Growing up in Auburn, New York, my only concept of Mexican food was the drive-thru menu at Taco Bell.
All through my childhood I thought “Mexican food” meant odd smelling greasy ground beef with a choice of soft or crunchy taco. If my mom ever had a hankering for something from “south of the border”, it meant she would have to make two trips; one to Taco Bell for her, and one to the Burger King across the street for my sister and myself. The only thing Taco Bell ever had to offer that I had any interest in was their sweet and greasy Cinnamon Twists, the American bastard cousin of the Churro, that I’d happily munch on while we rode across the street to get some “real” food at the BK.
Although I pride myself in being an adventurous eater now, as a kid I was anything but, and my mom was well aware that cooking tacos at home was also a no-no. My sister and I both made it perfectly clear that “Mexican food” (ground beef with seasoning packet and crunchy shells from a box) was not welcome in our home.
When I went vegetarian in high school (all the cool kids were doing it) I did end up learning to love Taco Bell, and my usual order consisted of a Chalupa Supreme with refried beans instead of meat. To this day, if I ever find myself in line at the Bell, this is still my go-to order. Even though I eat meat now, I’m not a huge fan of theirs, so I’m more than happy to stick with the beans instead.
Considering that I grew up only a few hours from the bright lights of the big city, I’m really not sure why my hometown was so completely devoid of any authentic Latin food or culture (or ANY food or culture other than American or Italian). I don’t think it even really occurred to me that Taco Bell wasn’t “authentic Mexican cuisine” (Or that Hong Kong Buffet wasn’t “authentic Chinese cuisine”) until I started watching the Food Network in high school and learned there was more to the world of food than was available in my little slice of the world.
Of course, taking culinary courses in college opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavors and cuisines, and there were even a few mediocre Mexican restaurants near my school. It wasn’t until moving to Brooklyn though, that I was finally able to taste actual authentic Mexican food, made by REAL Mexicans! Imagine my surprise when I learned what a real chalupa looked like!
There was a small family owned tortilla factory down the street from my first apartment here, and shortly after I moved in they opened a little lunch counter with amazing tacos on fresh tortillas that could be bought for a song. Eventually the tacos caught on with the 20 year old hipster set and their lunch business blew up and turned into a full scale restaurant business. I practically lived off of those tacos for my first few years in Brooklyn.
Here’s the thing about “authentic” Mexican taco recipes though… This isn’t actually one of them.
You may have already guessed this after seeing the Pfeffernusse, apfelkuchen, & kugelhopf recipes in my repertoire, but… I’m not Mexican.
If I want the real deal I need only to walk around the corner. If I’m making my own at home though, I feel like I’m allowed to take a little poetic license, especially now that I know what a real taco actually tastes like!
I will say this though; Cilantro, though not necessarily in this form, is about as traditional an ingredient for tacos as you can find. Fresh lime juice and the pungent bite of raw onion, both of which you’ll find in the red cabbage slaw, are also integral parts of authentic Mexican tacos.
Grilling is an amazing way to get tons of flavor into your food without adding a ton of fat or salt or sugar. Of course, it’s also summer so I’m always looking for an excuse to cook outside. I’m a charcoal man myself, but if you have a gas grill you can add a smoking box with your choice of wood chips to help get that wonderful smokiness into your food.
If you don’t have a grill, or you’re making this recipe six months in the future when your grill is buried under six feet of snow, you can definitely skip the skewers and roast the chicken strips under your broiler. You might even be able to sear them in a heavy skillet, but the pesto may want to stick to the pan rather than the chicken.
Authentic or not, it doesn’t get much better than soft white corn tortillas filled with smoky tender grilled chicken, vibrant summery cilantro pesto, creamy ripe avocado, and crunchy cabbage with biting raw onion and bright tangy lime juice.
Not bad for a gringo eh?
For the best flavor I like to make the pesto ahead and let the chicken marinate in it for a few hours. I’d recommend that you make the slaw ahead too so all the flavors have some time to hang out together and get nice and friendly.
Grilled Chicken Tacos with Cilantro Pesto and Red Cabbage Slaw
3 cloves garlic
2 cups fresh cilantro, lightly packed
1 jalapeño, sliced and seeded (2 if you like heat)
1/4 cup olive oil
juice of 2 limes, divided
1 to 2 additional limes cut into wedges
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 shredded red cabbage (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1 ripe avocado, sliced
12 to 16 white corn tortillas
Slice chicken breasts into thin strips with a very sharp knife. I find that putting them into the freezer for 30 to 45 minutes beforehand firms them up and makes them easier to slice.
To make the cilantro pesto combine garlic, cilantro, olive oil, juice of 1 lime, salt, & pepper in a food processor and process until completely smooth. Transfer to a large bowl with sliced chicken and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or two, or overnight if desired.
To make the red cabbage slaw, combine the shredded cabbage, diced onion, and juice of 1 lime in a medium bowl. Toss to combine and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or two, or overnight if desired.
I find that skewering the chicken makes it easier to flip and keeps it from falling through the grill grates. If using wooden skewers make sure to soak them in water for an hour before use so they don’t burn up.
Thread 4 or 5 chicken strips onto each skewer and try to leave as much of the pesto on them as possible. Grill the skewers over a medium to high flame until just cooked through, flipping once. This should only take 4 or 5 minutes per side but that will depend on the heat in your grill. Since the chicken is sliced thin it will dry out if overcooked.
Warm your tortillas over the grill too, just until soft and warm, about a minute per side.
Assemble the tacos with a few chunks of chicken, a sprinkle of red cabbage slaw, a couple slices of avocado, and a squeeze of fresh lime. Serve with additional lime wedges if desired.
I recommend about 3 tacos per serving, 4 if you’re hungry.