Do-It-Yourself Tacos



  • 2 dozen 6-inch corn tortillas
  • Carnitas, Carnitas "al Pastor," or Carne Asada (recipes follow)
  • 2 cups cooked beans (black, pinto or refried)
  • 1 cup grated or crumbled cheese, preferably a Mexican añejo type like Cotija; otherwise Jack, Muenster, or mild cheddar
  • 2 cups Salsa Cruda (recipe follows) or Roasted Tomatillo Sauce (see Grilled King Salmon with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce recipe)
Optional toppings:
  • Shredded romaine or other crisp lettuce
  • Sliced green onion, or minced yellow or white onion rinsed with a little warm water
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Poblano or long green chiles, roasted, peeled, and cut into strips
  • Guacamole

Time Estimates

Prep time: 15 min  

Total time: 15 min  



  1. Have your choice of meat filling ready and warm. Set out the beans, cheese, salsa, and toppings in individual bowls with spoons. Line a basket or shallow bowl with a decorative cloth towel to receive the tortillas. Warm the tortillas on a griddle or directly over a gas flame until lightly speckled with brown, adding each to the basket before it has a chance to cool.
  2. At the table, spoon a little cheese into a tortilla first (to give it a chance to melt), than add a few bits of meat, some beans, a spoonful of salsa, and your choice of toppings. Fold the tortilla over the filling, bending the other end slightly to hold in the filling as you eat. (Some will drip out anyway; this is short-sleeve food.)


Serves 6


Good to know

Even the ubiquitous fast-food chains have diversified far beyond "tacos" of crumbly ground beef in crisp fried shells to something more like the original tacos: warm, flexible corn tortillas wrapped around a small amount of meat filling with salsa. It's the classic street food, bought from a storefront taqueria or more often a cart or truck and eaten on the spot.


Which beer should I drink with this?

Anything not too hoppy, depending on the heat of your salsa.



1. In my multiculturally equipped kitchen, I frequently use Chinese stacking steamer baskets to reheat several items at once, in this case the beans and any leftover meat fillings. I don't use it to warm tortillas, although steaming is pretty standard in taquerias; I much prefer them warmed with dry heat.


2. One of my biggest problems with a lot of taquerias in the United States is the way they pile a lot of filling inside one or two tortillas, making it next to impossible to eat a taco out of hand. Taco trucks tend to be better about this, assuming you will be ordering some number of tacos rather than just one. At the same time, there are some very successful chain restaurants north of the border that have popularized fajitas, which have grown from a single dish (strips of grilled beef skirt steak) to a whole genre, with beef, chicken, or even shrimp served on a sizzling platter with cooked vegetables, beans, rice, and a stack of warm flour tortillas, all ready to assemble to taste.


Still, fajitas wrapped in flour tortillas always leave me a little dissatisfied — it's like having a corned beef sandwich on white bread. Tacos need the earthy taste and texture of corn tortillas. But there's no reason not to adapt the fajita style of serving to tacos, setting out a basket of warm corn tortillas and a buffet of fillings and toppings.


Several options for fillings follow. Other possibilities include Chile Verde and Yucatecan Banana-Leaf Pork or Chicken, either as leftovers or freshly cooked for this use.





Ingredients: Makes about 3 cups

  • 2 pounds pork country-style spareribs, or 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  1. Cut the meat from the bones and trim off the surface fat. Separate the meat along the natural seams, removing excess fat as you find it, and cut into 1- to 2-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a heavy pot that will hold them snugly in a single layer, sprinkle with the salt, and add water just to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook uncovered at a lively simmer until the meat is tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Periodically skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
  2. Continue cooking until the water evaporates and the meat begins to sizzle in the remaining fat. Turn the cubes so they brown well on all sides, and cook until slightly crisp. Drain and keep warm until ready to chop into shreds for tacos or burritos.

1. The best tool for chopping carnitas is the one I see used in many Mexican taquerias — a Chinese cleaver. Put a cube on the cutting board, give it a sharp whack with the broad side of the blade so that the meat breaks nearly apart into stringy bits, then chop crosswise. This gives the maximum surface area for salsas to cling to.

2. I know I should expand my horizons when it comes to taco fillings, but I keep coming back to these slightly crunchy "little meats," bits of pork cooked by a uniquely Mexican method that starts with simmering them in water and ends with browning them in their own rendered fat.


Carnitas "al Pastor"

Ingredients: Makes about 3 cups

  • 2 pounds pork country-style spareribs, or 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • 4 or 5 large dried chiles
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • A little boiling water
  • 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  1. Start the pork cooking as for Carnitas (see the previous recipe). Meanwhile, heat an ungreased skillet or griddle and toast the chiles and garlic. When the chiles are soft and pliable, remove them and set aside for a few seconds to cool, then slit them open with a knife or scissors. Shake out and discard the seeds and remove the ribs. Place the chiles in a small bowl and add boiling water just to cover. Set aside to steep for about an hour.
  2. Toast the garlic, peppercorns, cumin, and cloves on the dry pan until fragrant; add the oregano for a few seconds, then transfer everything to a mortar or blender. If using a mortar, grind the spices and garlic together at your leisure before adding the chile paste (the next step). If using a blender, just leave the whole spices in the machine for now.
  3. When the carnitas are getting close to done, lift the chiles out of the water and carefully scrape the red pulp from the inside with a metal spoon, leaving the outer skin behind. Add this paste to the spices in the mortar or blender, along with the vinegar, salt, and 1/4 cup of the chile soaking water, and blend to a paste.
  4. When the meat cubes are beginning to sizzle and brown, remove the meat to a cutting board and add the chile-spice paste to the pan. Shred and chop the meat (see the Technique Note in the Carnitas recipe) and return it to the pan to reheat and coat with the sauce. Taste for seasoning and keep warm until ready to serve.

1. This name makes no sense in normal taqueria lingo, as al pastor (shepherd style) implies meat cooked on a spit and carved off to order. It's a technique that doesn't translate well to small quantities, but the typical chile and vinegar marinade used for meat cooked al pastor can be added to carnitas. Meats cooked this way are sometimes called chilorio, a version of which used to be on the menu at my favorite Berkeley taqueria but inexplicably disappeared several years ago.

2.  Any variety of large dried chiles, such as ancho, guajillo, pasilla (negro), California, or New Mexico, will work here; each gives a slightly different flavor, so play around and see which you prefer.


Carne Asada

Ingredients: Makes 3 cups

  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds beef sirloin, rump, top round, tri-tip, or chuck "mock tender"
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Juice of 2 limes
  1. Slice the meat across the grain about 1/4 inch thick. If using a small muscle like the mock tender, you can make a continuous strip by cutting almost through to one side, then turning the piece over and cutting parallel to the first cut almost to the edge, repeating the process so it makes a long accordion-folded piece. Pound the slices lightly with a meat pounder, mallet, or the side of a cleaver to thin them slightly, but not so much that the meat falls apart. Season the slices with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lime juice.
  2. Have a hot grill ready (gas, charcoal, or stovetop). Lay a few meat slices on the grill and cook just until drops of blood appear on top; turn and cook for a few seconds on the other side, then transfer to a warm platter. Repeat with the remaining meat, then chop the slices into bitesize pieces and toss in any juices that have accumulated on the platter.

This is a way of turning relatively lean but tender cuts of beef (the kind that make better roasts than steaks) into quick-cooking, tender, bite-size pieces. Skirt steak used to be a cheap cut for this use, but not since the fajitas craze. If your butcher will slice the meat for you, so much the better.


Salsa Cruda (Fresh Tomato Salsa)

Ingredients: Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 large or 2 small ripe tomatoes (or 8 ounces oval, Roma-type tomatoes)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 small green chile (jalapeño or serrano)
  • 1 good-sized green onion, minced
  • 2 or 3 sprigs cilantro, chopped not too fine
  • Lime or lemon juice
  1. Split the tomatoes crosswise (lengthwise if using Romas). Holding a half in your palm, gently squeeze and shake out the seeds; discard the seeds. Cut the tomato into medium-fine dice and place in a mixing bowl with a pinch of salt.
  2. Remove the stem end of the chile and split the chile lengthwise. For a milder salsa, carefully cut out the seeds and most of the white ribs; for a hotter flavor, leave them in. Mince the chile finely and add it to the tomato with the green onion and cilantro. Toss to mix well, season to taste with lime juice and more salt if needed, and let stand for half an hour or so before serving.

The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook 

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.





Photo: Ron Dollete/Flickr

Do-It-Yourself Tacos
It's the classic street food, bought from a storefront taqueria — or more often, a cart or truck — and eaten on the spot.