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.