Few things are as elegant and comforting as cilantro, onion and lime atop a bed of grilled meat and a warm corn tortilla. Known as street tacos, they are considered snacks and served on small tortillas — great for sampling, and dangerously compelling because of how hard it is to stop at one.
The special thing about Mexican street tacos found at taquerias — restaurants devoted to selling tacos and burritos — is how consistently delicious they are wherever you go. It’s very hard to find a bad taco experience, which goes to show how years of refinement led to the types of tacos you typically find today.
For both beginners and taco-eating experts, the following guide details some of the most popular tacos and explores some history behind the different styles.
Al pastor has one of the most interesting histories among street tacos. Pastor — meaning “shepherd” — was the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City as early as 1892 into the 1900s. The Lebanese people brought the concept of shawarma, the meat preparation in which meat is layered in the shape of a cone on a vertical rotisserie that is a staple in the Middle East. Al pastor has to be one of the best cultural mashups, taking that traditional style of spit cooking and adding layers of Latin influence with chilies, spices and pineapple to create a distinctly local flavor. It’s not as typical to see the rotisserie-style pastor here in the Midlands, but a marinated version is commonplace and still a delicious favorite found at every taqueria.
Try it here: Tacos Nayarit (1531 Percival Road). Tons of marinade and pineapple amp up these tacos.
Every culture has to have a great dish involving fire. The inspiration for barbacoa in Mexico comes from the Caribbean. The original version involves a firepit where whole meats are laid on maguey leaves — better known as agave or century plants, the huge succulents that make up much of southern Mexico’s landscape — and covered until the meat is tender. All the fat, juices and essence of the animal stay packed in the meat when it comes out. This style of barbacoa is not really feasible for most restaurants on a daily basis. Instead, whole beef cheek or roast is cooked in the oven or stovetop low and slow and often finished on the griddle to replicate some of the char missing from this method.
Try it here: Los Chicanos Food Truck (facebook.com/ChicanosComida). Super tender, melting, loaded barbacoa tacos go great with their green salsa.
Growing up in the Midwest, “barbecue” meant what we call a cookout in the South. Carne asada is the Latin America equivalent: a phrase used to talk about a social gathering where food is grilled. Grilling meat in general is a universal language, one that carne asada fully embraces. Almost always some kind of steak, the meat is marinated in different ways from a basic salt rub to different combinations of spices before going on the blazing hot grill.
Try it here: Coa Agaveria Y Cocina (823-A Lady St.). A huge sear gives a great crust to the asada here.
At its most basic, carnitas is pork that is simmered until tender in some form of fat and then pulled apart like the pork we all know and love here in the South. The most traditional method cooks the pork in a copper cauldron with lard covering the meat. Low and slow cooking leaves an incredibly tender pork full of moisture retained from the lard capturing the flavor. The finest carnitas get some kind of browning treatment at the end that creates pockets of crispy edges.
Try it here: Real Mexico Restaurant Y Tienda. (2421 Bush River Rd.) Columbia’s OG spot makes silky, smooth carnitas.
Every culture also has to have its form of tubed meat. Chorizo is Spanish in origin, but Mexico adapted the chorizo and replaced what typically would be smoked paprika with native chilis that were available in the area and provide a distinctive burst of heat. There are endless combinations of spices and herbs that people have used in making chorizo, which can make it a very personal flavor. While rare, there are even green chorizos that get their color from tomatillos and green chilies.
Try it here: El Mariachi (1078 Sunset Blvd., West Columbia) Fresh housemade chorizo is also sold in the store.
Many people look in disdain at beef tongue, but we here in the U.S. are literally the only ones missing out on this cut of meat that almost everywhere else has embraced in some way. One of the most tender cuts of beef available, the preparation of lengua usually is a basic boil with onion and spices. Great lengua tacos, like other great tacos, get a bit of griddle-top treatment that leaves a nice sear on the outside. The relative simplicity shines when you take a bite and get the super tender, beefy flavor up front.
Try it here: La Estrella (1921 Airport Blvd., Cayce) The grilled onions they always serve with tacos add a perfect sweetness to the lengua.