Nail the types of tacos in Tucson & be prepared to tackle taco menus confidently.
In the Sonoran Desert, the combination of cattle ranching history and naturally abundant mesquite wood created a land of marvelous carne asada.
While the smoky beef is a Tucson staple, don’t sleep on the other taco fillings you’ll find from restaurants all over town.
For this article, we’ve gathered up as many different types of tacos as we could around Tucson. Here are the photos, details, and our favorites.
Not to be confused with adovada from New Mexico, adobada from Mexico is pork marinated in a blend of chiles, spices, and vinegar. Our favorite local adobada comes from Salsa Verde, Aqui Con El Nene, and El Antojo Poblano.
Al pastor is pork marinated in a blend of chilies, spices, pineapple, and sometimes achiote. The sweet and lightly spice meat is best with bits of caramelized char on the edge. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it fresh off the trompo, a vertical spit inspired by a Lebanese shawarma. Our favorites for al pastor in Tucson are Polo’s Taqueria, Ensenada Street Food, Street Taco & Beer Co., and Taqueria Juanitos.
Barbacoa was originally shredded meat from whole goat or lamb wrapped in agave leaves and cooked underground. Nowadays, the term encompasses a wide variety of slow-cooked shredded meats. Seasonings vary from region to region, but it’s safe to expect a blend of peppers, Mexican oregano, and Mexican cinnamon. Our favorites are from Taqueria El Pueblito, Seis Kitchen, and La Botana.
Birria is a spicy simmered meat from the Mexican state of Jalisco. While it is traditionally made with goat, beef is easier to find in Tucson. Our favorites are from Birrieria Guadalajara, El Chivo de Oro, Carniceria los Vaqueros, and that one stand on South Mission Road and West Drexel Road.
Buche differs from region to region, but generally means pork throat or stomach. At Carnitas La Yoca, the stomach is simmered until tender, similar to tripe. Find these types of tacos at Carnitas La Yoca.
Cabeza translates to head. Entire cow heads are simmered until the meat is fall-apart tender. You can be more specific with the parts of the cow head, however. The food truck, simply named Tacos de Cabeza, is easily a top contender for all tacos cow-head related.
Cachete is beef cheek, fatty and melt-in-your mouth.
Sesos is the brain, custardy and gamy; definitely an acquired taste. Also, be aware that a single ounce of beef brain contains 289% of your recommended daily value of cholesterol.
Lengua is the tongue, one of the most-used muscles on the cow. While tough raw, the long slow cooking process tenderizes it into tender meat with some of the beefiest flavor on the cow.
Camarones simply means shrimp. Get it fried, grilled, or sauteed with countless seasoning combinations. Our favorite shrimp tacos are at Taqueria Pico de Gallo, BOCA Tacos y Tequila, Baja Tacos, and Cocteleria La Palma.
Tucson’s taco sweetheart, carne asada is grilled beef, ideally grilled over mesquite wood. Some restaurants insist on only seasoning with salt, while others are marinated with citrus and peppers. Our favorite carne asada is at The Quesadillas, Tacos Apson, and Tacos El Rustico.
Carne Seca / Machaca
Carne seca translates directly as dried meat. It is most popular in Northern Mexico as a method of preserving beef — you can get it in a bag like beef jerky. El Charro Cafe has been sun-drying carne seca on their roof for nearly a century.
When rehydrated and seasoned, it becomes machaca. You can find it in broth or lightly reconstituted and cooked with peppers and eggs. Our favorite carne seca and machaca come from El Charro Cafe, El Minuto, El Cisne, and Anita Street Market.
A specialty of Michoacán, carnitas is fatty pork slowly cooked in its own fat. Once the pork is cooked through and tender, the outside is crisped. Our favorites are at Carnitas La Yoca and Carnitas Los Gordos.
Chicharrón is deep-fried chunks of pork skin, pork, or beef. You can get it crunchy straight out of the fryer or simmered in salsa. Our favorites are at I Love Tacos, Tacos El Rustico, Taqueria El Pueblito, and La Botana.
Chile Verde • Chile Rojo
While chile verde and chile rojo are different in name only by color, the color of the chili pepper is not the only difference. Chile verde typically contains green chili peppers with tomatillo, cilantro, and onion. Chile rojo, also known in some regions as chile colorado, focuses more on the red chili peppers and spice blend. If you want to try these types of tacos, our favorites are at Anita Street Market and St. Mary’s Mexican Food.
While chiltepin is a type of chili pepper, chicken in chiltepin features shredded chicken in a light brothy tomato sauce with the chiltepin pepper. It is comparable to chicken tinga, though not as smoky. Our favorite is at El Antojo Poblano.
Cueritos are slices of pig skin, simmered until fall-apart tender and rich with sticky gelatin. Our favorite is at Carnitas La Yoca.
Cochinita pibil is a type of barbacoa from the Yucatán Peninsula. Pork is marinated in bitter orange juice and achiote, wrapped in banana leaf, and roasted until fall-apart tender. Our favorite is from Seis Kitchen and Reforma.
The ubiquitous ground beef taco has been a rustic classic for ages. Whether you have it made at home by your nana fried as tacos dorados, stuffed into a hard corn shell or piping hot from a basket as tacos de canasta, ground beef tacos have a nostalgic special place in our hearts. We love it in Tarascan Tacos from La Indita or as Nana’s Tacos from Rollies Mexican Patio.
Like camarones earlier, pescado can be found any which way from grilled to fried and more. Our favorites are at Taqueria Pico de Gallo, BOCA Tacos y Tequila, and Seis Kitchen, where you can get changing fresh fish options such as yellowtail.
Another specialty of the Yucatán, poc chuc is meat marinated in citrus and grilled. It is normally made with pork, but we love the chicken version at Seis Kitchen. It’s grilled and then sliced afterwards, yielding juicier chicken.
Pollo asado has varying definitions internationally, but around here, it is citrus-marinated chicken grilled over mesquite wood. It’s essentially the chicken version of carne asada. Our favorites are at The Quesadillas and Carniceria los Vaqueros.
Tinga is chicken simmered in a smoky chipotle and tomato sauce. It originated in Puebla. Our favorites are at Seis Kitchen and El Antojo Poblano.
Don’t depend on your Spanglish here; tripas are not tripe. They are actually the small intestine and are crunchy, slightly chewy, with a bit of a livery taste; they are an acquired taste, but you can learn to love them with the right potent salsas. Our favorites are at Polo’s Taqueria and La Fresita.
Seis-Chata, Chorizo con Papas breakfast tacos at Seis Kitchen (Credit: Jackie Tran)Chorizo is more of a breakfast meat, available more often in burritos than tacos. The Chorizo con Papas breakfast tacos at Seis Kitchen make the types of tacos mention because they’re a Tucson classic.
Costillas are massive beef ribs. They look silly on a tortilla, since you can’t bite through the bone. But they are delicious nonetheless, addictively chewy and perfumed with mesquite.
Penca’s guajalote tacos features shredded roasted turkey. While most domestic turkeys trace back to Aztec heritage, Penca might be the only place in Tucson with turkey tacos.
Mole exists in countless variations throughout Mexico. It’s more common on a plate with tortillas on the side, rather than on a taco. Our favorite mole tacos are at Elvira’s, BOCA Tacos y Tequila, Martin’s Comida Chingona, and Tumerico.
Mexican seafood restaurants such as El Berraco serve our favorite pulpo (octopus) tacos. Preparation varies dramatically.
Vegetable tacos are endless in variety. The most popular of these types of tacos are calabacitas (yellow squash and zucchini) and rajas con crema (sliced poblano peppers with cream), but you can find them including but not limited to: potatoes, jackfruit, squash blossoms, nopales (prickly pear paddle), cauliflower, and more.
Our favorite veggie tacos are at Penca, El Taco Rustico, BOCA Tacos y Tequila, Seis Kitchen, Tumerico, Martin’s Comida Chingona, and Ermanos (offering changing varieties, weekly, on Tuesdays).
If you want to explore the taco spots in Tucson, here’s a great place to start: Tucson Taco Tour Master Map & Gallery: 5 Tours for 22 Tacos.
Let us know what your favorite types of tacos are in the comments.