chicken tacos + salsa fresca

I had my first taco when I was about seven, at the home of a down-the-street neighbor who used to watch me after school until my parents got home from work. As she began to arrange fixings for a greatly-anticipated feast they called Taco Night, I baffled the lot by telling them I didn’t know what one was. (I could have baffled them further by explaining the proper way to boil and then eat a whole artichoke thus proving that no I was NOT raised under an epicurean rock but I refrained. I’ve since lost such restraint.).

She assembled one for me with some mess of ground beef and taco seasonings, a pile of shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato in an El Paso shell and then zapping it in the microwave for a minute. I took one bite and it crumbled, dripping orange-ish grease down my shirt and oh, I did not like it AT ALL. Who invented these shells and how come they get to sit on a pile of money while I’m scrubbing taco out from under my fingernails? You cannot bite into a bent shell filled with messy things without it breaking into several pieces, and yet this is supposed to be something you eat while holding it? Not that you have a choice, really, since they won’t stand up on their own. They’re fundamentally flawed and I haven’t had one since, or at least not until a fit of nostalgia and Mark Bittman’s feature in the New York Times Dining Section called The Taco Joint in Your Kitchen, got the better of me Sunday night.

salsa fresca

It was a cinch of a dinner. We used our favorite strait-from-the can beans, Goya’s Black Bean soup, some shredded iceberg lettuce (see above: nostalgia), grated extra-sharp white cheddar and purchased Whole Foods guacamole (their avocados were hard like apples, leaving us no option to make our own). Bittman’s Salsa Fresca recipe was spot-on, and his shredded chicken thighs even better.

I stupidly ignored his suggestion to make your own tacos from fresh corn tortillas (which he recommends you buy at a place one block from our apartment, like, duh) bringing home instead totally stale shells from a box advertising a bear riding a horse, as if that weren’t evidence of ill-advised things to come. We bit in, the shells crumbled and although the taste was spectacular, my shirt was reunited with my old pal, taco ick and the ensuing displeasure. But, unlike when I was seven, I washed it down with a beer and pretty much don’t remember having any complaints after that.

taco night!

Shredded Chicken for Tacos
Adapted from The New York Times

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
1 large white onion, peeled and quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 ancho or other mild dried chili, optional
Salt and pepper to taste.

  1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and add water to cover. Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, and skim any foam that comes to the surface. Partially cover and adjust heat so mixture simmers steadily. Cook until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from liquid and cool.
  2. Shred meat with fingers. Taste and adjust seasonings; use within a couple of days.

Salsa Fresca
From the New York Times

Makes about 2 cups.

2 large fresh ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 large white onion, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon minced raw garlic, or to taste
1 habanero or jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced, or to taste
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or 1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper.

  1. Combine all ingredients, taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  2. Let the flavors marry for 15 minutes or so before serving, but serve within a couple of hours.

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52 comments on chicken tacos + salsa fresca

  1. Heya! Those tacos look sooo goood! I’m so hungry too lol. I love your pictures! They are so bright and clear, I need to learn how to take pictures like that lol. I have a question, I hope you don’t mind. I noticed that You had a image footer at the bottom of your page. Iwanted to do that for my next layout, but I’m not sure how to add it, It never goes all the way at the bottom which sucks, but it’s everywhere but at the bottom. I hope you don’t mind helping me =). Well take Care!!! I hope I can try those recipes! Thanks for sharing! Take Care!

  2. SantaDad

    This might cause me to go to Taco Bell for lunch since I don’t know a good taco from a bad one … but my mouth is watering.

  3. Wow, what a wonderful blog you have here! How awesome to be featured on the F&W site too (that’s how I found you). I love it – and will be back to visit often! I loved your smoky bean post….am going to make those this weekend!

    I am glad that tacos have made their way into your heart – although they can muss up your clothes, they are so, so good…and the variations are endless. One of my new favs is sauteed chard tacos with chipotle salsa and crumbled cotija cheese. Who knew greens could be so substantial? Yum yum.



  4. makyo

    i just found this while browsing through the archives for dinner ideas. i love tacos and i love the do-it-yourself-ness of taco night. however, i have no love for crunchy tacos and prefer instead soft tortillas. these are readily available at the grocery store, better from a specialty foods store, but when i have a little extra time i love to make them myself at home. this is something my mom used to do when i was a kid and it’s so much more filling and satisfying than store-bought. the recipe i use is incredibly simple – just flour, solid shortening and salt with enough water to hold everything together – but the taste is so good. cooking is a cinch but rolling out the tortillas can be a little time-consuming. it’s all worth it though when i can have a late-night snack of a warm tortilla with butter and salt :)

  5. kyra

    I’m obsessed with your site! Too many fun things I’m dying to try. This one has made it to my dinner list for next week!
    Thanks for writing!

  6. Ana

    I tried this recipe last night and it was an absolute hit! Everyone loved the flavor of the chicken and this is coming from a person who does not cook very often. I was left searching for the perfect recipe for guacamole since I didn’t want to buy it at the supermarket. Overall these recipes are great, love your blog!

  7. Sonja

    I absolutely LOVE tacos, all kinds of tacos. Shredded beef tacos, ground beef tacos, chicken tacos, pork tacos, fish tacos, shrimp tacos….well, you get the idea. You have to get some yellow or white corn tortillas and cook them in some oil to really appreciate a great taco. The premade hard shells from the store are terrible.

  8. betsy

    Can you make this with chicken breast instead of the thighs? I don’t know if I can get boneless thigh meat here.

  9. I made the salsa fresca tonight (w/o the cilantro) and it was delicious with my simpleton tortillas with meat and beans. I love your recipe archive!

    betsy – I’d say go for it! I’ve substituted breast for thighs a couple of times with other recipes and it always worked just fine.

  10. Kristen

    I don’t think I’ve had a hard shell taco since I was about 10! I had the same messy, orange grease dripping experience and have been on team tortilla ever since. All the same delicious ingredients in a neat little roll? Yes please!

  11. These look amazing! My husband and I (we are newlyweds!!!) were looking for something to do with all of this cheap frozen chicken we have. Looking foreword to an in-home date night thanks to this awesome recipe!

  12. Nicole

    Yum! Store bought guac is good for making simple tacos like these, but I’d love to see a smitten post on how to make a good guacamole (read: how do you make something that is fatty in itself not so fatty?).

  13. Thank you for helping me find something to eat for dinner tonight. I used all my leftovers to make chicken tacos and guacamole. I even created tacos from the corn tortillas I had! Your blog is amazing. Keep up the awesome work. xoxo


  14. Jen

    I made just the chicken part of this for taco dinner tonight (using 2 legs and 2 thighs, bone in, from a small chicken – it made enough for 2 people). Just wanted to mention that, when the chicken was done there was left in the pot a *very* delicious chicken stock which I used to cook some grains after dinner for future lunches/dinners. You’ll feel like you’re one of those mompetitors on one of those food network shows that promises a week’s worth of meals in 30 minutes of cooking or something!

  15. Maureen M

    I like my tacos soft, my girls like the crunchy ones. So I buy good tortillas and harden them by putting them in the toaster and they come out taco shaped but with a little softness. And they LOVE them made with chicken thighs,but once in a while ask for ground meat.

  16. Shea S

    Taco night is one of my favorite nights of the month. I only do it this often or so as it makes a big mess at my house, but everyone loves it so we all pitch in on the clean up! I agree with Maureen and is why we also have both hard and soft shell taco’s for whichever version you prefer. I noticed this site only gives you measurements in the US system so here is a link for those of you who need to convert measurements from the US system to metric.

  17. This is my new go-to chicken recipe! In less than a week, I’ve already tried it, lovedbit, and made it again! The chicken saves very well, prep is super easy, and (most importantly) clean up is essentially nothing!

    If you are reading this recipe for the first time and are maybe a little unsure, please take my testimonial as proof that you need to try it!

  18. Matt

    This was awesome for a summers night, had a real fresh feel to it.

    On the next attempt I might try and season the chicken with something a bit more spicy as it lacked the kick that I enjoy Mexican food for.

  19. Anne Mahoney Kruse

    I had a Mexican room mate in college who taught me how to prepare chicken for enchiladas in a similar way 40 years ago. She had learned from her grandmother. Her suggestion was to always save the poaching liquid for Mexican Rice. Skim off the fat and strain and use as your broth. Beats the canned version any day.

  20. Moe

    While I am in LOVE with taco with any fixing…I prefer to make my own taco shells. Having a taco with a home fried tortilla makes it taste even better. You’ll never use a shell again.

  21. Laurita!

    Hey y’all – newly discovered the Smitten Kitchen and totally loving it. Awesome taco recipe, but – you’ve gotta re-experience/review this with homemade, crispy-corn shells. Moe is dead right but underestimates the flavor-factor multiplier associated with making your own shells. It’s super-simple and well worth it.

  22. Made these tonight. Really tasty; I especially loved the salsa. Next time I might add in some chopped up avocado to the mix… Thanks for the awesome recipe!

  23. Tara

    I made this recipe this evening and it came out amazing. The chicken was very tender and had the right amount of Mexican flavor and spice. The salsa Fresca was refreshing and delicious! I would make this again and again!

  24. C

    BTW, corn tortillas fried into shells (fry one half in oil, folded but with the top half out of the oil, then do the other side the same way) are a-ma-zing. I’ve even seen a couple of recipes for homemade tortillas… some day.

  25. Nancy

    Question : Is there a place on your site where I can jot the tweaks I make to your recipes? I like to fiddle with recipes to adapt to our tastes or just to try a twist.
    I’m on YUMMLY, but some of your recipes don’t quite work on their “adjusted” area.
    The changes I made were as delicious as the original! I put about 1/4 cup pickled jalapeño in with the chicken, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, and chicken stock base for more chicken-y flavor, since I used bone in breast meat instead of thighs.
    I used red onion in the salsa, both the lime juice and a splash of Sherry vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.

    1. deb

      No recipe box features — yet! It’s being request a lot so we will look into it. We are trying to fix the Yummly integration, hopefully much sooner.

  26. This was delicious. Made the chicken, not the salsa as I didn’t have the ingredients but instead had Nigella Lawson’s red kidney bean dip, avocado and labneh to go with the chicken. Very very good. Added the chicken stock to the dip which I’m sure made it even better. Froze the stock to use for cooking rice or bulghur in, which I’m sure will be nice with the kick of cumin!

  27. Jeannie

    Simple and delicious! I only made the chicken. Added some extra cumin after shredding. I’ll definitely make this again. It would be good for enchilada filling as well.

  28. So I decided to make this chicken a day ahead to save time on the night of my taco party… and now I’m worried I’m going to ruin it when I reheat! Any tips? I’m thinking I will sauté it with a bit of butter and some more cumin…

    1. deb

      When we redesigned the site in 2016, we added additional comment features. You can view all comments or just comments from people who have made the recipe [“I made this!” tab] or have a question [“Question” tab] by choosing the tab you prefer at the top of the comment section. If it’s an older recipe without a lot of comments from people in the “I made this!” tab, you can scroll to the end of the comment section, because that’s usually where the most concrete feedback is.

  29. First time a made it I didn’t like much, but with that recipe I think it was just great! Even better than ones I use to eat in a single restaurant I have near my home, in Santa Catarina, Brazil. Thank you!!

  30. Magnolia

    I usually swear by your recipes, but found this one to be pretty bland. Perhaps if I used chicken broth or beer, then the chicken would have absorbed more flavor. As it is, we’ll rescue it with hot sauce and call it a day