Taco Al Carbon: Tex-Mex Charcoal-Grilled Tacos

tacos al carbon
Taco al carbon is a favorite among Tex-Mex aficionados. Meaning "tacos with meat cooked on coal," the term taco al carbon refers to a category of tacos rather than a specific recipe. This means there's a lot of room for interpretation and variation. Generally, however, tacos al carbon refer to grilled steak tacos. 

What Are Tacos Al Carbon?

Traditional taco al carbon is made with meat grilled over a charcoal grill or fire pit. This creates a unique flavor that can’t be replicated through other cooking methods. In fact, there’s actual science behind why charcoal, not gas, makes tacos al carbon so delicious.

Nearly everything is available in a taco these days. But nothing stands the test of time or is as deeply rooted in Mexican culinary history and Tex-Mex cuisine as tacos al carbon.

It’s not a complicated combination – tortillas, grilled meat, onion, and select toppings. But the nuanced flavor of certain spices, different meats, and toppings mean that although similar, tacos al carbon can vary greatly depending upon where you find them and who they’re prepared by.

Once grilled, the meat is encased in either a corn tortilla or flour tortilla depending upon preference. Add some vegetables like bell pepper or medium-heat Anaheim peppers, onion, and tomato, and you’re all set.

Taco al carbon with char-grilled steak.
Taco al carbon with char-grilled steak.

Although this method of making tacos isn’t new or particularly innovative, it didn’t enter the mainstream culinary world until the 1980s. It was then that Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo’s roadside taco stand caught the attention of a handful of influential gastronomes who initiated a following that launched taco al carbon into popularity.

What’s The Difference Between Tacos Al Carbon And Fajitas?

The most significant difference between the two is in the presentation. Fajitas are served deconstructed and assembled by the individual. Taco al carbon is served together and ready to eat.

Many people hear the ingredients for taco al carbon and immediately think, “Oh, you mean fajitas.” But while they’re similar, the two are not the same thing.

The “fajitas” part refers to the components of the tortilla. Once assembled, it becomes a taco.

What Kind Of Meat Is In Tacos Al Carbon?

Originally tacos al carbon referred to any taco made with grilled meat. Pork, chicken, beef, and even goat were, and in many cases still are, considered fair game.

More often than not now, beef creates the filling when someone is being served tacos al carbon. The most common cuts are flank steak or skirt steak. These cuts can be tough, but with the right marinade and proper preparation, they become an excellent filling for tacos.

You can also use chicken (pollo) or shrimp (camarones). Remember that they have to cook over coals to be considered al carbon. Otherwise, they may be delicious, but they’re simply chicken tacos or shrimp tacos – not taco al carbon.

shrimp taco al carbon
While not traditional, char-grilled shrimp tacos al carbon are delicious.

What To Serve With Tacos Al Carbon

One of the best things about a taco is the ability to customize it to your liking. So, whether you’re at home or a Mexican restaurant, there is no right or wrong taco side and topping.

Traditional taco components include:

  • Grilled bell peppers
  • Green onion
  • Guacamole
  • Sour cream
  • Pico de Gallo
  • Queso (cheese)
  • A squeeze of lime juice, a sprinkle of cilantro, and diced fresh jalapeno

Sides like refried beans and rice are also standard, as are a sizzling pan of chile toreados (blistered, pan-fried jalapeno and serrano peppers).

Tacos al carbon can be served as a meal or an appetizer, depending on the tortilla’s size, preparation, and sides.

What is The Difference Between Tacos Al Carbon And Burritos Al Carbon?

The biggest differentiator is in the way the two items are served. Tacos are simply tortillas filled and folded in half with the top open. Burritos, however, are filled, tucked, and rolled so that there are no open edges and the filling is not visible.

Both utilize many of the same ingredients and accompaniments and are a staple of Mexican food wherever it’s found. If you’re ordering either dish ‘al carbon’ the meat should technically be cooked over charcoal.

What’s The Difference Between Carne Asada And Tacos Al Carbon?

Carne asada is marinated and grilled beef. To be considered tacos al carbon, the meat must be cooked over coals. While carne asada is often cooked over a flame, it doesn’t have to be. It’s not uncommon for carne asada to be cooked indoors in a cast-iron skillet or other suitable cookware.

So, you can use carne asada (marinated steak) to create tacos al carbon if it’s grilled over charcoal, but a carne asada cooked on the stovetop would not technically make an al carbon taco.

taco al carbon meat
Traditional taco al carbon is meat grilled over coals.

How To Make Tacos Al Carbon

Making your own tacos al carbon at home isn’t difficult. The primary considerations are your cooking tools and choice of ingredients.

Most recipes call for a combination of seasonings applied to the meat, or marinating the meat ahead of grilling. Often these seasonings include warm spices like cumin, coriander, and ground chilis.

Cook time will vary depending on the cut, thickness, and heat used and your temperature preference.

  • 120 to 125°F for rare
  • 130-140°F for medium rare
  • 145°F for medium

Remember, true al carbon is cooked over coals. A gas grill will not impart the same flavor, even if it will technically ‘char’ the meat.

Once the meat is grilled, it’s just a matter of assembling.

Some of the best combos include grilled veggies, peppers, onions, and meat. Tortillas are a personal choice but tend to be flour. Please don’t discount the humble corn tortilla though; they also make an excellent choice!

And if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, the grilled meat is easily used to create,

  • Al carbon quesadillas
  • Nachos
  • El carbon enchiladas
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taco al carbon

Taco Al Carbon (Char-Grilled Steak Tacos)


Make authentic taco al carbon at home! This recipe uses beef, but you can use chicken, pork, or shrimp as well.


Units Scale
  • 1 1/2 lbs beef (flank or skirt steak)
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 4 chopped garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 diced jalapeno
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes


  1. Whisk all ingredients together to make a marinade. Add beef and marinate it for at least 6 hours, up to 24 hours preferably.
  2. Heat a charcoal grill with coals on one side. Sear the beef on both sides directly over the coals. Move to the other side of the grill, cover, and finish cooking over indirect heat until desired temperature is reached. Cooking time will vary based on cut of meat, thickness, and desired temperature.
  • Category: Main Course
  • Cuisine: Mexican


Lorin is a writer, editor, photographer, and loves a culinary adventure. She routinely climbs up the Scoville heat ladder using peppers and spice to update and create new recipes for friends. Over the years she's become a pepper aficionado, growing and cultivating several varieties in her home garden.

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