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What is a Taco?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The taco is a dish that originates in Mexico, though the forms Americans eat, especially from fast food restaurants, bear little resemblance to the true form. Generally, the dish is made of one or two heated or lightly fried corn tortillas, and can contain any number of different traditional Mexican meats or fish. Tacos can be dressed up with a variety of condiments, including salsa or pico de gallo, a bit of lettuce, tomato, onions, and sometimes cheese.

When the traditional taco is served, it is flat, not pinched up into the hard shells that many Americans consider the essential base. Hard shells that are in a semi-circle form are largely an American invention. To eat the traditional dish, however, people often pinch up the ends of the tortillas, creating a sandwich like way of eating the food. Tacos do have a tendency to drip from the end the diner isn't eating, particularly if they’re overfilled with ingredients.

Traditional meats that may top the tortilla include carne asada, which are roasted meats, especially beef. Chorizo, a spicy sausage, grilled chicken, fish, or roasted pork are also popular. Many tacos use various other parts of the animal, not typically part of American fare. For instance, tacos de tripita are popular and use crisply fried cow intestines. Those made of the cow head and other such ingredients are often available on request from taquerias, stands that specialize in making this dish for hungry guests.

Tacos aren’t necessarily differentiated from other Mexican dishes. Flautas and tacquitos, for example, are considered variants of it. They are both rolled up versions, often containing grilled chicken, which are deep-fried.

Though corn tortillas are standard for this dish, cooks can use flour tortillas if they so choose. Tex-Mex cuisine makes use of the flour tortilla to serve one of its classic dishes, the fajita. Essentially, fajitas are filled with meats, salsa, beans, cheese, and whatever else the cook would like, and as such resemble the classic Mexican dish.

American style tacos tend to rely on the hard shell, and fast food restaurants generally make this type with ground beef or, sometimes, grilled chicken. The beef is often seasoned with spices like cumin, chili powder, garlic, and cayenne, and may be topped with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, salsa and other ingredients, much like the Mexican version. People who are used to the American style may be surprised by the relatively simple style served at an authentic taqueria. The trick is in the ordering, and diners can pretty much ask for anything they’d like on tacos made in the traditional manner. If the diner doesn’t ask, he is likely to be presented with one or two corn tortillas with some meat on it, and very little else.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By kylee07drg — On Dec 01, 2012

@shell4life – That sounds about right. We use all those ingredients on our taco meat, whether it is chicken, fish, or beef.

I like putting fresh avocado slices in my tacos, along with fresh tomatoes. I'm not big on lettuce, because to me, it is just filler.

However, when I make fish tacos, I like a bit of coleslaw with them. Its crispiness is a good contrast to the mushiness of the fish, and the flavor goes well with it.

My fish tacos have become quite a hit with my friends, so we have “Taco Tuesday” at my house once a week. The seasoning is just as important to the tacos as the meat is, and I think that when people attempt to make the fish tacos without it, they are nearly inedible.

By feasting — On Nov 30, 2012

My friend makes something called taco soup that contains black beans, corn, beef, pinto beans, and salsa. She tops it with crumbled tacos, and it is delicious.

I make a similar version called tortilla soup. I don't use pinto beans, and I use chicken instead of beef. Also, mine contains cumin, and hers doesn't.

To me, cumin makes the entire dish. It has a unique flavor that is distinctly Mexican, and I've come to expect it in all my tacos and tortillas.

By shell4life — On Nov 29, 2012

My husband has a wonderful homemade taco seasoning that he uses on the ground beef that he always puts in our tacos. It only contains four ingredients, but it makes the perfect flavor.

I know that garlic powder and chili powder are involved, but I'm not sure what the other two seasonings are. Onion powder sounds likely, though.

By cloudel — On Nov 28, 2012

Do restaurants or taco stands ever put weird cow parts in their tacos without telling anyone? I would hate to think that I might have been eating intestines or heads without knowing it. Surely, they must have to disclose ingredients such as these!

By anon154725 — On Feb 21, 2011

Fajita technically means flank/skirt steak. It's named for the cut of meat used. If it's made with "whatever meat you like" it isn't a fajita in any sort of traditional sense.

Flank steak, grilled onions, peppers (grilled or not), guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and salsa are normal.

Tinker with it outside of that general ingredient envelope and I'd argue with you that's it's not some sort of soft taco that is not a fajita. -Some Feller in Texas

By elfi64 — On Feb 13, 2009

A steak taco is another good option. It is filling and satisfying. A good choice for steak tacos is flank steak that can be prepared in a frying pan.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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