14th June 2016
Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Victor de la Cueva
A taco is a simple thing – a tortilla folded or wrapped around a filling – until you take a closer look. Then you realise there are 16 main styles of tacos and, within these categories, almost infinite variations depending on fillings, garnishes, tortilla size and composition. In Mexico City alone, there are tens of thousands of taquerias, from the tiniest street stalls to bricks-and-mortar restaurants, with new places popping up all the time. All things considered, it was probably wise that Deborah and Alejandro decided to focus our itinerary on a particular area: the neighbourhoods of Escandon, La Condesa and La Roma in the central-south-west of the city – which, they assure us, is as good as any terrain for a taco hunt.
Tacopedia is also available in English. For more info, visit www.uk.phaidon.com
Follow Alejandro: Twitter
Our first stop is the original in a chain of taquerias, now 20-strong, dating back to 1966. “I used to come here with my father,” says Alejandro. “They would offer the food for free if you could eat 25 tacos. The only problem was that on the tenth they doubled the size.”
According to our chef Mario, who has worked here for 20 years, this branch easily produces 1,000 tacos on a busy day. They usually stay open until 5am, making it a popular haunt for late-night revellers.
The specialty here is tacos al pastor. A legacy of the country’s sizable Lebanese community, it consists of marinated pork that’s carved from a vertical rotisserie, such as you might see in a shawarma kitchen, then served in a small tortilla with cilantro and onion. As a final flourish, Mario cuts off a chunk of pineapple from the top of the grill and catches it in the taco. Optional extras – frijoles (beans), salsa verde, Morita salsa and onion and chilli manzano – vary so much in flavour and heat that the best approach is to try a small amount on a tortilla chip and find the one that suits your taste.
I restrict myself to a couple of these little tacos, though they’re so moreish I could easily eat 10. The pineapple makes them enjoyably juicy without overpowering the pork. Having failed to heed my own warning about applying a small amount of chilli, I experience what is called “enchilado”: a capsaicin-induced clearing of the sinuses accompanied by some light sweating.
What we ate: Tacos al pastor. Chicharron de queso. Horchata (the ubiquitous rice and cardamom drink). Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus tea).
Tamaulipas 122, Condesa, Cuauhtémoc, 06140 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico; www.eltizoncito.com.mx
To our dismay, the second stop on the tour, an acclaimed barbacoa joint in Roma Sur, is closed. The shutters are down and there’s no sign of them being raised anytime soon. Which, Alejandro exclaims, is a real shame: “To do a taco tour, you really need to include some barbacoa – and this really is the best for barbacoa in the city”.
Barbacoa is a traditional way of cooking meat (usually lamb or mutton), either on an open fire or in a hole in the ground covered with maguey leaves. It can also refer to meat that’s been steamed until tender. At El Hidalguense, the meat is slow-cooked over aged oak wood in an underground pit and the results are meant to be extraordinarily delicious. Sadly, we’ll have to leave this for a future taco tour.
Campeche 155, Cuauhtémoc, Roma Sur, 06760 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico; +52 55 5564 0538
Disappointment is quickly allayed when we reach our third taqueria, a five-minute walk away. El Jarrocho is a bit more upmarket than El Ticonzito, more like a deli than a stand. A recent refit has squandered some of its former charm, according to Deborah, “but the important thing is that tacos are still exactly the same – and they make their own tortillas in-house, which is always a good sign”.
The clientele seems different too. At the counter, there are guys in suits side-by-side with police officers and manual labourers. “Taquerias are where the classes congregate,” says Deborah. “The judge and the thief, the politician and the taxi driver, the rich and the poor. Tacos bring everybody together. We all eat them.”
This place specialises in tacos de guisado, an umbrella term for stew. Here, we’re presented with over two dozen stews and fried ingredients in earthenware bowls called cazuelas. These include moronga (blood sausage), egg and chorizo, nopales (grilled cactus), breaded beef and stuffed chilli.
We go for campechana and rajas con crema. The former – cured beef and chicharron with Morita salsa – is a flavour rollercoaster: crunchy, then sweet, then meaty, then spicy. The rajas, or roasted poblano peppers with onions and cream, are creamy, soft, luxurious: a nice counterpoint to the meaty intensity of the campechana.
What we ate: Campechana. Rajas con crema.
Tapachula 94, Cuauhtémoc, Roma Sur, 06760 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico; +52 55 5574 7148
Another taxi takes us to a much more basic taco spot next to the crowded Insurgentes metro station. The smell of roasting pig hits us before we turn the corner, heralding the speciality of the house: carnitas, or pork cooked in its own fat. “House” is perhaps misleading: what we have is a series of taco stands with red-and-white canopies, below which various cuts of pork are piled high on vast cylindrical pans.
“This might not be the very best place to eat tacos,” says Deborah, “but it is the best place to get a sense of what tacos mean to people here.” It’s 3:30pm on a Monday and the stands are thronging with customers – locals, mostly (with a few suits from the local stock exchange in the mix). Watching the meat being prepared has a transfixing effect on everybody: chunks are removed from the pan and chopped with a large cleaver on a block of wood which looks as old and worn as the city itself.
There’s no queue to speak of so we hustle our way in, snag a couple of tacos (carnitas is the only option) and eat them on the hoof. They’re not the best I’ve ever had, though you can’t go too far wrong with pork cooked in own fat. At this stage I get christened “tragon”: someone who is always swallowing. I’ll wear it as a badge of honour.
What we had: Carnitas
South of Metro Insurgentes, south side of the Plaza de Insurgentes, on the corner of Jalapa & Puebla
Our final stop is a bit further afield – getting there takes us 15 minutes by cab. Most customers stay in the car park, where a legion of servers can take your order and deliver it to you on a tray, but we venture inside. Though I’m hesitant to describe El Borrego Viudo as authentic, that overused word seems justified in this case. The staff look as if they’ve worked together their entire lives. Inside, the restaurant is dark and atmospheric with ancient fixtures and fittings, flickering neon bulbs and the ever-present shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The meat block here is even more weathered than the one at Insurgentes.
This is where you come if you have an appetite for unusual parts of a cow. Offal city, in other words. Into enormous vats of boiling stock, all manner of organs and offcuts are dunked. “It’s amazing how they can take an animal and use all the different parts and find this one way to serve them all,” says Deborah. “I think this is quite unique in Mexico.”
We don’t hold back. Cheek, tongue, eyes, brain, intestines, throat: all these are fished out of bubbling vats, incorporated into tacos and deposited on our plates. Some are definitely more appealing than others. I’ve had brains twice now and, to be honest, that’s two times too many. Swallowing the eyeballs also required a certain fortitude. But it’s not all crazy cuts. If you don’t have a big appetite for eyeballs when you visit, El Borrego Viudo also serve a terrific brisket taco – just ask for the “suadero”.
What we had: Cabeza (cow head meat). Cachete (cow cheek). Taco de Ojo (cow eyeball). Sesos (cow brain). Suadero (brisket). Tepache (fermented pineapple drink).
Revolución, Tacubaya, Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico
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