By Carole Reedy
Everyone loves a taco! Within and outside the country, it’s probably the single most recognized symbol of the republic. When Mexicans return from travel abroad, they rush to their favorite taco joint, even before arriving home. The first question asked by foreign visitors is “Where do we get the best tacos in the city?” Answer: Everywhere and anywhere.
There are numerous lists of the best tacos in the city. Find them in cookbooks, newspaper articles, travel guides, and on the internet. Each source lists different choices, and every establishment claims the “world’s best tacos.” As always, the best taco choice lies in the taste of the beholder. The only requirement for the taster is an open mind: not only regarding the culture and life in the city, but especially about the taco.
The creator of each type of taco is proud of his/her originality, so close your eyes and open your mind and tastebuds each day to the food considered Mexico’s staple.
Tacos can be made of corn or flour, corn being the preference in Southern Mexico and flour in the northern states. The flour tortillas of the north are often paper-thin and so large they are wrapped up like serapes, and they’ve even adopted that shorthand.
Here in Mexico City, tacos are made from corn and are small enough to cuddle in your hand. Traditionally, an order consists of three tacos lined up like soldiers on the paper and/or plate. They are soft rather than hard and usually cooked on a comal. Braised, grilled, steamed, or fried pork fills the tacos, and a green or red sauce tops it all. Take care with the sauces if you aren’t accustomed to or don’t like spice. You are well advised to put a teensy bit on your tongue first as a preventive against a fiery tummy or mouth.
Varieties of Tacos
Fish tacos. Found mostly in coastal areas where whitefish is fresh and available. Usually the fish is breaded and deep-fried, though sometimes simply grilled. When they’re good they are very very good, but there’s nothing worse than a soggy fish taco. Good fried fish tacos should be as tasty and crisp as British fish and chips.
Tacos al pastor. A taco lover’s delight. Pork sliced from a spit, often topped with bits of pineapple and onion.
Tacos a la canasta. Literally, basket tacos, so named because after preparation they are placed immediately inside a basket lined with a cloth, which traps the steam. You’ll see vendors with baskets and brightly colored cloths in the streets, in markets, and at metro stations. Because of the trapped steam, the tacos continue cooking, making them very soft and fragile. You won’t find these outside Mexico.
Tacos de cochinita pibil. My personal favorite. When I recently returned to Mexico City after a month in South America, I made sure my first stop was an afternoon at the Diablos Rojos baseball game, where Tacos de Cochinita Pibil replace American hot dogs as the staple culinary treat.
Cochinita pibil is a recipe that hails from the Yucatan. Basically, it’s pork marinated in a combination of sour orange, onions, and achiote (a powder bought in a small box in the spice department of the grocery store). It marinates in the fridge overnight for cooking the next day. The meat is tender and has an indescribably distinct sweet and sour flavor.
Unfortunately, the ballpark creators of the tacos de cochinita pibil don’t own a restaurant where you can taste these explosions of flavor. If you do go to the ballgame, be sure to taste the green sauce before heaping it atop of your three tacos as the Mexicans all around you are doing. It is FIRE!
However, there are good restaurants in the city that serve good Yucatecan food, including cochinita pibil. One is Montejo Sureste in Sureste in San Ángel (Av. de la Paz 16), and another is Circulo del Sureste in Colonia Juárez, (Lucerna 12), where the tacos are listed under appetizers.
Tacos guisados. Homemade tacos of the day that include ingredients the chef has in the kitchen or whatever he/she prefers to prepare. Street vendors often sell these tacos.
Carnitas. A favorite everywhere in the country, carnitas are pork that is fried in pork fat, served with corn tortillas on the side. There are many different varieties, based on the part of the pig from which the meat comes, but rarely will you find that choice on the menu. Your waiter may ask if you want the carnitas served maciza o surtida; maciza means served with no fat of the pork. The surtida is half fat/half lean.
Gringas. These are tacos made with a flour tortilla on the bottom, then any cheese that you would use in a quesadilla (one that melts easily), followed by a meat filling, which is usually marinated pork, then topped with another flour tortilla. Some places skip the second tortilla. As with everything in Mexico, there are always variations on the theme.
My favorite taco joints in Mexico City
Rincon de la Lechuza (Av. Miguel Ángel de Quevedo 34) is located in the Chimalistac/Coyoacán area, a charming neighborhood that was home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which is surely on your list of must-sees during your big-city visit. Lechuza serves its tacos open-faced, as do many locales. The portions are big enough that one taco order contains filling for two or three tortillas. The restaurant also sells the best tortilla soup in the city. I go to Lechuza for lunch almost every Monday and never tire of the cuisine!
El Huequito (6 locations) derived the name from its beginnings as a restaurant that measured just one meter by one meter. Thus, their faithful clients called it “the little hole,” and the name stuck. (A Mexican friend also tells me that the word huequito can mean “just a bit more hunger,” so one can say “Tengo un huequito por un taco más.”) All six branches boast long hours of operation. The branches near the Cruz Azul soccer stadium and the Plaza Monumental de Toros are open 9 a.m to 4 a.m. the following day. If you’re staying in centro, you’ll find a branch at Bolivar 58 that’s open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
El Bajio (14 locations) is the place for the best carnitas. You order them by the kilo for your table. A quarter kilo is good for two or three people, and you may want to order their delicious guacamole on the side. El Bajio is also an excellent restaurant for other Mexican dishes.
Other well-known and excellent places for tacos include El Califa (10 locations, one in Condesa) and El Villamelon (6 locations, one near the Cruz Azul soccer stadium). Tacos Beatriz (2 locations, one on the zocalo) has been serving tacos in Mexico City since 1910.
The fast food of Mexico is the street taco. Everyone – from workers and business executives to students and doctors -stops for tacos during the traditional afternoon lunch break. Can you risk it? I normally do not advise my visitors to eat street food for the simple reason that they have a small window of time visiting the city, and I want them to spend it at the pyramids, not in the bathroom. But surely thousands of people eat this food.
Here are a few precautions to take if you choose to have a street taco:
Go to a stand (called a puesto) servicing many people, where there’s a line waiting for service. This means these people are regular customers who have confidence in the vendor and that the ingredients are fresh each day.
Don’t take food from a vendor who also handles money. Bacteria from bills are transmitted to food. Or, be sure the vendor is wearing gloves when handling the food.
Don’t eat salsa that appears to be sitting in the sun and is bubbling.
Most street vendors don’t have running water at their location, meaning they may not wash their hands often as do workers in restaurants.
Avoid the lettuce.