Barbecue Chicken Tacos
While creating new recipes is the constant drive of this now 12 year old project, it's the unexpected surprises that make it feel exciting and keep me plugging away and sharing. Take, for example, these barbecue chicken tacos. In all honesty, this was a recipe pitch to a client that I wasn't totally jazzed about—it just seemed to fit the bill of being something familiar and accessible, while also different enough that it wasn't already represented in their catalog. It was accepted and I ventured forth with what I thought would be a bit of throw-away in the end, but what came together was so tasty and worked so well that it really took me aback and changed my perception of what ideas are worth acting upon.
I think one of my problems with this concept in general was it felt like a cop-out—it's too easy to put any cuisine in a tortilla and call it "new." But just because I felt that way didn't mean I wasn't going to do everything in my power to make these the damn tastiest barbecue tacos I could, and that started with making my own tortillas.
After much recipe fussing years ago, I settled on two distinct flour tortilla recipes—one for the thin, lard laden type of tortillas and one for the softer and chewier variety. The later is what most people are familiar with and seemed most appropriate in this context. Since these are the most common type of flour tortillas, I left out the requirement of making your own in the final recipe, but going the extra mile and whipping up a fresh batch is worth the extra effort and does make a noticeable difference in the end, in my opinion.
When considering toppings for a barbecue taco, coleslaw was a no brainer. I'm usually a green cabbage guy, which has a great crisp-tender texture, but I thought the extra crunch of red cabbage would be called for here to make a bigger impact when combined with all the other ingredients.
My slaw was comprised of red cabbage and red onion, which I had salted first to draw out moisture, then rinsed the dried. Then I used a simple, vinegar-based dressing to give the veggies a very tangy and a slightly sweet flavor.
For the chicken, my impulse was to jam as much flavor into each bite as possible. I figured if the chicken was going to be chopped and served with a lot of other ingredients, it could use the extra flavor to really bring the barbecue component of these tacos to the forefront. I usually use a lighter flavored rub on poultry, as to not completely mask its subtle natural flavor, but for this recipe I went in with a variation of my pork rub, which is very robust.
I opted to use chicken thighs over breasts in this recipe for a number of reasons—they comparatively have more flavor, are juicer and more forgiving in cooking, and are easier on the wallet. After taking my thighs out of their packaging and patting them dry with paper towels, I gave them a hearty coating in the rub, covering almost every bit of each thigh.
I started the thighs over an indirect fire, cooking them just long enough that outer rub coating look well fused with the exterior of the meat. That only took about five minutes, after which time I began the barbecue sauce application.
As I do with my standard barbecue chicken, I wanted a thick and layered coating of sauce, which required multiple brushings, giving the sauce time to bake down between each application. Then, when the meat was almost cooked through, I applied a final coating of sauce and moved the chicken to direct heat to get pick up some nice caramelization.
That pairing of generous amounts of rub and sauce translated into each little cube of diced chicken having immense flavor. At this point I still wasn't completely sold that my taco idea was a true winner, but I knew that the chicken was incredible in its own right and was pretty happy about that.
After chopping the chicken and prepping all of my toppings, I used the heat from the grill to quickly toast the tortillas until they were completely soft and pliable again—this took only 30 seconds or so over medium-high heat.
Then I put everything together into its final taco form, starting with the chicken, followed by a layer of barbecue beans and a helping of the slaw. Then I added lesser amounts of pickled jalapeños, Longhorn cheddar, cilantro, and a final squeeze of sour cream.
After assembly, I was pretty proud at how the tacos looked visually, which was no minor achievement when I'm used to struggling to figure out how to make my food look all pretty for photos. So I had now had a few waves of pleasing experiences with creating these tacos, which was only built upon with my first bites.
What I had thought to be a hokey idea at first ended up tasting really fantastic. The complex sweet and spicy barbecue flavors served as the foundation of the taco, with beans building upon that while adding a creamy textural component, which was then contrasted by the crunch and tang of the slaw. The jalapeños were definitely notable with their acidic heat that felt at home with the overall barbecue profile, while the cheese, cilantro, and sour cream all played smaller supporting roles that were important to the overall success of the dish. I feel like if I had come up with the idea for these tacos for The Meatwave alone, I would have totally written them off as too derivative and played out and taken a pass, but knowing how great they tasted has me looking back at some similar ideas I may have let fall to the wayside and see them in a new light.
Barbecue Chicken Tacos
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Cook 15 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour
- For the Red Coleslaw
- 1/2 large head red cabbage, finely shredded on a mandoline or by hand
- 3/4 cup red onion, finely minced (about 1/2 a medium onion)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the Chicken
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 cup your favorite barbecue sauce
- For Serving
- 8 taco-sized flour tortillas
- 1 cup barbecue beans, warmed
- 4 ounces Longhorn cheddar cheese, grated
- 1/4 cup pickled jalapeños
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
- To make the slaw: Combine cabbage and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and 1/4 cup sugar and toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Transfer to a large colander and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Transfer vegetables to a salad spinner and spin dry. Alternatively, transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet lined with a triple layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and blot mixture dry with more towels. Return to large bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, celery seed, and pepper. Pour dressing over vegetables and toss to coat. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and/or sugar. Set aside.
- To make the chicken: In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar, salt, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. Coat chicken thighs all over with spice rub and set chicken aside.
- Light 1 chimney full of charcoal. When charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place chicken thighs on cool side of grill, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Brush chicken with barbecue sauce, flip, and cook for 5 minutes more. Brush chicken again with barbecue sauce, flip, cover grill, and cook until center of chicken registers 160°F when an instant-read thermometer is inserted into the thickest portion of the meat, about 5 minutes more. Brush chicken a third time with barbecue sauce and move to hot side of grill. Cook, flipping occasionally, until chicken develops light charring on both sides. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Roughly chop chicken.
- Place tortillas on cool side of grill, cover, and warm until soft and pliable, about 1 minute. Stuff each tortilla with chicken and top with beans, coleslaw, cheese, jalapeños, sour cream, and cilantro. Serve immediately.