Taco history

Where your taco comes from and where to find the best.

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  • AL PASTOR
    When Lebanese immigrants settled in the city of Puebla, Mexico, 50 years ago, they arrived with a lamb specialty called shawarma, made by stacking sliced meat in a cone shape, cooking it on a spit and carving it off with a large knife. In the 1960s, their children swapped out the lamb for pork, created a marinade from local ingredients�dried chilies and achiote�and piled the meat on corn tortillas to create a new dish.

    Ingredients Marinated, grilled pork; pineapple; chopped cilantro and onions

    Great examples See the winners of our al pastor taco throw-down.�Nick Kindelsperger

  • CARNITAS
    A street meat popularized in the central Pacific Mexican state of Michoac�n, carnitas has gained gringo popularity as Americans have become obsessed with pork. Small bits of pork are slow-cooked for several hours overnight, then deep-fried and shredded sometimes as early as 5am�proving it�s acceptable to eat tacos at any time of day.

    Ingredients Shredded, fried pork; chopped cilantro and onions

    Great examples Carnitas el Paisa (3529 W Fullerton Ave, 773-278-2062), Carnitas Uruapan (1725 W 18th St, 312-226-2654), Don Pedro Carnitas (1113 W 18th St, 312-829-4757).�Carly Fisher

  • LENGUA
    �In Mexico, like many European societies, tongue is considered to be a tasty, respectable and widely eaten meat,� says Jeffrey Pilcher, author of the forthcoming Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. As a cheaper cut of beef, lengua is popular at taco stands in Mexico City, but Pilcher says he�s also had it at fancy restaurants throughout the country.

    Ingredients Beef tongue, chopped cilantro and onions

    Great examples La Chaparrita (2500 S Whipple St, 773-254-0975), Tierra Caliente (1402 N Ashland Ave, 773-772-9804), Cd. Hidalgo (7104 N Clark St, 773-338-9992).�Julia Kramer

  • BIRRIA
    Birria
    hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco, where it�s made with goat, lamb or offal from either, but in Chicago you�ll usually only find goat. The meat is rubbed with chilies and spices, dropped into a barbecue pit and left to slow-cook. The juices collect in a bowl set under the meat and are mixed back in or served as a consomm�. Obviously, most Chicago birrierias don�t dig barbecue pits. But by letting the meat cook slowly on a low heat, they achieve birria�s soft texture and nuanced flavor.

    Ingredients Braised goat or lamb (usually goat), chopped cilantro and onions, salsa verde, lime wedges, crumbled dry chilies (optional)

    Great examples Birrieria Ocotlan (4007 E 106th St, 773-374-0384), Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan (1322 W 18th St, 312-733-2613), Birrieria Zaragoza (4852 S Pulaski Rd, 773-523-3700).�David Tamarkin

  • CARNE ASADA
    The salty, tender strips of beef known as carne asada can be found throughout Mexico, but in the northern cattle country of states like Sonora, this meat is considered an art. Cuts of beef vary between thick (diezmillo) and thin (s�bana), all prepared simply over a hot flame and sprinkled with salt. This tradition traveled to the U.S. after we acquired Texas in the Mexican-American War; migrants spread it coast to coast during the rise of the railroad industry.

    Ingredients Salt-sprinkled beef, chopped cilantro and onions, a squeeze of lime

    Great examples Las Asadas (2045 N Western Ave, 773-235-5538), Taco el Jalisciense (2859 W Chicago Ave, 773-235-2859), Zacatacos (3949 W 71st St, 773-582-9701).Carly Fisher

  • BAJA
    Legend has it the fish taco originated in the 1950s in the small coastal town of Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. In Baja fish tacos, the fish (usually a firm whitefish like red snapper, cod or tilapia) is fried in tempura-like batter and accompanied by shredded cabbage, a thin sour cream- or mayonnaise-based sauce and a spritz of lime juice. Popularized by San Diego entrepreneur Ralph Rubio, who founded the fish-taco chain Rubio�s in the 1980s, fried fish tacos tend to surface at trendy spots where chefs riff on the traditional formula.

    Ingredients Fried whitefish, cabbage, dairy-based sauce, lime juice

    Great examples Antique Taco (1360 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-687-8697), Big Star (1531 N Damen Ave, 773-235-4039), La Lagartija (132 S Ashland Ave, 312-733-7772).�Julia Kramer

AL PASTOR
When Lebanese immigrants settled in the city of Puebla, Mexico, 50 years ago, they arrived with a lamb specialty called shawarma, made by stacking sliced meat in a cone shape, cooking it on a spit and carving it off with a large knife. In the 1960s, their children swapped out the lamb for pork, created a marinade from local ingredients�dried chilies and achiote�and piled the meat on corn tortillas to create a new dish.

Ingredients Marinated, grilled pork; pineapple; chopped cilantro and onions

Great examples See the winners of our al pastor taco throw-down.�Nick Kindelsperger

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