From tortillas to salsa, reconsidering your approach can lead to a serious upgrade. 

By Chris Malloy
February 16, 2021

It's hard to generalize about tacos, a deeply diverse food. Though there's an amazing variety of tacos out there—some made from heirloom blue corn tortillas, some featuring ingredients like bitter orange or grasshoppers—most have a few key things in common. When thinking about upgrading tacos at home, we can focus on these basics. 

It all begins in a place you might expect: The tortilla. But as every brushstroke plays a role in a painting, so does every ingredient in a taco. These tips target many elements, all tailored to helping you make better tacos. 


Whether corn or flour (both have their virtues, both can be great), a tortilla is a taco’s foundation, backbone, and soul. Simply put, the tortilla can make or break the taco. If you don’t live near a shop that makes fresh tortillas, head to your local Mexican market for some. They’re surprisingly affordable even when made with great skill and intention. Plus, they’ll keep in the fridge a few weeks.


If you don’t have a local Mexican market, you can track down specialty tortillas online. Failing that, simply begin from the best tortillas you can. 


The best way to heat tortillas is on a comal, a Mexican griddle. (You can buy a comal for under $10). In a pinch, a griddle or pan will do. Set the stove to medium-high. Once the griddle gets hot, toast each tortilla for about a minute on each side. If the tortilla is fresh, it might briefly inflate, like a balloon.


You can also give tortillas a quick warming in the toaster oven. If all else fails, there’s always the microwave, though it’ll soften tortillas. Before you toast tortillas, sprinkle them with a few drops of water.


Warming tortillas should be your last step before taco assembly. While meat rests and vegetables cool, once your salsas are out, your limes are cut, and your cheese is ready, it’s time to warm tortillas. Once each tortilla has been heated, wrap it in a cloth, keeping temperature while you finish toasting the others. Cold tortillas are the kiss of taco death. 


In just about any dish, especially meat-rich tacos if you’re headed that way, you’ll want acid as part of the flavor balance. Salsa lends acid. So does crema, vinegar-based slaw, grilled fruit, or a squeeze of lime. Speaking of acidic adds, see the next tip! 


Just a few lengths or rings of pickled vegetables can work magic. Whether onions, carrots, radish, or jalapeño, pickles bring a fresh taste and textural dimension to many tacos. Purple cabbage makes for a crisp bite and visual drama. You can’t go wrong, either, with a quick, classic topping of pickled red onion.


When building tacos, salsas with a smoky component, created by charring chiles or vegetables, are generally a good idea. In considering salsa, you should try to use the freshest you can find or make. Don’t add salsa too soon, especially if using salsa chilled from the fridge, because this could cool the whole taco.


You’ve gone through all this care to build a great taco. Don’t forget about the main filling! If using grilled steak for carne asada, give it a hard char. If going Tex Mex with a barbecue-style brisket taco, take your time on the meat. Make sure the fillings are warm and lovingly prepared, and then, with the rest of these tips handy, you’re sure to build a better taco.