There’s no doubt about it—it’s the toppings that really make the taco! The tortilla and meat are pretty standard, but piling on the toppings can add dimension in unexpected ways.
From traditional taco toppings (like cheese and salsa) to more unique additions (like greek yogurt or lentil), there are many tasty ways to layer toppings for tacos. Read on for the ultimate taco toppings list, including fun flavor combinations for your next taco night.
What Makes a Good Taco Topping?
Although believed to originate in Mexico, tacos have become a familiar favorite in many nations worldwide. From Tex-Mex blends to Korean BBQ, tacos have taken new flavor combinations everywhere they’ve traveled.
One advantage tacos have over other foods is their ability to be customized. The basic ingredients of a taco can be altered to suit several dietary needs and preferences, such as gluten-free eating. Beyond this, there’s a nearly endless number of toppings and combinations to play around with.
Traditional Taco Toppings
There’s nothing wrong with going back to the basics for taco night! These toppings are classic and simply can’t be beat when you’re craving a traditional taco.
Veggies and herbs are a vital part of any taco. Not only do they add color and a garnish to any filling, but they also top the taco off with health benefits. Options like bell peppers and corn are usually served roasted or cooked, while lettuce and herbs are used fresh.
The most commonly used vegetables and herbs in tacos include:
• Avocados (but technically a fruit)
• Bell peppers
• Chopped tomatoes
• Chopped green chilies
• Raw white onions
• Shredded lettuce
• Sliced jalapeños
Is a taco complete without the cheese? Although not technically native to the traditional Mexican taco, many American takes on the taco include cheesy toppings. Whether melted on the tortilla as a lower layer or sprinkled on top in its unmelted form, cheese is integral in creating a taco’s signature taste.
Since there are so many different varieties, cheese is an easy way to change up flavor profiles and textures. The following varieties are most commonly paired with a taco platter:
• Chihuahua cheese (also called quesadilla cheese)
• Mexican cheese blend
• Queso fresco
But don’t forget queso, crema, and sour cream! These cheese sauces and creams also fall in the dairy category and are usually served atop or alongside tacos.
Beans are another food frequently used in Mexican cuisine. Plus, they can help turn a meat-based dish vegetarian!
Authentic Mexican food is usually served with the following beans or a combination of the following types:
• Black beans
• Chili bean blend
• Pinto beans
• Refried beans
Salsas & Sauces
Just a hint of sauce or salsa can up-level the flavor of any taco. Salsa is often added by a heaping spoonful and adds a touch of extra vegetables. Sauces, on the other hand, are typically drizzled on to add a finishing touch.
Here are a few popular picks when it comes to salsas, sauces, and dips:
Unique Taco Toppings
Ready to take your tacos up a notch or a few? Unique toppings can turn an ordinary taco into an extraordinary dish.
Whether you want to impress friends with interesting combinations or simply feed your family something fun, these new additions make for noteworthy tacos.
Looking for a different variety of vegetables to add to your taco this time? Try these unexpected picks for a juicy crunch:
• Pickled veggies (such as jalapeños, cabbage, or peppers)
• Red onion
For something crunchy, minus the extra juices, try these veggies in place of shredded lettuce:
• Cauliflower (can be roasted, “riced,” or even used instead of taco meat)
• Sliced radishes
• Shredded vegetables (such as carrots or broccoli)
Not a fan of crunchy toppings? Try these soft-textured fruits and vegetables instead:
• Black olives
• Cooked, sliced, or diced squash (including zucchini, summer, or winter varieties)
• Elote “off the cob” (corn flavored similarly to Mexican street corn)
• Potatoes (such as diced sweet potato, hashbrowns, or gnocchi)
• Roasted corn
Although cilantro is a fan favorite, other herbs can be used as topping, too! Play around with spices and seasonings, remembering that nearly any green herb will work if you’re a fan of fresh. Give these alternatives a try:
While Mexican cheeses are an obvious pick for tacos, the following varieties can contribute a more complex, cheesy flavor:
• Cheese with jalapeños
• Monterey Jack
• Pepper Jack
• Sharp cheddar
If you like the taste of cheese but don’t necessarily want it in your taco, try using it as your taco—specifically, the shell. Cheese melted on a cookie sheet in a circle can be molded into a taco shell shape, and used as a substitute for a tortilla, putting the topping on the outside! These are sometimes called “keto tacos” or “keto taco” shells.
Searching for a sour cream substitute, too? Greek yogurt’s got you covered. With a welcome tang, you’ll hardly tell the difference.
Proteins & Legumes
Interested in pumping up the protein? Fillings like legumes and lentils can be used in place of meat or alongside it to increase your satiety.
Here are a few plant-based proteins to use for a unique flavor, crunch, or texture:
• Ancient or whole grains (like brown rice or quinoa)
• Chickpeas (try roasted or spread as a hummus)
• Chopped nuts (such as peanuts for a Thai-inspired taco)
• Seeds (such as pepitas, a.k.a. pumpkin seeds)
For a breakfast-inspired dish, try eggs atop your taco. It may sound strange at first, but eggs can be added to your taco in many forms, including:
Salsa, Sauces & Misc.
Sauces are where it gets interesting. They are especially popular among Asian-inspired tacos, which may utilize the following flavorful condiments:
• Fish sauce
• Gochujang (red chili paste)
• Soy sauce
Salsas can also be taken in a different direction, with interesting variations including:
• Corn salsa
• Cucumber salsa
• Mango salsa
• Peach salsa
• Pineapple salsa
Don’t have avocados on hand? Delicious Edamame Guacamole is an easy swap and uses soybeans to create a similar, creamy texture. Even if you aren’t out of avocados, it’s worth the try since it adds a level of complexity to familiar flavors.
Like croutons, there are a couple of unique toppings that can add a delicious crunch. Tortilla chips are a favorite among Tex-Mex diners, as are french fried onions or fried onions. The latter should be used especially sparingly (as you would croutons) since too many fried foods in the diet can be dangerous.
Delicious Taco Topping Combos
If you’re excited about the above-listed unique foods but unsure how to utilize them, use these combinations as inspiration.
Korean BBQ Tacos
Korean barbecue, called bulgogi, has become increasingly popular in recent years. It’s made its way into tacos, alongside delicious toppings like kimchi (salted, fermented vegetables) and pickled onions.
Combine with garlic, ginger, cucumbers, or radishes, and a fish, soy, or chili pepper-based sauce for exceptional flavor.
Surf & Turf Tacos
The terms “surf and turf” describes a dish that contains both seafood and meat. It’s a great option for eaters who can’t quite choose between two excellent choices—like chicken tacos and
fish tacos—when it comes to putting protein on the plate.
For a twist on this popular type of platter, serve plant-based “turf” (such as the proteins and legumes listed above). You can also make your “surf” more interesting by using certain spices, such as blackened salmon. For both surf and turf, avocado slices, avocado-based sauces, and slaws pair well.
A more Mediterranean take on tacos? Yes please!
To create Greek or Italian-inspired tacos, simply replace each Mexican-style food with its Mediterranean counterpart. For example, replacing olives with kalamata olives and beans with chickpeas will create a distinctly Mediterranean meal. Garlic is featured in both Mexican and Mediterranean dishes, making it an obvious choice for these types of tacos.
Other ideas for Mediterranean tacos include:
• Cannellini beans
• Grape or cherry tomatoes
• Kidney beans
• Lemon rice
• Salsa with dill
Jerk Chicken Tacos
Give your tacos a Caribbean twist by making Jerk chicken tacos with a mango salsa. This special type of chicken uses a unique seasoning, and using fresh ingredients for the salsa makes all the difference. Okra and brown rice can also be added to (or alongside) the tacos to create a complete meal.
Southwestern Style Tacos
Southwestern-style tacos put a fun twist on familiar ingredients. To great Southwestern tacos, roast sweet corn and bell peppers to put atop your taco meat. Then, add black or pinto beans, along with sliced avocado for a creamy element. Add sliced jicama for a crunch!
What really makes the Southwestern taco special is the sauces added to the top. Usually, a cream-based sauce is used. Homemade avocado sauces are among the healthiest, but salsa crema or spicy mayo sauces can also be used to lend a bit of a tang to each bite.
How to Set Up the Ultimate Taco Topping Bar
Building your own taco bar? Set it up for success with these tips.
The best taco bars have many toppings available for the picking. Even the tortilla can be interesting! From flour tortillas to corn tortillas, from taco shells to wonton taco cups, set out a variety of options for diner’s to choose from.
Think About Assembly
Separate sections by topping type for seamless assembly. For example, if you’re serving more than one type of meat, it might make more sense to group the proteins together—like shredded chicken, ground beef, and tilapia—instead of scattered around at different locations on the table.
Generally, ingredients are placed in this order for assembly:
• Meat or plant-based protein (such as beans or lentils)
• Sauces or salsas
• Others (limes, nuts, etc.)
Consider Dietary Restrictions
Especially when serving a crowd, it’s important to be conscious of consumers with dietary restrictions. Some people may be vulnerable to cross-contamination, a situation when ingredients come into contact with allergens or surfaces the allergens have touched. Preparing these ingredients in a special or sanitized part of the kitchen, or special equipment, can help avoid the risk of an allergic reaction.
For those with milder sensitivities, setting out alternate options may be all that is necessary. For example, tacos can usually be made gluten-free by serving corn tortillas instead of wheat. Setting out both options can allow gluten-free eaters to subtly choose the healthier option without paying too much attention to the situation. Plus, it can go a long way in making a loved one feel welcome at your table!
Taco Topping Takeaways
Both traditional and non-traditional tacos can be delicious, and there’s no “right” way to serve them. Classic combinations are Mexican-inspired, while unique combinations can help to make a meal more interesting.
Either way, tacos are a crowd-pleasing option that allows table-mates to customize the dish to their particular preferences. From busy weeknights to parties catered to a crowd, tacos are a win-win for everyone!
How we reviewed this article
Hangry Hanna. What Vegetables Go in Tacos? (15 Best Veggies). Hangryhanna.com. Published October 2022.
Masterclass. Best Cheese for Tacos: 7 Types of Cheese for Tacos. Masterclass.com. Published April 2022.
Naureen Z, Bonetti G, Medori MC, Aquilanti B, Velluti V, et al. Foods of the Mediterranean diet: garlic and Mediterranean legumes. J Prev Med Hyg. 2022;63(2 Suppl 3):E12-E20.