It seems like tacos—one of Mexico’s greatest culinary exports—are everywhere these days, from funky food trucks to high-end restaurants. While the diversity of taco fillings is delightful, pairings an be a challenge. We asked Noah Small, beverage director for New York City’s lauded Empellón group, for some guidelines.
For starters, consider any sauces and toppings (like chili pepper, onion, cilantro), not just the protein. Depending which region of Mexico your taco is from, or even if it’s Tex-Mex, flavors can run the gamut from tingly heat, to sweet, to tangy and often all of the above. But even if it’s not searingly hot, some sort of chili is usually a factor,
That translates to red wines with gentle, soft tannins (“tannins can amplify chilies,” says Small) and whites that balance sugar and acidity. Tacos also play well with crisp, quaffable beers like pilsners, citrusy IPAs and lighter lagers, as well as anything in the extended margarita family.
“If you’re in Mexico, someone’s going to hand you a taco, and you squeeze the lime right on,” says Small. Because margaritas deliver that same citrusy zing, “it’s a natural thing to reach for.”
This beloved Tex-Mex staple, often made with scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes, is ideal with a Michelada, a tall, cold beer kicked up with the addition of lime juice and spices. “Champagne is [a] great move here if that’s how you like to roll,” says Small. “I’d also reach for Chardonnay with this.”
Made with pork marinated with chili peppers and pineapple, Small likens the filling to BBQ. “It’s fatty meat with some sweetness to it, and that’s very good with beer…A session IPA that’s not too heavy? That’s perfect.” For wine, he says, “reds from the Canary Islands with all that volcanic smokiness work well. If you like something juicier, Rioja will do just fine.”
For Baja-style fish tacos made with fried or grilled fish, Small reaches for brisk white wines, particularly Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc or Spanish Txakoli. Fried fish also works well with beer and, of course, the classic margarita. “Anything citrus-focused” will pair well, he says.
“You see a lot of beef preparations in Mexico,” says Small. “Different cuts are presented on tacos.” Your best pairing may depend on how the beef is prepared, whether it’s seared, braised or stewed. No matter the cooking method, Small says, “It’s a good chance to go for a bolder red wine,” particularly Tempranillo, Grenache or Malbec.