What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word taco? If you’re from the US, or some other countries like Australia or the UK, you might think of a hard folded corn shell, ground beef cooked with “taco seasoning”, lettuce, cheese, and sour cream. But if you’re familiar with Mexican food, taco is something completely different. In Mexico, taco is more than a simple dish. Taco is a verb (taquear literally means to taco), a way to eat. How exactly do you describe a taco, then?
To describe tacos, first we need to describe corn tortilla, a flat bread made with nixtamalized corn cooked over a griddle. In my series of posts about maize I dedicated a post to the nixtamalization process and tortillas. You can read more about it here.
Nixtamalized corn tortilla is the base for a real and delicious taco. The best taquerias (taco shops) make their own corn tortillas right in front of their customers. However, I should mention that very few tacos in Mexico aren’t made with corn tortillas. Take for example the Arab tacos made with pita bread or some carne asada tacos made with flour tortillas in the northern states of the country.
The filling of the taco is as important as the tortilla. Almost any savory dish can become a taco filling, from salt to guisados (stews) to moles and meats prepared in complex marinates. There is an infinite number of taco fillings, but I want to highlight tacos de guisado and tacos al pastor in this post.
Guisado is a word that describes an ample array of dishes. When I wrote about fondas, I described guisados this way: “Guisado can be almost anything cooked in a salsa and served as a main course. There are beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian guisados.” And yes, we make tacos out of guisados.
I’ve had some delicious guisado tacos in Mexico City. Tacos Gus in Condesa is one of my favorite places. However, a few months ago a new place opened right next to our gym and it has become one of our favorite stops in the Zona Rosa area.
Tacos & Deli is a very small shop on Florencia Street that serves salads, guisado tacos, and parrillada (grilled meat, for tacos of course). There are about 4 or 5 guisados to choose from and the options change every day of the week. We’ve stopped by different days of the week and there has always been something delicious to try. My favorite choices are stuffed zucchini on Tuesdays and cochinita pibil and huazontle patties on Fridays.
This is a family owned taqueria and the food is homemade. The place is so small that they don’t have enough room to cook there. The owners cook at home and bring the guisados to the shop every day. When they run out of a guisado, they can always run back home to bring more. The first time Jon and I stopped they had just opened and things were a little chaotic. However, every time we go back their system has improved a little more and the taqueria is a little busier, which makes us really happy. We don’t want to see a place like that close.
You have to stop here when you come to Mexico City. The food is great and the service friendly. They cook their tortillas right before your eyes. And it’s located in one of the most touristic areas of the city, in Zona Rosa just one block south of the Angel of Independence.
Florencia 33 between Londres and Hamburgo
Mexicans love complex flavors. This is especially true when it comes to tacos. Tacos combine the sweet flavor of the corn tortilla, the savory flavor of the filling (meat or vegetable) and the spicy flavor of the salsa.
However, some tacos explore this combination even deeper. For example, the meat used for tacos al pastor is prepared with different spices like cinnamon, dried chiles, raisins, anise seeds and annatto seeds. The meat then is arranged and cooked in a spit and, to add a final sweet touch, the taco is topped with a pineapple slice. Tacos al pastor de trompo (spit) are the most chilango (a person or thing from Mexico City) of all tacos.
A couple of places in the city claim to be the inventors of the pastor tacos. The elusive truth about these tacos, however, is that they are the Mexicanization of the doner kebab brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
I’ve had my share of al pastor tacos, but my latest favorite place to get them is El Vilsito. A shop that is a car garage during the day, and a very busy taqueria at night. Al pastor tacos are a late night food. Think of pizza in New York City as an after-the-bar food. I first visited this place with Lesley Tellez several months ago and I fell in love. Then I took my dad there (a serious taco eater) and he really enjoyed it.
El Vilsito is located in the Narvarte neighborhood on the corner of Petn and Avenidad Universidad. But if you go during the day this is what you’ll find:
Tortillas and fillings are very important for a good taco. However, according to my dad, who is a taco connoisseur, the part that makes a taco a success or a failure is the salsa. The best taquerias in Mexico know this and they pay special attention to the preparation of the salsas that will accompany the taco. Some are milder than others. Other salsas made with avocado are rich and creamy. Red salsas can be tomato or dried chile based. Green salsas can be tomatillo or fresh chile based. Pico de gallo is not uncommon. And some of the best salsas are prepared in molcajete (lava rock mortar and pestle).
Although not an essential part of a taco, other toppings such as nopales (cactus paddies), cebollitas (grilled onions), beans, potato, and others add flavor and complexity of the real Mexican taco.
The concept of a taco is a very simple one. However, after learning more about them, by eating a lot of them, of course, I’ve come to appreciate their complexity, variety and importance in the Mexican diet even better. I hope this article has shed some light on the real Mexican taco and next time you have a craving for them you know what to look for, either at the supermarket while buying the ingredients to make your own or at your local Mexican restaurant or taqueria.
Some of the pictures were taken on the Eat Mexico Taco Tour