There is one dish that comes to mind when a casual foodie hears mention of Mexico: the taco.
It’s a well-earned reputation, even if most of the tacos found outside of Mexico hardly resemble the real deal. Versatile, simple, delicious, messy, the taco is a brilliant flat bread dish, be it for a street-side snack, or sit-down feast.
One of the megacities of the Americas, Mexico City is itself a culinary delight. With cuisines hailing from all corners of a remarkable nation, as well as its own cuisine, this is a place to savour for its practically infinite variety of food – tacos in particular.
On so many of Mexico City’s labyrinthine roads, one will find street cooks slinging tacos, quesadillas and other dishes from morning to long into the night. Some of these spots are comprised of simple trestle tables, dressed by Tupperware containers of condiments, with a tarpaulin slung overhead, while others are full-on food trucks or street-front stalls, decked to the nines with their professionally designed branding and inventive, signature food styles.
It is well worth dabbling in these street-side slingers, and will only cost you a few pesos per taco. These tacos are generally characterised by simple, strong flavours, killer hot sauces and traditional toppings. Such fillings include, but are by no means limited to, arrachera (a flavoursome cut of beef), al pastor (a typical Mexico City style of rotisserie-cooked pork inherited from Lebanese immigrants), fritanga (tripe and other sweet meats) and de guisados (saucy, endlessly changing stews).
As in so many places, street food in Mexico City does pose the risk of incurring Montezuma’s Revenge. But, such experiences are not as common as urban myth would have one believe. The less sanitary street spots often stand out as such, and it’s hard to go wrong if you pick a place with fresh ingredients and a queue of hungry locals eyeing off the grill.
Aside from the core toppings, Mexican condiments make a taco truly sing. Liberal squeezes of lime and green sauce made from succulent tomatillos are very important, but the hot sauces are where the real fun is.
As chilli peppers were domesticated here thousands of years ago, well before making their way into just about every world cuisine, Mexico is home to some of the best and most flavoursome heat you’re liable to find on Earth.
Forget store-bought bottles of watery hot stuff, most Mexican taquerias have their own home-made range of sauces for you to try, normally in threes with the stipulation that one is light, one hot and the last extreme.
A dilemma of the Mexican chef is how much heat to put in any given sauce. Heat tolerance is obviously already high on the Mexican palate, but still varies wildly within the population. Thus, many chefs will have a super-hot back-up or two for the most daring diners to try on request.
When it comes to the range of restaurants, choice also extends to the horizon. Locations recognised for their quality and unique ambience include Borrego Viudo, Juan Bisteces, Taquearte, Los Milaneos and El Califa.
While these sorts of lists are useful, local knowledge reigns supreme and the base level of quality across town is pretty high. Trust the recommendations that are given to you, and experiment with the trendy new wave of taquerias, which blend older styles with all kinds of global tastes, be it blue cheese or Indian spices. It’s a playground.
At the top of the scale sit a range of high-end restaurants taking Mexican cuisine to a new level. One such example is Pujol, which landed at number 13 on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Under chef Enrique Olvera’s masterful eye, Pujol draws on the sprawling tradition of Mexican cooking to create dishes that are as memorable as they are delicious. And yes, they do tacos.
The Taco Omakase Experience sees diners seated at Pujol’s bar, working their way through a degustation of tacos, along with snacks and matched drinks, including some very nice mezcal. Each taco is different to the last, and demonstrates the wide variety inherent in Mexican cuisine, ranging from succulent soft shell crab to Olvera’s signature mole sauce, which in our sitting had been evolving for 1685 days.
Corn – yet another Mexican contribution to the food world – is key too at Pujol. Each tortilla in the Omakase Experience is made from a different type of corn flour, while many of the drink pairings are corn beers hailing from the agricultural and culinary eden that is Oaxaca.
Humble, delicious and endlessly varied, Mexico City’s tacos teach a traveller about this country’s fascinating culture and history. From the street corner to the bar of one of the world’s best restaurants, they are a universe unto themselves, but at the same time, just one corner of an incredibly rich national cuisine.