Writing and Photography by José C. Marmolejo
Ask any Mexican where can you find some good tacos and you just earned a free 15 minute lecture—rant—on tacos. It seems impossible that two individuals agree on the subject. Every Mexican has a different opinion, his is the most important, and he will defend it until you interrupt and say “I got to go”. You will be left dizzy with more information about tacos that you bargained for.
But every once in a while you will run into a real taco expert. You can identify him right away. It’s easy. After you ask him “where can I find some good tacos?” he will answer you with another question: what kind would you like to have? Al pastor? Barbacoa? Carnitas? De Guisado? De Canasta? Oh boy! Now you are in trouble…
One afternoon, I was at a friend’s butcher shop and business was dead slow. The two butchers, my friend the owner and I, were just “shooting it” and it occurred to me to ask for the best tacos around since they were suppliers to a bunch of “Taquerías” and they should’ve known—so I thought. Well, the discussion lasted almost an hour, no one could agree on anyone else’s opinion, and as it turned out, everyone knew a place—far away of course—where the tacos were worth the trip. Curiously enough, none of their recommendations were for any of their customers! The discussion turned into an ego game, a contest of descriptions intended to see the others salivate, and that one who described the experience better—and took the longest to finish his intervention—knew more than the rest and therefore would win the subliminal contest.
One definite beauty about tacos in Mexico is the fact that whenever hungry you can find a taco stand ready to serve you. It can be midday or midnight there’s always a place to go and calm your hunger. Five in the morning? No problem, there will be one shop open where the crowd is a mix of intoxicated after party animals in need to sober up and the early birds going to work in need to clock in at six with a full stomach.
The variety of tacos seems infinite. One time, I was hired to do a Taco Tour in Mexico City for a Chef and a restauranteur from New York City. They were considering to set up a taco chain in the U.S. and wanted to know more about the subject. It seemed like a fun and easy task. The truth is that it was difficult to decide where to start, what territory we should cover and how to make the best of what I thought four hours would be enough. It turned out that we barely scratched the surface in the morning in La Merced market, concentrating in fillings. We took on the afternoon to visit the food stalls in the outskirts of Mexico City—we had to— to jump into the wrappings: the different results that can be obtained between machine and hand made tortillas; the different types of masa and mixes with industrialized and non-industrialized corn flour; fried, non fried, and semi-fried tortillas.
Typical salsa setup in a taqueria
The experience was fun and above all enlightening. I had never stopped to think at the amazing variety of ingredients we had at our disposal and the resulting combinations. As usual, the Chef, the restaurateur and me, had different opinions as of what tacos should be sold in the U.S. Since no agreement would be reached there and then—or anywhere else—the moral of the story should be: the best tacos are the ones you like best. Please find below three taco recipes —along with its corresponding salsas—that illustrate my favorites: Tacos de Carnitas, any day around 10 am; Tacos de Pescado, definite for lunch; and for dinner: Tacos de Arrachera—Fajitas. Please let me know which are the best…
Brown the meat carefully in medium flame in a deep cast iron pot with half of the lard. Add the orange juice, the herbs and the salt. Add water just to cover the meat and bring it to a boil and then simmer for about two hours stirring frequently and allowing reduction.
Cooking time will vary depending on water and fat content of the meat but expect at least two hours on the fire. A slow cooker would do a nice job. Serve chopped over warm soft tortillas, garnish with finely chopped onion and cilantro, and the salsa is a must.
Cut the fish in bite size chunks and sautée lightly while adding the chopped onion and serranos.
Once the onion is translucent, add the garlic, one minute after, add the tomato. Salt to taste and remove from fire after the tomatoes are cooked. All cooking should be around 10 minutes. Serve over warm tortillas and dress with the green salsa.
Salsa Verde con Aguacate
Using the “pulse” button in your blender or food processor mix the tomatillos, onion, serranos, half of the avocado and half of the cilantro to a rough texture. We want to imitate a rustic salsa out of a molcajete. Place the mix on a bowl. Cut the rest of the avocado into small cubes and rough chop the cilantro, and throw both on top of the salsa.
In a charcoal grill using mesquite or oak charcoal, cook the meat that has been salted to your taste over coals (avoid flames).
Once the meat is ready remove and heat the tortillas on the grill. Slice the meat and make tacos adding slices of avocado and salsa on top.
Place more tortillas over the coals until they become tostadas. Reserve. Once you are done with the meat, prepare yourself some tostadas with avocado or guacamole or salsa. Cerveza improves the experience.
Mix the ingredients in a molcajete or a blender (pulse mode) avoiding a purée consistency. A rough texture is desired.