Deep in the trenches of one of the oldest union strongholds in Mexico City, there’s a deeply democratic taquería that manages to bring together office workers, blue-collar workers, locals and tourists alike. When you walk by this place, chaos seems to reign. However, once you step into the current you realize there’s a system that keeps the flow of people, tacos, and drinks under control.
Taquería El Progreso started serving beef head, suadero (a cut similar to brisket) and tripe tacos 23 years ago. Javier Ramos, an employee who has been working there since the beginning, told us that at first, the taquería was about a third of its current size. In that small venue, no bigger than 12.5 square meters, they sold tacos, jugos and licuados (fresh juices and milk shakes), a combination that’s surprisingly rare in Mexico City. Ten years after it opened, the place expanded to the shop next door, adding a few tables and a second taco station that offers a different variety of tacos.
The tacos prepared in the original space are small, served on machine-made corn tortillas that are about 10 centimeters in diameter. The griddle used to cook the suadero, chorizo, and tripe is called a choricera. The dome in the middle is for warming tortillas and surrounded by a moat where the meat cooks slowly in a mixture of fat and water. When the meat is thoroughly cooked and ready for making tacos, the taquero takes it out and chops it on the iconic cutting board that all taquerías use in Mexico, a large round piece of wood that appears to be a whole slice of a tree trunk.
Ramos told us that on a slow day they sell one and a half heads’ worth of beef head tacos. The most sought-after parts of the head are the eyes and tongue. More conservative eaters get cheek and neck tacos, while the more adventurous go for the brains. Our favorite tacos on this side of El Progreso are campechanos (suadero mixed with chorizo), and tongue.
The other taco station makes bistec (steak), chorizo, chuleta (pork chop), and a different kind of campechano (a mix of steak and chorizo) tacos over larger handmade tortillas. Several trays right next to the griddle offer a wide array of toppings you can add to your taco. The red salsa is made with pasilla pepper, while the spicier green is made with avocado and fresh green peppers. There’s also mashed potatoes, cooked beans, nopales (cooked cactus paddles) and pickled onions. Eaters can put as many toppings as they want on their tacos, which makes eating here a great value for those on tight budgets. One or two tacos with several toppings can make for a complete meal.
The busy taqueros from each station take orders without writing them down. Drinks can be ordered from any of the few “servers” that light-footedly move among customers. Eaters can move between stations and order as much as they want. All of this takes place on the sidewalk outside.
When it’s time to pay, customers approach the cashier at the back of the venue and tell him how many tacos from each station and drinks they consumed. The cashier double checks with each station that customers are being honest (yelling the order back to them), and when the taqueros confirm, the cashier quickly adds up the bill.
This type of honor system is still very common at taquerías in Mexico. Trying to fool your seen-it-all taquero is not only very hard to do, but also considered bad luck. And the customers here know that bad luck – like the service at El Progreso – is something that doesn’t discriminate.