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The Spanish word for head, cabeza is also a Mexican street food custom that lets the customer choose which part of an animal's head to use as meat for his or her tacos. Available at taquerias and in street trucks around the country as well as several places abroad, tacos de cabeza can include a range of parts from the faces of cows or goats, which have been steamed intact overnight or cooked slowly in an oven to make them as tender as possible. These untoward proteins are typically shredded and disguised in traditional taco attire: a hard corn or soft flour tortilla on the outside, with ingredients like chopped onion, chiles and cilantro on the inside. A slew of distinct Mexican salsas are regularly doused onto the top.
As can be assumed, cabeza is one of the cheaper taco options. Many in Mexico, however, still consider it a delicacy. According to the Mex Connect Web site, these tacos are especially popular in more depressed areas of metropolitan Mexico City. They are also well received in the regions of Baijo and Sonora, where people most often consume them for breakfast.
Parts like brains, tongue, cheeks, lips and even eyes are regularly offered individually. A medley also is commonly offered, called surtido. Depending on the part, it may be shredded, chopped or left intact to stare back at you — in the case of the eyeballs. When ordered in a formal restaurant the cabeza is often brought to the table on a platter, and diners are encouraged to sample the parts they would like to try.
According L.A. Weekly food writer Farid Zadi, a noted culinary instructor, the goat brains he sampled tasted like mushy sweet breads, while eyeballs were like chewing on a giant tendon. It is customary to strip a little of each part for the taco, including a little tongue, some crispy skin, the tender meat from around the mouth, and even some brains and fatty cheek for a range of flavors in a single taco.
Zadi's recipe for tacos de cabeza does not involve an overnight steaming. Instead, he rubs the heads, inside and out, with coriander, cumin, salt and pepper, and then cooks them on a baking sheet in an oven at 350°F (about 177°C). Keeping the heads on one cheek, they are regularly turned to cook evenly, which takes as long as three-and-a-half hours. For cow head, even more time is needed for the meat to cook.
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