It’s common Mexican street-food practice to make haste when the taquero places an order onto a plate. Dress the taco at the salsa bar and take the first bite before the temperature drops. Nothing tastes as good as a taco fresh off the comal. In Mexican culture, always order two to three tacos, depending on appetite, then holler out another round to the taquero, who may have already offered an additional taco or two. But tacos to go? Here in the U.S., many non-Mexicans will say you’re supposed to eat them at the stand because taking them to go will ruin the tacos.
Yet Mexicans and other Latinos are always getting tacos to go. Enter the taco kit, a cultural institution among Mexican families and the only way to order from local Mexican restaurants, stands, and food trucks right now.
There are certain types of tacos that work especially well for take-home kits, like birria, carnitas, and barbacoa, where families get meats wrapped in foil, or butcher paper, with tortillas and condiments on the side. Some taco spots will even fill your own pot with stewed meats to take home. Families might even employ their own ingredients at home, like homemade salsas, tortillas, and guacamole. Carnitas are one of those foods to get from an artisan for family gatherings and parties. So yes, tacos to go are legit. Here are three main types of meats to carry home and the best ways to assemble each one.
Roasted meats: carne asada and al pastor
Carne asada to go is tricky. Mexican families tend to grill carne asada at home for family gatherings, especially in northern Mexico and the U.S. The challenge is to maintain moisture. Walter Soto, of Tacos El Ruso, who sells his to-go tacos already assembled, recommends heating up grilled meat in a pan or on a flattop grill. But the best way to heat up carne asada came as a shock to Sonoratown’s Jennifer Feltham. Her partner at Sonoratown, Teo Diaz, says to use the microwave. “It’s really juicy and not dry. It comes out good.” Adrian Mejia of Tijuana’s legendary El Gallito says, “Put the meat in the microwave, but inside a plastic bag.” Consider it gospel, given a consensus among these two esteemed taqueros. Feltham is more concerned about her beloved tortillas, which people keep burning. “A quick pass on an iron skillet is all you need on each side.” Please don’t burn those lard-filled tortillas from Sonoratown.
For al pastor, the best to-go option is alambres, a stir fry of seasoned al pastor pork (though alambres can be other meats as well), cheese, peppers, onions, and ham and bacon, or other combinations. They’re not much different from fajitas. I recommend the alambres from Taco Tamix, which get even juicier from bacon fat, melted cheese, and sauteed vegetables and come with a stack of corn tortillas. Grab Tamix’s salsas or make your own. Chop white onions and cilantro at home. Prepare a condiment bar, and hand your quarantine crew a hot tortilla with just the grilled meat, or your alambre, and go easy on the toppings. The cilantro, onions, and salsas are there to season and highlight the protein. It’s not a taco salad.
Guisados: stewed and braised meats
The very loose taco category of Mexican stews and braises is called guisados, and they are very takeout friendly. Everything can be warmed slowly in a pot, with a cast-iron pan to heat up the tortillas. Guisados, a popular local restaurant chain here in LA, offers a survival four-pack of 12-ounce stews, like steak picado, bistec en salsa roja, or chicken tinga. Guisados in general are cooked in mild chiles, so only add salsa for heat. Putting salsa on Guisados’s mole or chuleta en chile verde will take away from the dish. Feel free to add salsa to its bean and cheese, chorizo, or fish tacos, which aren’t technically “guisados” because they’re not stewed.
Another thing: It’s best not to add onions and cilantro to guisados, as those are condiments for grilled meats and other taco types. “We always suggest people try our food before squeezing lime all over. But you know, some people like what they like,” says Guisados owner Armando de La Torre Sr. Guisados do not need lime, folks.
De La Torre Sr. is a microwave enthusiast when it comes to warming up his corn tortillas, proposing that you wrap the tortillas in a slightly damp towel, but Chichen Itza’s Gilberto Cetina Jr. came through with the most logical approach. “We offer to sell our tortillas cold, so they can cook them at home,” he says. Cetina sends along a little cooking liquid for his guisados, like Chichen Itza’s famous cochinita pibil, to warm up the food on a stovetop without drying it out or diluting its flavors with water. Jose Perez of Asadero Chikali understands that some of his guisados will taste exactly the same at home, like his chicharron, bistec, and desebrada, but the papa con chorizo will lose liquid. A little water in the pot, or a little oil, may help in reheating any guisados that will quickly dry up, as long as you do it low and slow.
Slow-cooked meats: carnitas, birria, and barbacoa
These types of taqueros do lots of to-go business. Mexican families go to artisans for their carnitas, barbacoa, and birria, buying meat by the pound with condiments and tortillas, or bringing their own pots to fill, as is the case with birria.
Birria is a cinch to eat at home, depending on which type you order. For beef birria, it’s best to get birria en caldo (the soup version), tortillas, and condiments, then warm the beef birria on the stove. For goat birria, Birrieria Nochistlan sells goat meat by the pound in a charola (aluminum pan), with consomme on the side. Warm the meat and liquid in the oven, covered; don’t overcook it or it’ll dry out the meat.
Billy Acosta of Carnitas El Momo also recommends warming up his carnitas in the microwave, in a sealed plastic bag. There is no stigma in Mexican culture when it comes to the microwave. Momo’s regional plating is a warm corn tortilla, carnitas, pickled jalapenos, no cilantro or onions, and salsa if you want more spice. Aqui es Texcoco’s Paco Perez has a novel approach for keeping his product moist: “I prefer a vapoera (tamal steamer) to warm up the barbacoa, using the consomme in place of the water to create steam,” said Perez. In all three genres, birria, barbacoa, and carnitas, it’s a good idea to take home the restaurant’s condiments, as they are very specific to each dish.
For Angelenos, tacos are an essential provision during quarantine, and there’s no greater pleasure than getting takeout from your favorite taqueros and taqueras to restore a bit of normalcy. Tacos kits bring back the fun of gathering around the taco truck, dressing your taco just the way you like, and with a little guidance from our local cooks, chefs, and owners, they can be just as delicious at home.