Shrek the Musical plays in the courtyard of Los Originales Tacos Arabes Bagdad, off 2nd avenue in the historic downtown of Puebla. In between customers and delivery orders, the cashier who wears his mask just under his nose concentratedly watches the musical projected at the back of the courtyard.
For 25 pesos––a bit more than a dollar — I’m delivered perhaps the largest taco I’ve ever seen, the Taco Arabe Bagdad. The taco is more like a shawarma; a thick pita bread wraps meat freshly sliced off the trompo, a vertical spit. It’s nothing like my mental model of a taco: the meat is flavored with Middle Eastern spices and there aren’t any condiments or salsas. It gets repetitive as I’m halfway through, each bite drier and less interesting than the last.
Originally created by Lebanese immigrants in the 1930s, this taco is the precursor to the al pastor taco, a window into the evolution of Mexican cuisine. In subsequent generations, the augmentation of regional ingredients and flavors would morph these tacos into the quintessential Mexican dish that we know today.
I went to Mexico to learn more about my favorite food, the taco. A taco is seemingly straightforward – the meat provides the umami, which is complemented by cilantro and onion, then balanced with acidity and spice from salsas. Each bite is an explosion of flavors.
Tacos, however, are not a monolithic product. They differ greatly by region: Baja California for example is known for its fried fish tacos, while the Yucatan peninsula is known for Cochinita Pibil, a slow roasted marinated pork. For a month I lived in Mexico City, the largest city in North America and the confluence of Mexico’s diverse regions, to try as many tacos as I could. I ended up with some flavorful memories, and some experiences that I now share.
The al pastor taco that we know today was invented in Mexico City. The pork is marinated in a blend of herbs and spices including achiote powder to produce its signature redness, then stacked layer by layer on the trompo. At dinner hour, you’ll find trompos spinning on every street corner in the city.
Perhaps the oldest al pastor shop in the city, El Huequito (which translates to “little hole”) has operated from its original hole-in-the-wall location in the Centro Histórico neighborhood since 1959. Although they now have a handful of locations across the city, I found the other locations to be just not as good. Their tacos, made from lightly marinated pork leg, have a great balance between the tender lean and chewy fat parts. Diced onions at the bottom of the spit collect the drips of pork fat, which are added after the taquero dips the tortilla in the accumulated meat and onion juice. The result is a taco with a light yet satisfyingly sweet flavor; they’re addicting, and one is never enough.
About 9 metro stops away from El Huequito is El Vilsito, a car repair shop by day that turns into a popular taqueria at night. Patrons park right in front to surround its 3 trompos, whose massive sizes put other places to shame. Because the vertical spits keep spinning from the constant flow of orders, the tacos are always fresh and piping hot, best enjoyed on the spot. The taco is small, but with an overabundance of pastor such that meat always falls out. Compared to El Huequito, it is notably more saliferous from the marinade. It comes with a slice of pineapple to balance the flavor.
As I order my tacos, the attendant asks me if I’m Korean or Japanese. He doesn’t really seem to care about the answer; before I even get to respond he’s off to a Toyota Hilux to deliver a fresh order of tacos. After ordering my sixth taco, he exclaims passionately to me that this is the best al pastor in the world, as if I have now also seen the light.
The other type of tacos that Mexico City is known for are beef offal: suadero, tripas, lengua, to name a few. For this, my go to was Los Cocuyos, probably the most famous taqueria in the city. Open 24 hours a day, Los Cocuyos is always bustling. In fact, when it closed for the first time in decades at the start of the pandemic, it couldn’t find a door.
Los Cocuyos will be the place I crave the most after leaving Mexico City. I came here very frequently during late nights, often for a second dinner. It offers many different cuts of braised beef; my go-tos are suadero (brisket), tripas (intestine), cachete (cheek), and lengua (tongue). What sets each apart isn’t the taste since they’re basically all stewed in the same big pot, but the textures. Suadero is a familiar brisket with a good bit of fattiness; tripas is chewy and crispy tripe that is first braised then fried to order; cachete is the soft and almost mushy cheek meat; lengua comes in large slices to display the tenderness of tongue, as opposed to the other meats that are enthusiastically chopped up. Every taco is packed with savoriness from being simmered in lard, deliciously juicy and greasy. Once you squeeze some lime and add their delicious spicy avocado salsa that just works on every type of taco, the taco is complete.
If you ever felt a taco was missing some crunch, Orinoco has the answer. The chicharrón tacos are made from deep fried belly, offering not just the rinds but also the meat and fat too. The texture is composed of these three parts: rind for the crackle, fat for the airy crisp, and meat for the dried crunch. Compared to other tacos, it’s a somewhat different eating experience; the focus becomes much more on textures than just the combination of flavors. That’s not to say the flavors fall short; avocado and pickled onions are added, and it comes with 5 salsas to choose from. I’ve found the creamy tzatziki sauce to be a great complement, along with a bit of salsa verde for spice.
If Orinoco was a gala of crunch, nothing epitomizes a flavor explosion better than El Pescadito’s fish tacos. On top of fish deep fried in lard, coleslaw, salsa, pico de gallo, pickled onions, mayonnaise and chipotle aioli come together to form a vibrant and exceptionally tall taco. Well, a taco until it falls apart after the first bite. It’s opulent as far as tacos go.
In fact, by the second time I came here, I started ordering the “tacos” without the tortilla and eating it like the world’s most unhealthy salad. It was just a mess to eat with hands, and everything fell apart anyway.
The fish at El Pescadito is lightly battered and come in small pieces, but my favorite is the fried shrimp. Namely, the quesotote taco has shrimp with a chile relleno, a deep fried chili stuffed with cheese — a delicious combination.
Molino El Pujol is a tortilleria first and foremost, a neighborhood shop that sells tortillas by the kilogram. Their tortilla making operation occupies most of the storefront and is proudly displayed to passers-by. This is where Pujol makes their tortillas.
There are only 2 tacos sold at Molino: an herb and an avocado taco. Both are vegetarian and fairly basic, more representative of pre-Columbian cuisine without domesticated livestock. The herb taco features quelites (a wild green) and a salty green salsa, honestly a bit too vegetal in taste for me. The aguacate taco (surprisingly, the Spanish word for avocado is not avocado) is composed of three avocado slices in a gentle and creamy mayonnaise, with a hoja santa leaf integrated into the blue corn tortilla. There is no flavor explosion here, but the taco still yields solid satisfaction.
According to some list, Pujol is the highest ranked restaurant in North America. It serves a taco omakase that elevates the taco and presents it in a fine-dining setting. The entire experience costs 2395 pesos, which if you do the math is roughly 20 times more expensive per taco than that of Los Cocuyos.
Chef Enrique Olvera uses the taco as a canvas to exquisitely express a microcosm of Mexican flavors in a modern and creative lens. For each taco, you could’ve removed the tortilla and would still have ended up with an outstanding dish. But there’s something elegant yet primitive about eating it like a taco; the flavors come with a backdrop of the tortilla, and no drop of flavor is missed. Pujol has a large focus on fresh ingredients, especially raw seafood, and the subtle interactions between them.
We start with the kampachi taco, a taco carefully layered with thin slices of kampachi fish and avocado. However, the key flavor is the kombu cure, the seaweed sauce at the bottom that emulates the essence of the ocean. This is followed by a campechana tostada of scallop and clam, with different textures in softness that interact delicately. The cauliflower, whose surface area soaks in so much flavor and provides great char, is the star of the next taco with a supporting peanut sauce. An acidic crab sope subsequently intensifies the flavors, then an expertly prepared octopus taco concludes the proceeding.
But was I even eating tacos anymore? I don’t know. None of these ingredients I had were familiar with the tacos you’d find right around the corner of Pujol. The primal flavors and satisfaction derived from eating a taco was gone, substituted for something far more refine.
Cariñito serves pork belly tacos only. It does them with a twist: all three of their pork belly tacos have different Asian influences, inspired by the owner’s experiences living in Asia. My favorite, the Cantonese taco, veers sweet from the hoisin sauce but is balanced by a homemade sriracha and a healthy amount of refreshing cucumber. The pork belly itself is delicious, confited for a long period of time before entering the deep fryer to offer both crunch, tenderness, and irresistible fattiness.
El Autentico Pato Manila has a duck taco that resembles Peking duck: it comes with hoisin sauce, cucumber, spring onion, and a big print of Mao Zedong telling you that it’s delicious. The difference however is that the wrap is a flour tortilla and it lacks the crispy duck skin, the key differentiator in the quality for Peking duck. The flavor profile is nonetheless basically the same, and it’s a great substitute at 20 pesos per taco on this side of the world.
At Tizne Tacomotora, I’m immediately welcomed by a thick smokiness one would not associate with a taqueria. All the tacos here are smoked and creatively put together: kalbi asada drawn from KBBQ, brisket with herbs and unripened tomato, exceptionally crispy pork belly mixed with garlic purée and charred dust, and a baby back ribs taco with a sauce like BBQ but actually made from morita chilis.
The show stopper here though is the ice cream taco. It comes in a hardened puff pastry, filled with a honey and butter ice cream light in flavor that goes satisfyingly well together. Chewy charred marshmallows top the taco, drizzled with caramel sauce. It feels like something you’d find at the Texas State Fair; it is perhaps heaviest taco I’ve had, but I leave immensely content.
If there was something I learned from my month in Mexico City, it’s that I’ll be back often. After I came back home, I stopped getting tacos. It was a little disheartening to realize that my favorite taquerias in the Bay Area came nowhere close to those in Mexico City. My perception of the food fundamentally shifted, but perhaps––indeed––I had seen the light.