Do Mexican Tacos Have Tomatoes, Cheese Or Sour Cream?

Authentic Mexican tacos are a delicious street food classic. But sometimes the original can get reinvented around the world. Do Mexican tacos have tomatoes, cheese, or sour cream on our quest to re-create the perfect authentic taco? I did some research to find out.

Mexican tacos do not usually have tomatoes or shredded cheese as a topping. Mexican crema, a type of heavy cream is used instead of sour cream. Mexican tacos include meat or cheese as a filling. Toppings are usually minimal and include raw onion, cilantro, radish, cucumber, and chili peppers.  

Since tacos originated in Mexico, they have been introduced in many other countries, but how much of the original essence, flavor, and spark remains? This article discovers what authentic tacos are, the difference between Mexican and American tacos, and what are the most popular tacos in Mexico

What Is On A Traditional Mexican Taco?

How far back do you go when you think of a traditional taco? Did you know that Mexicans ate tacos with locusts, snails, and small fish before the sixteenth century? Over the years, the meal evolved, but there are some exciting parts we need to focus on if we are to understand what a traditional Mexican taco includes.

The name taco comes from the explosives Mexican miners used while extracting silver ore from rock. The miners would wrap potatoes or other simple foods in soft tortillas, top them with hot sauce, and their meal would resemble the dynamite sticks they used in the mines. Over time, they started calling their food tacos too.

Tacos were designed to be cost-effective, quick meals. Women who could not get jobs would sell tacos on the side of the road. They typically had few fillings since they were low-cost. Another reason tacos traditionally have few toppings is that having too many toppings makes eating the taco difficult. The traditional four-inch taco with only a few ingredients inside is easy and quick to make and eat.

Meat Used In Traditional Mexican Tacos

Types of meat you may find include:

  • Marinated beef steak (Carne Asada)
  • Braised Pork (Carnitas)
  • Slow-cooked cow’s tongue (Lengua)
  • Chicken (Pollo Asada)
  • Chorizo
  • Fish (Pescado)

The meat used in traditional tacos is very different from the shredded beef we are accustomed to. 

There are so many options. Sometimes the meat inside is just leftovers from a previous meal. True homecooked food wrapped up on the go.

For the vegetarian, you may enjoy cheese tacos, made with a type of white cheese that keeps its shape when cooked. If you are not a cheese fan, tacos are often made with only vegetables.

The way the meat is prepared is essential since it is sometimes infused with lemon. Mexican cooks will occasionally add pineapple to the meat to balance the tastes of a particularly spicy taco.

Toppings Found On Traditional Mexican Tacos

Traditional tacos typically have very few toppings. We have listed some of the more authentic ones.

  • White onion
  • Cilantro
  • Lime
  • Radish
  • Cucumber
  • Avocado
  • Chili peppers

Of course, when you are making your own tacos, you can include any toppings you like. Even those who offer traditional tacos typically offer varieties to suit different tastes.  

Now that we have looked at the meat and toppings let’s look at what sauces are typically used in traditional Mexican tacos.

Salsas Used On Traditional Mexican Tacos

Here is a list of some common salsas for Mexican tacos:

  • Salsa Taqueria – common salsa for tacos with pureed tomatoes, dried peppers, onions, and garlic.
  • Pico De Gallo – well-known chunky salsa with diced onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime.
  • Salsa Verde – green sauce made with tomatillos, chili, cilantro, and lime.
  • Salsa Roja – a broad term for a red sauce with cooked ingredients blended or ground up.
  • Salsa De Aguacate – another green salsa that has avocado included.

Traditional Mexican salsas have much more variety than the chunky tomato salsa which is very common around the world outside of Mexico. The salsas are usually red from tomatoes or green from tomatillos. Some are raw which are more punchy and some have been cooked to mellow them out. Often the right variety of tomato makes a difference, see which tomatoes for salsa I recommend.

Salsas come in many varieties – they can be chunky, blended, hot, or mild to be the perfect accompaniment. You can also use fresh or canned tomatoes for salsa depending on what type of sauce you need.

Sour Cream On Mexican Tacos

Sour cream is often placed on top of tacos just before serving them. Traditionally, Mexican crema is used; however, this is not available in the United States, so we use sour cream as a substitute. Crema is heavy cream, similar to sour cream, with a bit of tang. It is thicker than sour cream but not as heavy as crème fraiche.

Do Authentic Mexican Tacos Have Cheese Or Sour Cream?

Authentic Mexican tacos do not typically include cheese or sour cream. It will likely be made with cotija if you order a cheese taco. Cotija is a white, salty cheese, similar to feta cheese. 

Cotija does not melt and keeps its shape when cooked.

In the United States and other parts of the world, tacos are made with shredded cheese. Although these tacos taste good, adding shredded cheese to tacos is not considered authentically Mexican.

Sour cream is often placed on top of tacos directly before serving. Traditionally, Mexican crema is used (like tangy heavy cream), however, crema is not usually available in the United States. Sour cream is an excellent substitute for crema and is used by many Mexicans in America.  

We say go for the sour cream. It may not be 100% authentic, but it is the closest you will get on this side of the border.

What Is The Difference Between American And Mexican Tacos?

There are a few significant differences between American and Mexican tacos. Here, we outline the seven significant differences you should be aware of if you are to create your own authentic tacos.

  1. Soft corn tortillas. Mexican tacos use soft corn tortillas in some areas and soft flour tortillas in others. American tacos often come with a hard shell.
  2. Double tortillas. Authentic Mexican tacos typically come with a double tortilla. The double-layer helps keep the taco together. It also allows you to use the second tortilla to soak up any fillings that drop out during eating.
  3. Shredded cheese. Mexican tacos rarely include cheese, while American tacos almost always use large helpings of cheddar or other shredded cheese. A Mexican taco will include cheese if it is cotija or similar white cheese. In Mexico, there is one area where a cheese called Panella is used in tacos.
  4. Salsa. American tacos typically include large helpings of bottled or canned salsa. Mexican salsa is usually made from scratch. Mexican cooks tend to use few ingredients in their salsa. The main ingredients used include chili, onion, tomato, and cilantro. Mexicans use salsa sparingly, while Americans tend to pour a lot onto their tacos.
  5. Toppings. Once again, the main difference between American and Mexican tacos is quantity. American tacos tend to be packed with as many toppings as possible. Mexican tacos tend to include few ingredients. These typically include onion, radish, cucumber, cilantro, and chili peppers.
  6. Ground Beef. Mexican tacos do not use ground beef. American tacos typically use ground beef. Meats you may find in Mexican tacos include goat, lamb, pork, fish, and beef. 
  7. Guacamole. Both Mexican and American tacos include guacamole, but they differ. Avocados grow indigenously in Mexico, so they have used this staple since the Aztec days. The difference comes in with what is added to the avocado. Mexican guacamole will typically include avocado, onion, chiles, and tomatoes. No lime was traditionally added since the tomato provided the acid needed to balance the flavors. As the cook sees fit, American guacamole tends to include lime, garlic, salt, and other ingredients. See my article on making better guacamole.

What Is The Most Popular Taco In Mexico?

Taco al pastor is one of the most popular tacos in Mexico. It translates to “shepherd style” and is a street taco made with pork, grilled on a rotating spit very similar to lamb shawarma. They were introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the late 1800s. 

If you are looking for an authentic taste of Mexico, then the taco al pastor should be your next choice. 

Slices of pineapple are placed on the top and bottom of the meat as it cooks, giving it a sweet taste. If you are wondering why pineapples are used in a Mexican dish – the reason is that this taco comes from Mexico’s tropical region, Yucatán.

The chef takes thin slices of meat flavored with adobo sauce, coriander, oregano, cumin, and garlic to serve the taco. They are placed from the spit into a warm corn tortilla with onion and cilantro added. Add a few slices of cooked pineapple for the finishing touch.

If you are itching to make your own al pastor taco, follow this recipe and enjoy a taste of Mexico in your own home.


Hopefully, you now know more about authentic Mexican tacos, tomatoes, cheese, and sour cream.

Authentic Mexican tacos seldom use tomatoes; however, tomatoes may be used to add an element of acidity to the dish. Mexican tacos do not use shredded cheese. Instead, they occasionally use a white cheese called cotija. Cotija is similar to feta cheese and is used in specific tacos. Sour cream is used by many Mexican cooks living outside of Mexico. But in Mexico, crema is used. Since crema is not available in the United States, sour cream is a good alternative.

There are many differences between American and Mexican tacos. If you wish to experience authentic Mexican tacos, opt for soft tortillas with no cheese and only a few ingredients. It is good to remember the history of tacos to allow us to create this dish authentically. Since tacos were initially made as a low-cost meal for workers, we should keep this in mind when preparing our own today.

Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Boss The Kitchen. With a background in cooking and building websites, he enjoys running this site to help other cooks improve. About Tom Hambly.

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