Are You Ruining Your Tacos With These Mistakes? Lesley Téllez Shares Her Best Tips

By Dina El Nabli | October 02, 2015
Carrot Tacos
Photo by Penny de los Santos

Lesley Téllez grew up in a Mexican-American home in California but it wasn't until she moved to Mexico City in 2009 that she began to appreciate a new level of complexity and flavor in the cuisine. Téllez spent four years eating food made by street vendors and in markets and fondas. During that time, she wrote Eat Mexico, where she shares some of her favorite recipes for tortillas with fresh nixtamal, taco-stand style salsa, tamales, slow-cooked pork, quesadillas, enchiladas and much more.

Many of the recipes she learned along the way take patience. Making a Mexican meal is about enjoying the cooking and the beautiful presentation of a dish once it’s served. Still, there are simple ways to make a quick and delicious meal. We caught up with Téllez to talk tacos and how to make yours stand out using what you already have in the fridge. Read on for her best taco-making tips and her favorite recipes for tortillas, salsa and tacos.

What are your top three tips for making a standout taco?
Not overthinking it! My best tacos happen on the spur of the moment, when I'm using things I have sitting around in the fridge: a bit of leftover vegetable or grains, or leftover meat or fish. A good salsa or hot sauce is super important, though, even if the leftovers already have a sauce. I have several bottles of hot sauce permanently in the fridge for when I don't have time to make fresh salsa. I am currently really digging Poblano Hot Sauce, which I picked up in Tuscon. I also always have Valentina sauce. My friend also makes a great fiery sauce called Awesome Sauce, made with chiles she grows in Brooklyn. I have all three and a green habanero Yucatecan sauce in the fridge right now.

The tortilla is also really important -- I like to use tortillas made with fresh nixtamal, because they taste like corn and not weird sour paper like the packaged ones do. I'm lucky enough to have a tortillería (Tortillería Nixtamal) near my house in Queens. 

Lesley makes Nixtamal
masa tortillas
Photo 1: Téllez makes fresh nixtamal for tortillas. (Photo courtesy of Lesley Téllez)
Photo 2: When making masa (or frozen tortillas), Téllez likes to freeze extra dough in 1-pound balls, in sealed plastic bags. Masa should last at least a few months in the freezer if tightly sealed.(Photo by Penny de los Santos)

If you don't have a tortillería where you live, I would recommend visiting a Mexican or Latin grocery store and looking for the El Milagro brand. They're the best quality I've found. I've found El Milagro corn tortillas in Atlanta, Greenville (South Carolina) and Dallas. If you can't find those, make sure to read the ingredient list of any packaged corn tortilla. It should be short and hopefully something similar to "corn, lime, salt."

What’s your secret for making amazing taco meat?
Tacos really can be made with anything. I don't have a particular "meat" recipe, honestly. I usually like to use roasted chicken, or any meat that's been slow-cooked either in the oven or the crockpot. I don't have one particular combination of seasonings. To me the flavor oomph will come from the salsa. 

Raw tomatillo salsa
Téllez's favorite salsa--salsa verde cruda-- is a raw, acidic, chunky puree that slices through anything fatty. (Photo by Penny de los Santos)

What about salsa? 
Keep the ingredient list short. At its most basic level, salsas only require heat (dried or fresh chiles), an aromatic (onion or garlic), an acid (tomatillos or tomatoes, or lime juice, or vinegar) and salt. Blend the items raw, roast them, fry them, or simmer them in water and blend. If you add enough salt it's going to be fabulous. If you're new to making salsas, add more salt than you think it needs.
What’s the biggest mistake home cooks make to ruin a taco?
I think the biggest mistake is thinking a taco has to taste like one particular thing, like it must have cumin and sour cream or chile powder or something. Just use any flavors that make sense to you. (I ate lots of peanut butter tacos when I was a kid growing up.) And the second biggest mistake would be serving it on a horrible packaged corn tortilla. If you don't have access to good corn tortillas, use flour. The best way to heat them up is on a comal, a flat griddle, or a nonstick skillet, which will make the outsides slightly toasty. 
What is your simplest go-to strategy for quickly making a taco on a busy weeknight?
Keep tortillas permanently in the fridge. On a weeknight, open up the fridge, scan for leftovers, heat them up and stuff in a tortilla. You could also quickly sautee or steam any fresh vegetable and taco that. Heat up some canned black beans and toss those in, and maybe dice a tomato. That's it. 
What’s your favorite taco from Mexico City’s streets, markets and fondas and what made it stand out for you?
It's so hard to choose. Maybe the crispy shrimp tacos. I call them quesadillas in my book, because that's what they're called in Mexico City, despite them not having any cheese. There's a great seafood stand in the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City that serves them crackling and hot and fresh from the fryer. The tacos have a sliver of avocado and onion in the middle, and that's it, besides the shrimp nestled inside the tortilla. They're just one example of the simple, delicious things found on Mexico City's streets. And they're amazing once you spritz on lime juice and pour on a little Valentina sauce.