Braised Chicken Tacos

As the weather warms, my menus tend to go from simmered to steamed and from protein to produce. It’s partially because my body craves rich foods less, but it’s also a practical matter of keeping the apartment cool. Still, there are times when I crave some melty tender meat and these braised chicken tacos fill that need without taking the kind of apartment heating time a whole pork butt would require.

The braising liquid gets it’s sweet, earthy flavor from caramelized onions and a puree of dried ancho and guajillo chiles. It’s similar to the red sauce you’d find on an enchilada, only sweeter and with more flavor, thanks to the onions and tomatoes. The chicken cooks until you can easily shred it with a fork, this creates a matrix of tender chicken fibers that the sauce can cling to.

Braised Chicken Tacos

With street tacos, the meat is where it’s at, with the tortilla serving as a way to get it into your mouth. Condiments are filler at best, and at worst they can be a way to cover up the questionable nature of the meat. These chicken taco’s don’t need any condiments, in fact I could have eaten the chicken with a fork sin tortilla. I did want a little more richness though, so I sliced up some avocado and snuck them in. Flavor aside, if you close your eyes and take a bite, you could be fooled into thinking you were eating pork belly.

If you have some leftover chicken just add another can of chopped tomatoes and a can of your favorite beans for a chicken chili. This also freezes well so you can make a bunch ahead of time and freeze it in serving sized portions so you can have braised chicken tacos all summer long without having to run your air conditioning full blast.

Braised Chicken Tacos

makes 16 tacos

2 pounds whole chicken thighs
3 small onions, sliced thinly
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
3 dried guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes in juice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf
juice of 1 meyer lemon (or juice of 1/2 regular lemon)
salt to taste
homemade tortillas

Generously salt and pepper the chicken on both sides. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil to a large heavy bottomed pot and heat until the oil is very hot. Brown the chicken in batches, leaving room between the pieces of chicken so they turn a golden brown on one side before flipping. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate and repeat.

Turn down the heat to medium low, add the onions and garlic to the pot, and cover with a lid for 10 minutes. When you remove the lid, the onions should be wilted and cooking in their own juices. Use a wooden paddle to scrape up all the browned bits (a.k.a. chicken flavor) from the pan, then turn up the heat to medium high to burn off the liquid. When most of the liquid has evaporated, turn the heat back down and stir and continue to caramelize the onions until they are brown and glossy (another 20-30 minutes).

Meanwhile, tear up the chiles into small flat pieces and place them in a single layer on a sheet pan. Roast in a 350 degree oven until they are fragrant, but be careful not to burn them as they will become bitter. Transfer the roasted peppers to a bowl and cover them with very hot water. Once the peppers are soft, transfer them to a food processor or blender adding in about 1/2 cup of the water they were soaking in along with the can of tomatoes. Puree the peppers and tomatoes until they form a smooth sauce.

When the onions are done caramelizing add the pepper puree, along with the chicken, cinnamon sticks, bay leaf and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting, partially cover with a lid and cook until the chicken falls apart when prodded with a fork (about 1 1/2 hours).

When the chicken is done, remove the bay leaf an cinnamon sticks, then use 2 forks to shred the meat. Taste the sauce and add salt to taste. Serve with sliced avocados, fresh cilantro, lime wedges and tortillas.

  • Yuri

    I wanna grab a bite of these tacos: that beautiful chicken, the avocado and cilantro… I was drooling at fish tacos on Dara’s blog, I think I gotta have some sort of taco today :)

  • AliciaH

    This looks amazing! Thank you for sharing!

  • style fare

    OMG, thank you so much for posting this! I’ve never found a chicken taco I prefer over pork or beef, but this looks like a strong contender. Like a Pavlovian dog, my mouth immediately began to water once I laid eyes on this. Thank you!

  • Nancy-The Wife of a Dairyman

    Oh my gosh! These look delicious and are mouth watering! Thanks for the recipe:)

  • Nancy-The Wife of a Dairyman

    Oh my gosh! These look delicious and are mouth watering! Thanks for the recipe:)

  • Karin van D.

    Delicious pictures. I love the added avocado, yumm.

  • serena @bigapplenosh

    This looks absolutely amazing!

  • Oui, Chef

     These sound quite fabulous, and the color red achieved in the braise is breathtaking.  YUM! – S

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  • EllenG

    It does look tempting and I printed the recipe. You don’t suggest removing the skin, but I will do that and also remove as much fat as I can. You don’t suggest using boneless, skinless breast meat, but I will try that as well. And, I know it’s work, but I love seeing at least the calorie count for suggested portion sizes.

  • Tiffany & Apple

    This looks so good. Your photography is wonderful too – makes my mouth water hha. Watching Chopped right now – I hope oyu do well!

  • style maniac

    Found your site from a search for this recipe, after eating something similar at Xochitl in Philadelphia.  Looks delish, can’t wait to give it a try.

  • Daccordi

    Since it appears that I’m the only commenter that has actually made this dish, let me post my observations. I Followed the recipe pretty much exactly as written. First off, it’s delicious! Also, it is as beautiful as the pictures show. It isn’t mentioned in the recipe but when you roast the chilies, be careful! It only takes a couple of minutes. If you overcook/burn them they will be worthless. I found this one out the hard way. I used skinless/boneless chicken thighs and they worked out just fine. Finally, I felt the dish was a little under seasoned and not just salt and pepper. As good as it was, it was lacking a little zip. If I were to make this again, I think I would incorporate some adobo sauce into it.

  • Anumidium

    I made this and I didn’t find it under-seasoned at all, I thought it was just right (and absolutely delicious and beautiful to look at too). Taking the skin off the thighs isn’t necessary, it falls apart just like the rest of the chicken. 

  • Michelle Chase

    I have done something like this in my slow cooker. I used onions, crushed tomatoes and added a bit of liquid smoke, & cumin (for some reason I cannot get these awesome chili’s north of the border…aarrrg). Also have done this with a pot roast…shredded for my own version of enchiladas. LOVE the blog. I just discovered it today while looking for a spring roll recipe!

    • Marc Matsumoto

      Thanks! Great idea adding liquid smoke. I often add black cardamom into my chili to give it a smoked flavor.

  • Morgansmenu

    Mark, do you think this would still work with ground ancho powder and ground guajillo powder?

    • Marc Matsumoto

      Spices tend to lose potency quickly once they’re ground, so you may need to use quite a bit, but powder should work fine. Just add the pepper powder into the onions towards the end of the caramelization process to hit them with a little high heat before adding the liquids.

  • Mjchantry

    Hi Marc,
    This recioe looks amazing, and as soon as my peppers arrive by mail, I’ll be trying it. I’m wondering if you would be able to estimate a weight of boneless skinless chicken, as that’s all I have?

    Thanks so much.

    • Marc Matsumoto

      I’m not sure what percentage of the weight is in the bones, but the quantity of chicken isn’t super important to this recipe. If there’s not quite enough chicken it will just be more saucy vs too much chicken would make it more chickeny. Maybe somewhere between 1-1.5 pounds of chicken should be fine.

      • hardik kheskani

        I did 2/3 for onion and tomate paste and 1lb chicken – it turned out to be amazing!

  • Guest Mark

    I made this for friends and family this weekend and for whatever reason, found it a bit bitter.  The sauce had a beautiful depth of flavour but somehow just had a bitter tinge to it.  I did toast the chiles before rehydrating them but I am confident I did not burn them, they were only in there for around 2-3 minutes maximum.  Any thoughts?  I will definitely try this again next time… I will probably remove the skin from the thighs first and will also add one hotter chill to the mix for a little more “fire” but all in all, I really think it has a lot of potential…

    • Marc Matsumoto

      Hi Mark, the only thing I can think of that could be bitter is your chiles. Next time, try tasting them after you’ve roasted them. If they’re bitter, try tasting some unroasted ones. Chiles have a little bitterness naturally, but you may have gotten a particularly bitter batch. Also, while roasting make sure the chiles are in the middle of the oven. If they’re too close to the heating element, the tops/bottoms could still burn even if they’re only in there for 2-3 minutes. The chiles should be soft and leathery straight out of the oven. If any parts are crispy when the chiles are still hot, they’re probably burnt.

  • Lisa Shenk

    Michelle, look in the produce area of your local grocery store, that is where I find the dried peppers, in large bags of dried ones. Also, has all kinds of them!

  • James

    Hi Marc,
    I have made this twice this week (once to practice, once for friends) , thanks for the recipe its really good.
    I made a small amendment and added 1/4 cup coconut milk powder and a good punch of ground pepper at the end.
    Will be checking out the other recipes on your site.

    • Marc Matsumoto

      Coconut milk powder is a great idea! I bet it made it really rich.

  • Cindy Storm

    i can not wait to try these recipes , i smoke pork butt almost ever other weekend and would love to try the el pastor recipe with smoking the porkbutt.. I miss really good mexican food up here in washington state … i think these recipes will bring me a lil piece of HOME ( southern Cali ) here …. keep them recipes coming Please …

  • Annie Wu

    This was absolutely amazing. Smokey sweet and so savory that I can seriously eat this every day. I didn’t have a problem with bitterness in the chiles, I roasted them in the oven for exactly 3 minutes.

    My dinner guests thank you deeply and heartily for the glorious recipe. My kitchen has never smelled so good!

    I love your recipes :) super gourmet yet feasible for us box Mac n’ cheese folk.

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  • magnetix

    I’m just learning to cook on the weekends for the family to help out my wife – I had some chicken thighs and I happened across this recipe and decided to give it a try. I decided to skip roasting the chiles and used 1 tbsp ancho chili powder and used a can of fire roasted tomatoes. I think I got the oil too hot and I was a little unsure I was doing the onions properly, but it tasted fantastic at the end. It wasn’t very spicy of course, but I’ve got kids to feed also. My daughter loved them and had 3 tacos. I served it with a mango salad and a goza easy bag of spanish rice.

    • Marc Matsumoto

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Regarding the onions, here’s more in-depth look at the proper technique to caramelizing onions: It’s a useful skill to learn as it’s a great way to add a ton of flavor to any dish.

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  • hardik kheskani

    tried the recipe last night, it was amazing – the whole apt smelled of these chillies. just need to add little more tomate/tomato-sauce. i added tomatoes to the blender with chillies since i didn’t have tomato sauce, but that mix was just super deadly — full of aroma and flavor! will definitely repeat! thanks for the beautiful recipe and great instructions – was my first time making shredded chicken.

  • Guest

    Da Bomb. My wife made this (I helped with my eyes). The next day we used it for enchilada meat, which I thought was actually a bit better, the sweetness of the onion really popped.

  • Dustin Headley

    My wife made the meat into enchiladas. I was very happy until I was sad it was all gone.

  • Tami S.

    Hi Marc, I am trying out your recipe right now but ran into a problem with my wonky stove. The lowest setting doesn’t appear to be anywhere near hot enough for the final hour and a half. I live on the gulf coast in hurricane land where we can have only electric stoves. Any idea of the temperature for the last stretch? I have a thermometer to check. Thanks in advance!

    • Marc Matsumoto

      I’m not sure what the temperature should be, but it should just barely be simmering (steady stream of small bubbles coming up, not still, not boiling). Hope that helps.

      • Tami S.

        I figured it out. Thanks for taking the time to answer…super nice of you. Your recipe made me a total rock star for the past two days. My boyfriend actually gave me a back massage without me asking!! SO DELICIOUS! I’m glad I made as much as I did. Had breakfast tacos this morning. Braised chicken, eggs, avocado and cilantro! So tasty!!!

  • Dom

    I made this today (although I had to adapt it a bit) and I have to say it was absolutely amazing!! I didn’t have a cinnamon stick so I used powdered instead and I used dried chipotle chilies instead of the guajillo. I didn’t have any lemons either so I replaced the lemon juice with sherry vinegar for a bit of acidity. I also added some ground cumin, sweet smoked paprika and dried oregano for some extra spice. I will definitely be making this again. Thank you!!!

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  • CodieD

    I really loved these chicken tacos and will be making them again. The flavor of the smoked peppers and caramelized onions was so yummy! I added a couple of links of smoked chorizo from our local butcher, but I’m not sure it really needed it. I made some fresh pico to go with it and your salsa verde just in case. I loved the verde on my eggs this morning! Thank you for sharing this recipe.


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