Al Pastor, Carnitas, and Barbacoa Differences
Carnitas, Al Pastor, or Barbacoa? Here's How to Order Tacos Like a Pro
There's nothing like a delicious taco to turn your day around. But ordering traditional Mexican food can get a little tricky if you're not up on your taco fillings. With a menagerie of options from carnitas and carne asada to cochinita pibil, taco-meat terminology is vast. And you don't want to end up ordering lengua when you meant to ask for tinga. Both are tasty, by the way — but mixing up braised chicken (tinga) for tongue (lengua) can be a confusing experience for your taste buds.
The truth is, despite appearing relatively simple, the taco — and more particularly, how the meat is prepared — can be quite complex. Each filling may be spiced, seasoned, cooked, dried, and even sliced differently. That's part of what makes them so delicious. To help you out next Taco Tuesday, we've put together a list of some of the most common taco fillings out there — and don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone the next time you order. Ahead, find a list of all the different Mexican meats to try in your tacos, from al pastor to cochinita pibil and everything in between.
Al pastor is crisp-thin shavings of vertical spit-roasted pork, marinated with pineapple, guajillo chiles, and achiote, then served on tortillas. Pastor means "shepherd," the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City in the early 1900s, bringing the concept of shawarma with them. Get a recipe for spicy pork al pastor quesadillas here.
Traditionally, barbacoa is beef cheek and head that's covered in leaves from the maguey plant, then slow cooked over a wood fire in a pit in the ground. In America today, it also refers to spicy, shredded, slow-braised beef that's been made tender, then pulled apart. Get a recipe for slow-cooker barbacoa beef tacos here.
Carne asada translates to grilled meat. It is essentially grilled, marinated pieces of beef (typically skirt or flank steak) served inside burritos and tacos. Get a recipe for carne asada tacos here.
Carnitas is shoulder of pork that's been seasoned, braised until tender with lard and herbs (oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic), pulled apart, and then oven-roasted until slightly crisp. It's eaten alone or used as a filling for tacos, tamales, tortas, and burritos. Get a slow-cooker carnitas recipe here.
Cochinita pibil is whole suckling pig or pork shoulder that's marinated in citrus with achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. Historically, it's buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom. Get a recipe for cochinita pibil tacos here.
Lengua means tongue in Spanish, so when referring to a taco, it's usually beef tongue that has been slow-cooked for hours, braised with garlic and onions, finely chopped, and served with salsa verde. Get a recipe for lengua tacos here.
Tinga, or braised chicken thigh, is typically made in a smoky and slightly spicy tomato-based sauce. If you're not into beef and pork tacos, this chicken option is absolutely delicious. Get a recipe for tinga tacos here.
— Additional reporting by Tara Block and Alexis Jones