You probably think of a taco as a crisp corn tortilla shell filled with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and grated yellow cheese. You might even call this taco “Mexican,” but in reality, hard-fried taco shells are rare in Mexico. More often, Mexican tacos are made with exquisite, fresh soft tortillas and filled with a huge variety of intriguing fillings. In fact, I’ve almost never had two tacos in a row that were even similar, much less the same.
In Mexico, tacos can be made with flour or corn tortillas, and corn tortillas can be fried in oil or heated on a hot griddle. The fillings can include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey, and many kinds of vegetables. Fillings can be panbroiled, char-broiled, steamed, stewed, broiled on vertical spits, or pit-cooked. With all these choices, infinite taco variations are possible, and new tacos are invented every day. In upscale restaurants in Mexico, you might even find hot tortillas and salsa served with foie gras and duck confit.
The recipes I’m introducing to you here are just a few great taco ideas. The name of the chicken taco—alambre—comes from the Spanish word for wire, meaning a shish kebab skewer; this taco is stuffed with chopped grilled or seared chicken. The chile-rubbed steak taco recipe is adapted from one I found in Zacatecas, Mexico, and features an unusual spice rub made with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. The fish taco, one of Mexico’s most creative tacos, was made first by street vendors in the Baja California port of Ensenada. It’s filled with crisp, beer-battered fresh fish and garnished with shredded cabbage and a spicy tartar sauce.
Finally, I’ve included three easy, flavorful condiments—a pico de gallo, guacamole, and a fresh tomatillo salsa. For all three tacos, I like soft corn tortillas, which have a more interesting texture and distinctive flavor than their flour counterparts. Serve heated tortillas at the table alongside the fillings. I usually serve fish tacos with the spicy tartar sauce and pico de gallo; with the other tacos, feel free to mix and match condiments as you like.
How to warm corn tortillas so they stay soft and flexible
Corn tortillas are delicate and deteriorate quickly, so buy them as fresh as you can find them (many groceries carry them, often in the dairy case.) To warm and soften them, heat one at a time on an ungreased griddle or skillet, or in a steamer basket over simmering water. If you’re making tacos for a crowd, heat all of them in the oven at the same time. Wrap a stack of tortillas in a damp dishtowel, wrap the whole package in aluminum foil, and heat in a 300°F oven. (If possible, wrap two or three smaller bundles, rather than one large bundle, and heat them all at the same time.) Although the outside tortillas may get a bit soggy, this method keeps the rest of them from drying out. You can also heat tortillas successfully in the microwave—wrap a stack of them in a damp dishtowel and microwave until warm. Whichever method you use, bring the bundle of tortillas, still wrapped and nestled in a serving container, to the table so that they stay warm and flexible. Corn tortillas dry out and stiffen quickly.