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? Here we present the simple, yet complex, taco anatomy.
The Taco Anatomy starts with the Corn Tortilla
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.
The process is very simple. The first step is to cook dried maize kernels in an alkaline solution. In Mexico, cal (calcium oxide obtained from lime stone) is used to prepare the solution. The kernels then sit in the limewater overnight to be rinsed and hulled the following day. Then the maize is ground to make the dough that later will become tortillas. You can read more about the process and its history 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: Guisados and Al Pastor
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. However, 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. However, a few months ago I started going to the Saturday Sullivan market for just one reason: eating breakfast at Los Barriles, a booth that sells between eight and 10 different types of tacos de guisado at a time. The first few times I was there I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I sat down (when possible because they always seem to be busy) and ordered two or three different tacos and a bottled juice.
However, after a number of visits, I realized I was hooked on what might just be the best tacos de guisado in the city and decided to learn more about who ran the show. It turns out that Los Barriles has been serving tacos at the Sullivan market for just a little over a year, but they’ve been selling at the Narvarte tianguis on Sundays for 15 years now.
Some of the extremely tasty guisados I’ve had were lengua en salsa de morita, delicious and tender beef tongue in morita pepper sauce; suadero a la diabla, beef shank in a spicy red sauce; chicharrón en salsa verde, pork cracklings in green sauce; rajas con crema, julienned poblano peppers in a creamy sauce; and chiles rellenos, cuaresmeño peppers stuffed with cheese and deep fried, and cochinita pibil—my personal favorite—among many others.Tianguis Sullivan
Address: corner of Gabino Barreda and James Sullivan
Hours: Sat. 9am–4pm Tianguis Narvarte
Location: corner of Filadelfia and Dakota
Hours: Sun. 9am–4pm Telephone: +52 55 5781 9441 / +52 55 1486 1752
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 Petén and Avenida Universidad. But if you go during the day you will only find a car garage.Address: Avenida Universidad 274 (corner with Calle Petén), Colonia Narvarte Telephone: No phone Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 9pm-3am; Fri. 4pm-6am; Sat. 7pm-6am; Sun. 4pm-midnight
Salsas and Toppings
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.