Tacos are one of the most universally loved comfort foods for good reason. With endless topping choices, handmade tortillas, salsas and condiments, and all manner of herbs and add-ons, the sky is the limit when it comes to craving Mexican food. But just like other dishes at a Mexican restaurant, not all tacos are necessarily top-notch, and there are some menu items to avoid in tacos.
Like in burger restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and wine bars, things can go wrong in taco-centric restaurants when ordered incorrectly and with a lack of authenticity or adventure. Aside from the obvious, like particularly unhealthy chain restaurant tacos and a menu faux pas known as “breakfast crunch-things,” the key to taco supremacy and legitimacy is ordering the right tortillas and filling them with high quality meats and accessories. Oh, and avoid unnecessary distractions from the menu while you’re at it (looking at you, quesadillas).
Above all, everything starts with the base of a good taco: the tortilla. According Scott Linquistco-founder of Miami-based Coyo Taco and author of ModMex cookbook, corn tortillas are the way to go.
“I never order tacos on flour tortillas,” he notes. “Not necessarily because they are less healthy and contain fat and gluten, [which they are and do] but because they are not common or authentic in Mexico except in a few rare circumstances and regions. Instead, says Linquist, the tacos should be made using fresh, hand-pressed corn tortillas made using the nixtamal process, like they do at Coyo Taco.
Additionally, Linquist doesn’t order tacos dipped in mayonnaise-based sauces, opting instead for lighter toppings. “It’s become very common to top a taco with mayo rather than freshly made salsa, but fresh salsa is what makes a taco great. Most of the time it’s super healthy, can accommodate many dietary restrictions and is mostly fat-free.”
Next come the most important garnishes, namely the meats. For this, the chefs suggest that now is the time to get adventurous and try something new. “Don’t always order the same meat at your favorite taco restaurant,” suggests Edgar Escalantechef of Dirty Habit in Washington, D.C. “If you only get chicken asadas or tacos, you’re not getting the full taco experience. Eating tacos is always an adventure because you never know when you’ll fall on a very good taquera salsa or delicious tacos al pastor.”
Be adventurous, but within reason. For example, Oscar Cabezas advises you to stick to the most-ordered menu mainstays to ensure the best quality. As the chef at California’s Telefèric Barcelona explains, “If I order from a taco food truck, I always avoid proteins that aren’t in their top five sellers. Small companies are usually known for their specialties, so I always ask for their top three dishes and have one.”
Now that you know which menu items to focus on, it’s time to recognize which ones to avoid, namely anything that isn’t a taco.
According Tony Avila, co-founder and business developer of ONETACO of Austin, which includes salads. “Tacos are wonderful and can be anything you want them to be. Your everyday meal, your healthy diet option, or your favorite cheat meal. But if it’s a salad you’re looking for, I would suggest you go to a salad restaurant.”
When Alex Guzman, chef/owner of Archer & Goat in Harlem, visits a taco joint, he skips foreign fare. “I love Mexican food and especially tacos. However, when I go to a taco restaurant, I usually avoid ordering quesadillas,” says the chef. “It’s basically grilled tortillas with melted cheese that aren’t usually very tasty and can easily be made at home.” Guzman also eschews margaritas (“they’re often made with pre-purchased mixes that are high in sugar”), opting instead for horchata or aguas frescas.
So there is Diana Manalangchef-owner of Little Chef Little Café in New York City, which sums up taco traditions well: “Order the tacos!”
“Is there more to it? Sure, tortas are sandwiches and tacos could be considered a form of sandwich, but why not just take the tacos then? Ok, fajitas are like ‘tacos’ build it yourself”, but then why not just order the tacos already made? And yes, the quesadillas are like little grilled tacos pressed flat with the toppings on the side, but why not just get the tacos? The burritos are like giant super-stuffed tacos with everything in them, so why not just have the tacos?”
Obviously, as Manalang succinctly explains, “Just have the tacos. Period.” Oh and leave the mayo-based sauces and flour tortillas aside while you’re at it.
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