What comes to mind when you think about a taco? Is it a crunchy tortilla shell filled with ground beef and lettuce? Is it a flour tortilla wrapped around shredded chicken? Or maybe you live in southern California, and a taco means grilled, freshly-caught fish in a corn tortilla.

That’s really the thing about tacos and why they have become such an important part of our dining experience. They can be whatever you want them to be, and the only real “rules” pertaining to tacos is that they have a tortilla and a filling.

Since the cultures of Mexico are so ancient, it would be easy to guess that the history of tacos can be traced back thousands of years. But, well, that’s not exactly true. It is clear that the Mayan people were making corn tortillas thousands of years ago, and surely they were using them as accompaniment to meats and vegetables. It wasn’t until the 18thcentury, though, that tacos became tacos in name, and they quickly made their way from Mexico to the United States by way of California.

In Los Angeles and southern California, tacos were an inexpensive street food eaten by the working class, and they were filled with economy cuts of meat. In fact, they still serve that role, though they’ve been embraced by a mainstream audience, and have even found a home in high-end restaurants. Quite a journey for a humble taco!

These days, you’ll find lots of the same taco varieties at taco restaurants (or food trucks!), no matter where you are in the country.

Tacos al pastor are made from marinated pork meat that is cooked on a vertical roaster (a spinning rotisserie, like the one you might see when you order shawarma—which makes sense, because that’s where this dish originates!). Pastor tacos will usually include pineapple.

Order tacos filled with barbacoa, and you’ll find tender shredded beef, lamb, or goat that’s mixed with spices and herbs.

Asada will mean grilled steak, carnitas is sort of Mexican-style pulled pork, and shrimp can be grilled or crispy fried!

A Baja-style fish taco is going to be flaky grilled white fish in a corn tortilla, often topped with cilantro and a crunchy cabbage slaw.

Toppings for tacos can be as simple as salsa (red or green, spicy or mild!), Mexican crema, pickled onions or radishes, fresh shredded cabbage, or even crunchy chicharrones, which are fried pig skin.

Of course, when we make tacos at home, they are often much simpler. They may be filled with grilled chicken or steak, cooked ground beef mixed with spices, or even just beans and salsa, for a vegetarian version. Our favorite vegan taco is a Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tacos with Avocado-Pineapple Cream! Give it a try for Cinco de Mayo!