Three simple things.

Tortilla.   Filling.  Salsa.

Those are the building blocks of a taco. That generally outline has birthed thousands of variations and interpretations .Tacos have broken out as not only a Mexican dish but into a dish celebrated around the world.  The styles, flavors, ingredients, range from the ordinary to the not so ordinary.

If you live in North America you are never too far from a taco spot. Tacos have permeated each meal of the day. There are breakfast tacos, savory tacos, ice cream tacos, fusion tacos. While other popular foods celebrate their one national day year, the tacos own every Tuesday.  #tacotuesday

The Tortilla, The Filling, The Salsa.

So let’s break down the main elements that form this culinary holy trinity.


Tortillas, meaning “little cake” get their name from the Spanish that arrived in the Aztec land in the 16th century. These edible disks are the foundation to a great taco.

The invention of tortillas is one of those amazing and obscure culinary miracles. It is unclear who made the first one or what inspired them to create in the first place. The process not only created a pliable and edible vehicle to serve food but the process used to make tortillas maximizes corns’ nutritional value to the human body.

Masa. Warm Water. Salt.

There are 2 basic types of tortillas, corn or flour.

Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas come from dried corn that is then that is then softened and ground into dough. The dough is then flattened and cooked on a Comal.  There are 3 main types of corn tortillas.  Yellow corn and White corn tortillas are the by far the most common in the united states while blue/ black corn tortillas can be readily found throughout Mexico.

Masa Harina used to make homemade tortillas
Masa Harina

*For home cooks, you don’t have to dry corn, and soak the kernels. Instant Masa, Harnina helps you skip those steps. *Note  it is important to get corn that is made for tortillas as the corn has already been cooked while corn flour has not and will not end up with a good tortilla.






Check out the video to learn how to make tortillas for yourself at home.

Flour Tortillas

Flour tortillas originated in northern Mexico as the Spanish brought over wheat flour combined with the fact that wheat is easier to grow in that area of the country and ultimately used wheat flour to create tortillas.

Flour tortillas are probably most closely associated with burritos and quesadillas. Flour tortillas are a little fluffier and pliable without being warmed than corn tortillas.

Now that we have covered where tortillas come from let’s talk about how they ca be served. Once you have tortillas. Now what?

How do you like them?  Soft, Sweaty, Puffy or Hard.

Hard Tacos

You can take your tortilla one step further by frying them until crisp. Either flour or corn tortillas can be used to make crispy tacos.

Because the tortillas won’t be pliable after frying there are several tools that help to keep that u shape to hold fillings. (Crispy tortillas that are not formed into the u-shape are considered tostadas.)

Soft Tacos.

Soft Tacos use corn or flour tortillas that have been warmed on a Comal. (See video or recipe above.)


Tacos Sudados or Tacos de Canasta (“sweat tacos”)are tacos that are filled brushed with oil and seasoning. Those tacos are placed in a basket and staked on each other. The result is a supper moist tortilla (which is why they are “sweat tacos”)

Puffy Tacos 

Made famous in San Antonio Texas, the process begins the same way as corn tortillas. You start by first forming a ball with water and masa. Then, pressing the ball flat using a tortilla press. Instead of cooking the tortilla on a comal, the tortilla is fried causing them to “puff up”.

Remember the fresher the better when it comes to tortillas. Just like loaves of bread tortillas get stale and really affect the quality. So that bag of old tortillas that you have on top of the fridge for the last month, are not good for tacos anymore.

Taco Fillings

Let’s get to heart of the matter. The Fillings.

There is no limit to the things that can fit onto a tortilla. There are 2 main categories that I separate tacos into.

Traditional or Non Traditional.

For our purposes we are going to primarily focus on traditional taco fillings as non-traditional fillings are extremely varied and we can explore those in detail in other articles. Here is a brief description of some non-traditional taco styles.

The Non Traditional

Uniformly all non-traditional tacos are considered gringo tacos.

Gringo meaning, non Hispanic.

The classic gringo taco is made with a crispy corn or flour tortilla. The tortilla is filled with ground beef or chicken, lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomatoes and salsa. Gringo tacos have been around for almost 80 years. You could make a case that they are moving toward the traditional category, but that is a discussion for another day.

Other gringo tacos could be any combination of things. Bulgogi Taco? Tikka Masala Taco? These tacos use already popular combinations of ingredients and flavors and serve them on tortillas. Creating a fusion of cultures that can please everyone.

Breakfast Tacos

With fillings like chorizo, potato, eggs and more, there are very hearty options for breakfast tacos. What actually constitutes a breakfast taco depends on who you ask. But pretty much comes down to the addition of egg and the time of day you’re eating them.

Native American Tacos

Although these tacos have been around a long time, they are considered non-traditional primarily because the base is more of bread than a tortilla. In the 19th century and most likely through a mingling of cultures, Indian tribes like the Navajo fried a type of flour dough disc to create fry bread. This fry bread is the base for Indian tacos which are popular throughout the southwest. They are also the predecessor to the puffy taco described earlier.

The Traditional.

There are preparations that can go back hundreds years. Cooking processes and classic mexican spices rule the day. These type of tacos can be found either regionally in mexico or at taquerias around the U.S.


The first separation of between fillings is how the fillings were prepared. Surprisingly chicken taco can mean a lot of different things. Let’s first look at the different ways traditional taco fillings can be prepared.

Tacos Al Carbon (Grilled Tacos) These fillings are cooked over charcoal giving the fillings a crisp exterior while remaining juicy on the inside. Once cooked the filling is chopped up and put on tortillas.  When no charcoal is used and the meat is cooked on a comal or griddle they are reffered to as Tacos de Asador.

Barbacoa are fillings that have been wrapped in Maguey leaves and are cooked underground over coals. More modern barbacoa is cooked in special pot and baked in an oven.

Tacos de Cazo (Fried Fillings) Carnitas is not only the most popular version of this preparation but one of the most popular dishes in Mexican cuisine.   These fillings are typically slow cooked in lard until nice a crispy on the outside.

Tacos de cazuela are braised or slow cooked fillings. Fillings such a birria. The meat is shredded and placed on toritillas with some of the juices from the slow cooking process.

Tacos Sudados or Tacos de Canasta (“sweat tacos”)are tacos that are filled brushed with oil and seasoning. Those tacos are placed in a basket and staked on each other. The result is a supper moist tortilla (which is why they are “sweat tacos”)


Tacos Al Pastor, which literally translates to “shepherd style.”  Most commonly made with pork, the meat is seasoned and layered on a vertical rotisserie. Slowed cooked and thinly slice off for tacos the garnished with onion, cilantro and pineapple.

Tacos Dorados also known as taquitos, or flautas usually have pre-cooked fillings. The filling are rolled into a tortilla and then deep fried until crisp.

With these variations of preparations.  Let’s get into the names of each of these fillings that you can traditionally add to your taco.

Al Pastor – usually spiced pork topped with pineapple traditionally cooked on a vertical spit.

Barbacoa – Slow steamed lamb or goat

Cabeza – typically fillings made from the meat of a cow or lambs head.

Carne Asada – Thin slices of steak

Carnitas – Pork fried until tender and shredded

Chorizo– Pork sausage

Lengua – Beef Tongue.

Pescado – Grilled or Fried fish. Topped with cabbage, pico de gallo and sour cream.

Camarrones – Grilled or Fried shrimp. Topped with cabbage, pico de gallo and sour cream.

Pollo – Chicken usually marinated then grilled over charcoal.


Check out Our Full List of Fillings HERE



Most time salsa is looked at as an afterthought. Something you snack on with some tortilla chips. However salsa is the 3rd (but still very important) component that makes a taco.

When it comes to salsa there 3 kinds.

Raw Salsas such as pico de gallo where none of the ingredients are cooked or dried.

Cooked Salsas that may have one or more ingredients that have been cooked or dried.

Pickled Salsas can combine cooked and raw ingredients and then are held in vinegar

Within those categories there are versions of these popular types of salsas. Lets check out some the more popular salsa options.


Salsa roja literally translates to “red sauce”. These are usually tomato based salsas which give them their color. (cooked tomatoes, chilies, onion, garlic, and fresh cilantro),

Salsa verde are generally tomatillo based salsas. Some salsas get their verde color form an avocado base. (not to be confused with the thicker guacamole.) (cooked tomatillos and chiles),

Pico de gallo also known as salsa fresca can have the same ingredients as other salsas but what makes it different is that none of the ingredients are cooked. (raw tomatoes, lime juice, chiles, onions, cilantro leaves, and other coarsely chopped ingredients)

 Salsa negra smoky salsa that generally made with roasted tomatoes, peppers and dried chilies. (dried chiles, oil, and garlic)

Mole while many variations exist this thick rich sauce traditionally includes Chiles mixed with spices, unsweetened chocolate.

Guacamole – There are literally thousands of guac recipes out there but they all involve a ripe avocado, tomato, chopped onions, and lime.


The rest of the family.

Everyone has family. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and so on, like us, but not us. Tacos have cousins as well. There are a bunch of taco-like food items that use pretty much the same ingredients and can be served with a lot of the traditional and non-traditional fillings.  Like tacos but not really tacos.

Enchiladas: One of the main ways enchiladas differ from tacos is that enchiladas are bathed in large amounts of salsa. This means that people tend to eat them with a knife and fork.

Quesadillas:  Traditionally made with dark masa, oblong tortillas are filled folded over while cooking.  Northern Mexican and American quesadillas tend to use flour tortillas.

Tlayudas: Oaxacan born dish uses a large tortillas that’s texture is between a tostada and quesadilla. The dough first warmed on a Comal and then grilled over charcoal. Then the tlaydudas is topped like a sort of Mexican pizza with beans, cheese etc.

Tacos have all the elements of what we love in food. A good taco has texture, with moist and dry elements. They are portable and easily eaten at a dinner table or standing in the parking lot of your favorite taco truck. Tacos have contrast in both flavor and temperature. You can have sweet, spicy, sour, savory all in one bite.  Not only is it one of the most popular dishes in the world, tacos remains one of the most accessible. You can find fantastic tacos for a $1 each or if you’re are feeling fancy you can pay 10 times as much.

The taco is a simple but complex dish that continues to grow in its deliciousness. No matter what kind of food you gravitate toward there is a taco to match your taste buds.


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