Tacos come in all shapes and sizes, in corn or flour tortillas, and filled with ingredients that run the gamut from grilled veggies to fried fish. What’s a taco neophyte to do? Look no further than our handy taco guide, including where to eat them in Greater Phoenix.
Think of the soft taco as the original taco. It’s the oldest, most widely consumed form, often made with soft white-corn tortillas griddled until lightly charred, or sometimes steamed until soft. Filled with toppings that depend on the region, these tacos are served small and tidy—perfect for a quick, hunger-satiating snack. La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop offers a Sonoran soft taco that features marinated and charbroiled steak with a dash of fresh garlic and olive oil. Pepe’s Taco Villa serves up soft tacos on homemade tortillas stuffed with your choice of pork, chicken, carne asada or barbacoa.
Even though Glen Bell — founder of Taco Bell — claims to have invented tacos fritos, Smithsonian researchers trace its origins to Mexican restaurants operating in the United States in the 1940s. Mexican cookbooks during this time described how to crisp-fry a corn tortilla, bend it into a U-shape, and wrap the hard shell in plastic to keep it fresh until ready to eat. Typically, this Mexican-American taco is stuffed with ground beef and topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa and sour cream. You’ll delight in the satisfying crunch of the crispy shells at Casa Reynoso as you bite into a juicy shredded-beef taco dressed with melted cheese and cold iceberg lettuce.
Mexico enjoys one of the most robust and lively street-food cultures in Latin America. Empanadas, tortas and tostadas all make the cut for street food, but the street taco enjoys a near-universal ubiquity. Served open-faced in groups of two or three on a plate, these soft corn tacos fit comfortably in your hand to be folded and consumed in a few bites. Many come with a bonus soft tortilla stacked under the first. Choose from more than a dozen styles at Taco Guild, including lamb with blue cheese, chile-braised duck, or shrimp with jalapeño bacon and queso.
Among taco aficionados, there are some universal specifics that distinguish a breakfast taco. First, expect fewer ingredients and, second, there’s a good chance the tortillas will come on the side. The best part about breakfast tacos, however, is that they’re not just for breakfast. At Céntrico, the El Mexicano breakfast tacos comprise scrambled eggs, chorizo, avocado and pico de gallo and are available all the way through lunch. Similarly, the Mexican Breakfast at Gallo Blanco, which is served until 4 p.m., comes with two eggs, chorizo, beans and a side of tortillas. If you prefer the ready-made traditional approach, you’ll find the full variety served during breakfast here as well.
Fry Bread Tacos
In Arizona, this open-faced “taco” hails from the state’s American Indian tribes. So, what is an Indian taco exactly? It’s fry bread—dough that’s rolled flat then fried in oil until it’s crispy on the outside, while soft and chewy on the inside. For the classic toppings, go with ground beef, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. For something sweeter, a little honey and powdered sugar goes a long way. Try both styles, as well as a variety of other offerings, at The Fry Bread House, recipient of the 2012 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award.
Tacos de Canasta
De canasta refers to the “basket” that holds these tacos after they’re made. Also known as tacos al vapor, tacos de canasta start with a fried tortilla, which is filled with ingredients that can sit out and retain freshness and flavor. Think potatoes or refried beans. Bicycle street vendors sell this style of taco throughout Mexico, but here in Greater Phoenix, you can order tacos de canasta at Casa Corazon Restaurant.
Baja Fish Tacos
The Baja California Peninsula separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California, and its waters boast a bounty of shark, sand bass and other white fish. Fishermen pluck these from the sea, and chefs use the tender meat for the fish taco. Wrapped in corn tortillas, the crispy fried fish gets embellished with cabbage, pico de gallo and a cream sauce lightened with a squeeze of lime. Avocado crema, cilantro and cotija cheese grace the fish tacos (crispy-fried or grilled) at Ladera Taverna y Cocina, while pickled onion and chile crema top the fish tacos at Taco Chelo.
Al Pastor Tacos
In the early 20th century, Lebanese immigrants made their way to central Mexico, bringing with them culinary traditions such as spit-grilled meat, like the kind served in Turkish kabobs or Greek gyros. In Mexico, al pastor tacos use pork that’s been marinated in chiles and spices, slowly cooked on a spit, then sliced and wrapped in a small tortilla. It’s served with onions, cilantro and sweet pineapple. Al pastor tacos show up on the lunch menu at Chico Malo and on the mix-and-match menu at Cocina 10 inside downtown’s Crescent Ballroom.
From faux meat fillings to helpings of cooked-to-perfection veggies, vegan tacos hold their own against their meat counterparts. To be fair, this isn’t a traditional take on tacos, but for vegans and vegetarians, it’s a tasty way to indulge in Mexican food without resorting to a plate of just beans and rice. The crispy artichoke tacos at Casa Terra get rave reviews, as do the masa-battered cauliflower version at The Coronado. Open in its new Phoenix location since 2021, as well as its Glendale location, La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop also offers a wide variety of plant-based street tacos (and a whole lot more).
Take It To Go
Before you leave town, stock up on authentic ingredients that are sure to elevate your next feast. At these Mexican grocery stores, bakeries and tortillerias, you can purchase homemade tamales, fresh tortillas, conchas (Mexican sweet breads) and De La Rosa marzipan peanut candies. Your only challenge? Not stealing a nibble or two on the flight back home.
416 N 7th Ave, Phoenix
Carolina’s Mexican Food
1202 E Mohave St, Phoenix
La Fama Mexican Bakery
5328 W Glendale Ave, Glendale
La Sonorense Tortilla Factory
5403 S Central Ave, Phoenix
Los Altos Ranch Market
The Tamale Store
15842 N Cave Creek Rd, Phoenix
This article originally appeared in the 2020 Visit Phoenix Official Travel Guide.