For Mexican chef Israel Alvarez, the tacos he encountered in Edmonton when he moved here over 10 years ago bore no resemblance to the quintessential and iconic street food he grew up eating on the streets of Mexico City.

Those hard fried shells filled with ground meat seasoned with supermarket spice mixes, topped with sour cream, shredded cheddar, and jarred salsa, while undeniably delicious in their own right, are a heavily mutated version of the real thing.

Old El Paso has its place, but we want to see you up your street food street cred, and take your taco game to the next level with the help of some key players in Alberta’s Mexican food community.

Chef Alvarez spent years as Sous Chef at Pujol, widely regarded as the best Mexican restaurant in the world (currently #20 on the World’s Best Restaurants list), and has Mexican food street cred in spades.

His Comal pop-up series in Edmonton focused on fresh tortillas using the traditional nixtamal process, by which starchy dried corn is boiled in an alkaline solution to break down the tough outer husk of the corn and enhance it’s nutritional value in the process. It’s then ground on a special machine fitted with volcanic rock to achieve the perfect consistency for tortillas.

Let’s face it though, none of us are about to go through all that to make tortillas, but there are plenty of ways to make the best out of all three essential components of the taco – the tortilla, the filling, and the toppings.

Troy Fleischhaker, owner of Calgary’s Cruz Tacos, says: “With a little practice, making tortillas at home is fun. You’ll need to buy a tortilla press and watch a couple YouTube videos to get the technique.”

The payoff on homemade tortillas is there though, and since they involve just two inexpensive ingredients – finely ground corn (called masa) and water, you won’t break the bank honing your skills.

Once you’ve mixed your masa with enough water to form a dough, and flattened your tortilla, it’s time to toast it on a griddle over medium-high heat until lightly browned on both sides. Place them in a slightly damp towel to keep warm.

Wrapping the cooked tortillas in a towel is key, says Native Tongues Taqueria owner Cody Willis.

“Wrapping them lets them steam just a little to finish cooking and stay moist.” Alvarez adds that he likes to keep water nearby and mist the tortillas as necessary to keep them from going dry.

Now that you have a great base for your taco, you’ve got to fill it with something delicious. Instead of ground beef, Willis suggests slow cooking pork shoulder so it braises in it’s own fat, to make carnitas.

Reheating on high heat will give you a good sear on it. As a bonus, you can brush some of that tasty pork fat on your tortillas before toasting them, which will keep them even more moist and flavourful.

Tacos don’t have to always be about the meat though, and as Dani Braun, co-owner of Edmonton’s Tres Carnales explains, one of their most popular tacos is vegan. “We use the exact same sauce from our Al Pastor to marinade cauliflower, sauté it, and top it with pineapple salsa.”

The biggest difference between real Mexican tacos and our northern knockoffs just may be the salsas, which tend to be more of an afterthought here. Chef Alvarez says, “Often the fillings are similar, so the quality of the salsas is how we judge a really good taco in Mexico.”

Be they roasted salsas, fried, or fresh, salsas add an essential complement to the rich fatty meats. Every good taco shop should have both a red and green salsa, and most tacos bene t from the addition of the classic diced white onion and cilantro.

Another way to elevate your taco experience is to swap out the sour cream for your own homemade crema or crème fraiche. You can make your own crème fraiche by simply adding a tablespoon or two of buttermilk to one cup (240 mL) of heavy cream, and letting it sit a day or two covered on the counter until it reaches your desired consistency.

From that base you can add roasted poblano peppers, fresh herbs, or pureed chipotles for a chipotle crèma, a classic topping for sh tacos. Braun adds that you should never be afraid to char your vegetables. “Charring is an undesirable trait in many cuisines, but is valued in Mexican cuisine.”

To make Chef Alvarez’s amazing Salsa Verde, click here.

Find tasty tacos in Calgary at:

Añejo Restaurant, 587-353-2656
Native Tongues Taqueria 403-263-9444,
Tubby Dog, 403-244-0694
The Spicy Amigos, 587-353-1484
Los Chilitos Taco and Tequila House 403-228-5528
Blanco Cantina, 403-228-1854

In Edmonton at:

Tres Carnales Taqueria, 780-429-0911
Calle Mexico, 780-705-0901
El Cortez, 780-760-0200
The Three Amigos, 780-490-6394
Huma Mexican Comfort 780-433-9229

And around Alberta at:

Mexico Lindo Tacos & Grill, Sherwood Park, 780-464-0528
La Patrona, Sherwood Park 780-570-1200,
Tequila and Tacos, Airdrie, 587 775 5758,
Aroma Mexican Restaurant, Canmore, 403 675 9913

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