Tacos de guisado are—first and foremost—rule breakers. They so strongly resist identification that an umbrella category had to be created for them. The taqueros who make them don’t care for restrictions. Tacos de guisado are the morning tacos that lead into midday. They’re eaten by blue-collar workers and corporate yes-men, especially in Mexico City. “They’re practically the national breakfast food,” says Alejandro Escalante, author of La Tacopedia: Encyclopedia of the Taco and Acridofagia y Otros Insectos, and co-owner of La Casa de los Tacos in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood. They’re hefty and hearty and lovely. They’re also a source of confusion.
The trouble begins with the literal English translation of “guisado.” The word means “stew.” But just like “cold” can refer to more than temperature, “guisado” has more nuance than Google Translate is willing to offer. Even in the Phaidon edition of Escalante’s Tacopedia, the chapter on guisados is poorly translated to Stewed Tacos. Finding a completely accurate definition of guisado is a purist’s nightmare.
Guisados are stews, yes, but they are also, as the root word “guiso” implies, in a larger sense, cooked dishes. That can include stir-fries and fried items. Fritters made with battered and deep-fried cauliflower or purslane are commonly listed on the menus of guisado joints. Everything from chorizo and eggs, to bistec en salsa pasilla, to chile rellenos, to liver and onions, to barbacoa, to moles, to chicharron en salsa are guisados. Picadillo and milanesa are guisados, too. Basically, any homey or home-style dish is a guisado. Understanding them requires patience and open-mindedness. Just roll with it.
A typical taco de guisado begins with a corn tortilla that’s larger than one used in a standard taco. Sometimes, taqueros employ two tortillas. Next comes a scoop of optional but encouraged yellow rice, the grains of which soak up sauce from the main filling. (I like a smear of refried beans between the tortilla and rice to hold everything in place.) Then there’s a ladle of filling—the actual guisado. Finally, a halved hard-boiled egg and queso fresco top it off.
Choosing which guisado can be daunting. Taquerias like San Taco in San Antonio offer at least twelve choices. They might come served as platters with tortillas on the side or as preassembled tacos. The American compulsion to order a bunch of food at once is in opposition to guisado protocol. The pro move is to ask for one taco de guisado at a time and go from there.
Regional variations tend to complicate things as well. In Mexico’s state of Aguascalientes, tacos de guisado are called tacos de colores. Walking up to a guisado stand will show you why: the options—held in bowls, buckets, or steam trays—display a brilliant spectrum. In Zacatecas, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and Aguascalientes (again), tacos de guisado are often called tacos mineros (miner’s tacos), a reference to the states’ mining traditions. In Oaxaca, they’re often called tacos de cazuelas, for the earthenware bowls in which the fillings are displayed. In the state of Puebla and in New York City, tacos de guisado are known as tacos placeros. Tacos acorazados (battleship tacos) from Morelos are garnished with pumpkin seeds, salsas, and pickled chiles.
It gets more specific in cities. For example, in Tijuana, they’re known as tacos varios (varied tacos). In Monterrey, tacos de guisados are tacos mañaneros, literally “morning tacos” or, as Texans might better recognize them, breakfast tacos. Another Monterrey (and northeastern Mexican) taco de guisado is the fideo taco. On this side of the border, you most commonly encounter the Tex-Mex staple carne guisada. It’s all very messy, as are most tacos de guisado.
They have long had a foothold in El Paso–Juárez in the form of burritos. Some of my favorites are colitas de pavo (fried turkey tails) and chile relleno. El Tiger Taqueria owner Jorge Ortiz prefers albóndigas en chipotle (meatballs in chipotle salsa) or tripe in salsa verde. “They’re the best,” he exclaims. Guisados are an essential part of West Texas Mexican food, and are expanding to other parts of the state. They’re the bulk of the menu at Jiménez Tortilleria y Taqueria in Lubbock; well represented at La Loncheria & Tortilleria in Midland; and gaining more traction at Rosa’s Kitchen in San Antonio, where options like asado de puerco, a succulent stew of red chiles and pork, are being added.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of this taco style is the emotions it evokes. “Guisados are enjoyed family-style,” San Taco chef and co-owner Carlos “Charlie” Gonzalez has told me. “They always take you to that family feeling.” Revolver Taco Lounge owner and James Beard Award semifinalist Regino Rojas echoes Gonzalez’s sentiment, but goes further. “[They] are the most palpable expression of a hug from your mother and the purest representation of Mexican culture,” he says. Rojas hosts a popular all-you-can-eat guisado brunch in front of his gastro cantina on Sundays. Options often include chicken submerged in thick mole, sautéed squashes, eggs and chorizo, and ribs en salsa.
Escalante—La Tacopedia author and consulting manager for the Revolver Taco Lounge Gastro Cantina—gets philosophical about tacos de guisado. “From the pre-Hispanic farm field to baroque art, tacos de guisado illustrate the history of Mexico,” he explains. El Tiger’s Ortiz reflects similarly on tacos de guisado. “If we consider that in almost every aspect of Mexican heritage, we make tacos out of whatever food we’re eating, we can say the taco de guisado is the first taco we eat in our lives,” he says. But perhaps private chef and Mexico City native Dante Vargas describes them best: “They don’t have hard and fast rules. Tacos de guisado are simply edible pieces of love wrapped in tortillas.”
La Loncheria & Tortilleria
1605 S. Main, Midland
Hours: Sunday 4 a.m.–1 p.m., Monday–Saturday 4 a.m.–4 p.m.