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#1 Thing to Never Order at a Taco Joint, According to Chefs

Everything wrapped in that tiny, warm tortilla matters.

Tacos are one of the most universally beloved comfort foods for good reason. With infinite filling choices, handmade tortillas, salsas, and condiments, and all manner of herbs and add-ons, the sky's the limit when it comes to a Mexican food craving. But just like other dishes at a Mexican restaurant, not every taco is necessarily top-tier, and there are menu items to avoid at taco joints.

As at burger spots, Chinese restaurants, and wine bars, things can go off the rails at taco-centric eateries when ordered incorrectly—and with a lack of authenticity or adventure. Aside from the obvious, like particularly unhealthy restaurant chain tacos and a menu faux pas known as "breakfast crunch-things," the key to taco supremacy and legitimacy involves ordering the right tortillas and filling them with high-quality meats and accouterments. Oh, and skip the unnecessary menu distractions while you're at it (looking at you, quesadillas).

First and foremost, it all starts with the foundation of a good taco: the tortilla. According to Scott Linquist, co-founder of Miami-based Coyo Taco and author of the Mod Mex cookbook, corn tortillas are the way to go.

"I never order tacos that are on flour tortillas," he notes. "Not necessarily because they are less healthy and contain fat and gluten, [which they are and do] but because they are not common or authentic in Mexico, except in a few rare circumstances and regions." Rather, Linquist says, tacos should be made using fresh, hand-pressed tortillas from corn, prepared using the nixtamal process, as they do at Coyo Taco.

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Additionally, Linquist doesn't order tacos doused in mayo-based sauces, opting instead for lighter toppings. "It has become very common to top a taco with mayo rather than freshly made salsa, but fresh salsa is what makes a taco great. Most of the time it's super healthy, can accommodate a lot of dietary restrictions, and is most often fat-free."

Next come the all-important fillings—namely, the meats. For this, chefs suggest that this is the time to get adventurous and try something new. "Don't always order the same meat at your favorite taco spot," suggests Edgar Escalante, chef of Dirty Habit in Washington, D.C. "If you only get asada or chicken tacos, you aren't getting the full taco experience. Eating tacos is always an adventure because you never know when you'll come across a really good salsa taquera or delicious al pastor tacos."

Be adventurous, but within reason. For instance, Oscar Cabezas advises you stick to the most-ordered menu mainstays to ensure the utmost in quality. As the chef of California's Telefèric Barcelona explains: "If I'm ordering from a taco food truck, I always avoid the proteins that are not in their top five sales. Small businesses are usually known for their specialties, so I always ask for their top three dishes and enjoy one of those."

Now that you know what menu items to concentrate on, it's time to acknowledge those to avoid—namely, anything that's not a taco.

According to Tony Avila, co-founder and business developer of Austin's ONETACO, that includes salads. "Tacos are wonderful and can be anything you want them to be. Your everyday meal, your healthy diet option, or your favorite cheat meal. But if it's a salad you are looking for, I would suggest going to a salad restaurant."

mexican quesadilla with sides

When Alex Guzman, chef/owner of Archer & Goat in Harlem, visits a taco joint, he skips the extraneous fare. "I love Mexican food and especially tacos. However, when I visit a taco joint, I usually avoid ordering quesadillas," explains the chef. "They are essentially just toasted tortillas with melted cheese that aren't usually very flavorful and can easily be prepared at home." Guzman also avoids margaritas ("they are often made with pre-purchased mixes that have a lot of sugar"), instead opting for horchata or aguas frescas.

Then there's Diana Manalang, chef-owner of Little Chef Little Café in New York City, who summarizes taco traditions nicely: "order the tacos!"

"Is there more to it than that? Sure, tortas are sandwiches and tacos could be considered a form of sandwich, but why not just get the tacos then? Ok, fajitas are like 'build-your-own tacos,' but then why not just order the tacos already made? And yes, quesadillas are like little flat pressed grilled tacos with the toppings on side, but why not just get the tacos? The burritos are like giant super-stuffed tacos with everything in it, so why not just get the tacos?"

Clearly, as Manalang succinctly explains, "Just get the tacos. Period." Oh and leave the mayo-based sauces and flour tortillas out of it while you're at it.

Matt Kirouac
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate, with a passion for national parks, all things Disney, and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt