As you may know, I recently relocated to Mexico. There were many reasons I decided to leave my life in the US behind and start a new one down here. The most significant of these reasons was to reunite with my one true love… tacos.
I am deeply devoted to tacos. My affections run so deep that I struggle even to try other dishes. If I’m in a restaurant that serves tacos, muscle memory kicks in, and I’m asking for dos de pastor before my brain even realizes what happened.
The only issue with ordering tacos everywhere I go is that I am often disappointed by the quality. I mean, don’t get me wrong, tacos are usually good even when they’re bad (kind of like pizza!), but GREAT tacos will blow your mind. I have learned, through a lot of trial and error, how to identify a taquería that won’t let you down and I’m here to share that knowledge with you now.
Keep an eye out for these visual cues the next time you’re on a hunt for tasty tacos.
The view from the street
The look of a taquería is often a great indicator of the quality of the tacos. Don’t be deluded by beautiful restaurants with white tablecloths and decorative centerpieces, they probably do something well, but it’s not going to be tacos.
What you’re looking for in a taquería is plastic furniture, usually with soda or a beer company logos. This is extra handy because you can choose your taquería based on your beer brand preferences (personally, I prefer the Modelo group.) The casual, down-to-earth décor of these eateries tells me that the restaurant owners believe their food will speak for itself, and, more often than not, it does. The tastiest tacos of my life have been consumed in places just like these.
A comparable alternative to plastic furniture is a restaurant with hard wooden chairs that appear to be extremely uncomfortable. Maybe you know the ones I’m talking about… they’re all 90-degree angles and yet somehow when you sit down they seem to be stabbing you. How I don’t know.
These torture devices will make you hate your life… until your server arrives with the tastiest tacos you’ve ever eaten.
If you’re a fan of tacos al pastor, you’ll want to keep an eye out for el trompo (a vertical rotisserie). It looks like this:
Trompo tacos are particularly delicious because they are freshly roasted moments before landing on your plate.
The origins of the trompo in Mexican cuisine are quite interesting. It was introduced to the city of Puebla by immigrants from Lebanon and Iran.
A good quality taquería will feature a healthy selection of salsas. Usually, there are 3 or 4 to choose from: pico de gallo, habanero, salsa verde, and salsa roja.
Almost every Mexican restaurant you visit will provide a few salsas as part of the place setting, however, more often than not most of them are kind of lame. A truly great taquería will serve you salsas that are so incredibly delicious you won’t be able to choose which one to put on your taco. You’ll find yourself ordering more tacos just as a vehicle for salsa!
One of the most exciting things about salsa is that you’ll probably never taste the same flavor twice. Almost every single Mexican food establishment I’ve ever visited has served salsa verde, but I’ve never become bored of trying it because it’s always different. That is what makes tasting salsas such a great adventure.
Maybe this goes without saying, but a tortilla can make or break a taco. Sometimes literally. Like those shitty dry tortillas that break in half when you try to roll them. What. A. Nightmare.
The most important factor when it comes to tortillas is how fresh they are. The tastiest taquerías usually have someone stationed up front making tortillas all day long. If you spot one of those you’re in for a treat!
If there is no tortilla maker visible in the restaurant DON’T PANIC. Sometimes they work in the kitchen! Generally speaking, Mexicans take tortillas pretty seriously, and any decent eatery will serve fresh ones. Of course, it’s always ideal to have made to order tortillas.
Plates in Plastic Bags
The most authentic taco eateries will serve your food on plates covered in plastic bags. For visitors to Mexico this may seem weird, but once you’re here for a while you adjust. This is just a way to speed up the turnover of plates — often these places have a limited number! If the plates are in plastic bags it often means the food is in high demand and will undoubtedly be delicious!
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what to look for in a quality taco shop. In my experience, the best tacos are found in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. These are the types of places where the decor probably turns you off, but the scent of delicious food will make you think twice.
But don’t forget, tacos are about a lot more than the meat filling. Tortillas and salsas work together to round out the experience. These elements can make even the blandest tacos unforgettable.
So, next time you see an unattractive storefront, don’t be afraid to take a second look. Otherwise, you may never taste a truly excellent taco.
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