By José C. Marmolejo
The only thing all tacos have in common is the tortilla. What goes inside and the salsa on top of it, that’s what makes the difference. The combinations are infinite. We are referring to the countless types of tacos that can be found in the Mexico City streets—more likely sidewalks.
One of my favorite “symbols” is the big basket—often in the back of a bicycle—lined with a blue piece of plastic. Yes, a sky blue colored plastic liner, no other color is used. It’s a standard that seems to be surreptitiously adopted by all tacos de canasta vendors. These guys have also adopted the same technique for displaying and dispensing the salsa: a reused commercial size jar of mayonnaise hanging with a cord or wire from the side of the basket. By the way, tacos de canasta are the cheapest, greasiest and most flavorful of mid-morning snacks. Chicharrón are my favs. Only $6 pesos each; that’s 3 tacos for a bit less than $1 USD.
Tacos al pastor will be available when you see a big chunk of red colored meat on a vertical grill from the distance—more often than not obstructing the sidewalk. Curiously enough, the technique—roasting on a vertical grill—was imported from the Middle East, and the pork from Spain, but the seasoning on the meat is from the Yucatan peninsula spiced up with chiles from the north of Mexico (recipe below). These are the favorite tacos of all the foreigners I interviewed! They are quite affordable: $8 pesos each and some places have them two-for-one!
Another popular symbol is a wooden box on top of a table (which is being slowly replaced by an orange plastic crate). It’s hard to believe that you would sell some hot food out of a wooden box or plastic crate, but the fact is that sheep barbacoa that has been wrapped in agave leaves and cooked on coals in a pit or a wood burning oven overnight, needs to be transported to the place of business. What better way than a box or crate as long as it’s kept wrapped in the vegetable leaves and a piece of cloth?
Now, if you run into a big stainless steel frying pot that can be noticed from a distance because it’s big, shiny, and has been placed ostensibly on a sidewalk, you are being welcomed to tacos de carnitas de puerco. The fact that the frying set up is obstructing the peaceful transit of pedestrians has a purpose. It’s only a marketing trick: see, smell, purchase. Clever!
Once you have chosen the type of tacos you want to experience, other issues that are seldom addressed by Mexicans arise: the size of the tortillas and whether single or double tortilla tacos are offered. More is better and it’s not going to cost you more but will have an impact on the food cost for the taquero. Corn tortillas come in different sizes starting at 11 cm in diameter and up to 15 cm, that’s between 4 and 6 inches in diameter. After an order of a few pounds, the tortillería master will adjust the machine to make the size and the amount the taquero requires. This gives room for many combinations and possible cost cutting for the taquero. The smaller the tortilla the less filling used. More tacos will be consumed, and if a double tortilla is provided you will feel satisfied at a lower food cost. Now, if you are nice to the taquero and he gets to know and like you, he will throw extra filling at no extra charge. Needless to say I have personally invested time and effort in getting to know a few taco masters. After I get what I want, I divide the filling in the two tortillas provided and make myself two tacos… for the price of one!
One way to get noticed—and liked—by the taquero is to ask for your tacos “light”. I said that loud and in English, a term everybody understands nowadays. This causes the taquero—as well as the patrons—to raise his head and eyebrows, and look at me which is my cue to clarify: one tortilla only! It’s also a sarcasm that make everybody smile since tacos are not considered “light” by no one, and if you like tacos—like every Mexican does—you are not going to leave the taquería before you stuffed yourself. Alka Seltzer time!
Tacos de Alambre
These are beef and vegetables tacos prepared on a griddle or a heavy pan really quick. Warning: the smell will make you think you are not cooking enough meat.
2 lbs. of any soft steak meat in strips
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 green bell pepper chopped
3 to 6 chiles serranos chopped
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
Salt to taste
18 corn tortillas
On a heavy pan, use a thin layer of oil to brown the meat on medium heat. Add the onion, peppers and the chiles, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and salt and cook for another 3 minutes. Heat the tortillas, make yourself some tacos and enjoy it!
Yield: 18 tacos
Heat level: medium to hot
Tacos de Longaniza con queso
Longaniza is a Mexican sausage and if it is tied into small portions is called chorizo. It can be found in Mexican butcher shops or supermarkets with Mexican ingredients sections. This tacos are very easy to prepare and work wonders for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
1 lb. longaniza or chorizo
½ lb. Monterey Jack cheese grated
½ onion chopped
2 to 4 chiles serranos chopped
On a heavy pan, use a thin layer of oil, sautée the longaniza/chorizo breaking it into small pieces, add the onions and chiles and sautée for 3 more minutes. In a griddle heat the tortillas and add a layer of cheese. When the cheese begins to melt add the cooked longaniza/chorizo over the cheese. Fold the tortilla into a taco and let it sit on the griddle for a couple of minutes and serve.
Yield: 12 tacos
Heat level: medium to hot