.