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 time you hit your favorite taco spot — or better, travel to Mexico — we've put together a list of some of the most common taco fillings out there. Soon, you'll know exactly what al pastor is and why it's so delicious, and even be able to teach a friend.
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 — and don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone the next time you order.
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. Here's a recipe for spicy pork al pastor quesadillas.
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, and then pulled apart. Here's a recipe for slow-cooker barbacoa beef tacos.
Birria originated in the Jalisco region of Mexico and is a spicy meat stew that's slow-cooked until the meat is fall-apart tender. Though it's traditionally made with goat meat, it can now be found made with beef, veal, lamb, or pork. It can be served as a stew, taco filling, or topping on just about anything. Here's a recipe for puffy birria tacos.
Carne asada translates to grilled meat. It is essentially grilled, marinated pieces of beef (typically skirt or flank steak) served inside burritos and tacos. Here's a recipe for carne asada tacos.
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. Here's a slow-cooker carnitas recipe.
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. Cochinita pibil is sometimes served alone or on tostadas, but it can also be eaten in soft tortillas as tacos. Here's a recipe for cochinita pibil tacos.
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. Here's a recipe for lengua tacos.
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. Here's a recipe for tinga tacos.
— Additional reporting by Tara Block and Alexis Jones