Guide to Mexican Food: Tacos

There is nothing more Mexican than tacos, REAL tacos that is. If your idea of a taco is a crispy taco shell filled with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning and topped with lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream, I’ve got news for you: that is not a taco. Authentic Mexican tacos are simple, with one one or two ingredients and a few toppings to choose from. However, when you go out to get tacos there is a wealth of options for what goes inside.

Every taco starts with a tortilla, usually made fresh from corn masa. This humble tortilla (or two) is then loaded up with whatever type of meat or veggie you would like, cheese optional. Obviously the place you go to will determine what your options are, but below I’ve presented some common options for both sit-down taco places and stand-around-a-tall-table-on-the-sidewalk-stuffing-your-face places.

Meat Options:

Bistek: One of the most common tacos, they’re very thinly sliced steak cut up into bite sized pieces

Costilla: This means rib and it is indeed the rib bone and all the surrounding flavorful meat.

Chuleta: Pork chops.

Suadero: This is beef rib meat as well but braised until super tender, served without the bone.

Chorizo: Not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, Mexican chorizo is pork sausage that crumbles when it’s cooked and has a red color due to the spices inside. It’s pretty fatty but (I think) delicious.

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Lengua: This means tongue and it is literally a cow’s tongue. Sometimes it is cut up and sometimes presented in its entire glory atop your tortilla.

Cabeza: The head. I tend not to eat meat that is a recognizable body part so I’m not sure how this tastes or where exactly on the head of a cow this comes from but that is the general area.

Ojo: Continuing with abnormal (for Americans) cow body parts, we have the eye! It’s cut up and I cannot attest to the taste.

Cachete: This means cheek. This makes me narrow down cabeza to not include the cheek but again, I cannot attest to the taste.

Tripa: And to round out the section of things Americans think are gross to eat, we have tripe. Yup, that’s the intestine of a cow, yummmmm.

Campechanos: So this generally means a little bit of everything. It’s usually bistek and chorizo though sometimes it’ll mean suadero and chorizo.

Cochinada: When all the various meats are being cooked up on the grill and scooped into your taco, a little bit of meat invariably gets left behind. Once lots and lots of tacos have been made the left behind meat adds up and has gotten quite crunchy. Instead of throwing away these crunchy bits of bistek or suadero (or both) they put them in their own special taco.

Arrachera: Steak that has been aggressively tenderized and marinated to form a tender and flavorful piece of beef.

Carnitas: Pork that has been braised and simmered until it gets to a sort of melt in your mouth level of tender.

Barbacoa: Generally sheep’s meat that is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground filled with coal and covered in banana leaves and then with dirt to slow cook for hours and hours. The category of barbacoa has a lot of different options when you go to order according to the body type. You won’t find these tacos when you go out to a taco joint because they are breakfast tacos! They’re super popular to get as you’re leaving the city for the weekend and there are a plethora of places or tents that line the highways leaving Mexico City.

Al Pastor: This should almost be its own category as taco places can easily be distinguished between those that don’t serve al pastor and those that proudly display their trompo on the sidewalk or entrance. This type of preparation was influenced by the Lebanese population in Mexico and it’s basically pork sliced up and marinated in a very involved mixture of spices, chiles, and sometimes even a touch of citrus. The marinated pieces of meat are then pierced onto a metal spike to form the trompo, topped with a pineapple. The trompo gets spun around to cook evenly beside the (preferable) coal fire on one side. As people order tacos al pastor someone slices downwards on the trompo to get the meat for their taco.

You’ll see the trompo changing its shape as the day/night goes on, getting skinnier as more and more is cut off. I consider myself an almost vegetarian but I make an exception for al pastor, it is so delicious.

Veg Options:

Real vegetarians don’t despair, there are pretty much always vegetarian taco options wherever you go, though admittedly much less variety.

Nopales: A type of cactus that is widely eaten in Mexico, it is cut into strips and either sautéed or grilled.

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Hongos: Mushrooms cooked up until they’re nice and juicy. If you get it with cheese they might call it a Quesongo.

Rajas: Poblano peppers cooked with crema (Mexican sour cream but lighter) or cheese. They can occasionally be spicy so if you don’t tolerate any spiciness this may not be the greatest option for you.

Other Options:

Quesadillas: Mexico is divided between those who believe a quesadilla needs to contain cheese (pretty much all of Mexico) and those who believe the cheese in a quesadilla is optional (Mexico City residents). The argument of the chilangos is that quesadilla doesn’t come from the word queso but rather a náhuatl word which means folded. So if you go somewhere in Mexico City and order a quesadilla they may ask you if you want it with cheese (I was so confused the first time this happened to me). However, most taco places tend to assume that when you order a quesadilla there you want cheese. You can get a quesadilla with just cheese but also with meat or veg inside as well. So what still confuses me is what the difference is between say a mushroom taco with cheese and a mushroom quesadilla (besides the quesadilla being served folded and the taco open). Is it just the folded part? Anyone have any knowledge/ideas they want to share?

Volcanoes: This means volcano and it is an open tortilla that they’ve crunched up a bit on the grill and then top with cheese so it’s all melted and overflowing, hence the volcano. You can get this with some sort of meat on top as well.

Gringas: So this is basically a taco al pastor with cheese but is made with two flour tortillas laid out flat with all the cheesy al pastorness in between (I’m assuming the name comes from the use of a flour tortilla and maybe even the style being similar to how we make quesadillas in the U.S.). It is definitely delicious and having two larger tortillas makes it more food than a regular taco.

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Alambres: This is potentially my favorite thing to order when getting tacos. It’s a mixture of meat (usually al pastor) and sautéed onions and peppers held together by gooey cheese. You get this mixture on a plate and then get tortillas on the side so you can make your own tacos.

On the side at a sit down place you can get such items as guacamole, chicharón de queso (cheese cooked on the grill until made into a thin crispy sheet), queso fundido (melted cheese with other things thrown in sometimes served with tortillas), cebollitas (green onions cooked in soy sauce), or frijoles charros (pinto beans served at almost the consistency of a soup with bacon or some similar meat and onions and such). A lot of places will also give you chips and the salsas for your tacos are available on the table for dipping.

To Drink:

Pretty much anywhere you go for food in Mexico has aguas frescas: water flavored with fruit, flowers or rice with a fair amount of sugar. Taco places are no different and you can almost always find the agua fresca staples: agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) and horchata (like rice milk but made with water. Fun fact: horchata was originally and sometimes still is made from melon seeds). You’ll probably also be able to find a limonada (limeade) pretty much anywhere and of course there will probably be chelas (the very Mexican word for cerveza which is beer).

How to Order:

Like I mentioned at the beginning, do not expect your taco to come with lettuce, cheddar cheese and sour cream. You will get the meat or veggie you have requested and the normal toppings are diced onions and cilantro. If you get one of the al pastor options, your taco or gringa will also come with chopped pineapple. So if they ask you if you want IMG_6743your taco “con todo,” they are referring to those two or three things. If you would prefer to not have one of those toppings just let them know. Salsas are at your table for you to choose which one you’d like and how much but be careful, salsas can be really spicy! Fun story, when my Mom visited Mexico I took her to a taco place and she loaded up a chip with a salsa that has some avocado in it so it looks sort of like guac but is really quite spicy and she was almost unable to eat the rest of her meal. It was quite funny for everyone else but I’ve never seen her eyes get that big! I always sample tiny drops first to see if the spice level is appropriate for my taste before loading up my tacos. And of course you can’t forget to squeeze some lime juice on top, the fresh acidity really brings out the rest of the flavors.

Whatever you decide to order, make sure to enjoy every last finger lick.

¡Provecho!

 

P.S. If you found this article interesting, go check out Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Episode 2 is an entire hour devoted to discussing and eating tacos in Mexico and the U.S. You’ll thank me later.

Getting around Mexico City

Traveling within Mexico City can possibly be the most daunting part of visiting or living here. Besides the massive amount of people (23 million in the metropolitan area), the city is spread out far in every direction. Getting from one end to the other takes about 2 hours without the traffic that the city is infamous for. I’m lucky to live quite close to my work and my commute takes 40 minutes door to door. Germán is not so lucky – his commute is upwards of 1½ hours one way and requires a combination of walking, three metro lines and biking or a bus at the end. If you’re here as a tourist and can choose when you use what type of transportation it can actually be somewhat pleasant and can give you a deeper look into the local culture. So here are your options along with some pros and cons to consider when choosing how to get around.

Car

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Image from http://www.conciertosmx.com/trafico-cdmx/

Whether you are driving or taking a taxi/Uber, the most important thing to consider with a car is the traffic. On a Friday before a long weekend that also corresponds to a quincena (paydays are every 15th and 30th of the month – so are called quincenas since quince means fifteen) the city will be packed with cars trying to leave the city and inadvertently getting on the highway at this time probably means sitting in the car for a half hour just to get off at the next exit. So check out Google Maps before getting a taxi, around rush hour as it’s very probable that driving somewhere will take you longer than in metro.

In terms of street taxis vs. Uber/Lyft/Cabify, the ride hailing services win due to security concerns. Street taxis have been known to rob or even kidnap passengers so it’s not a good idea as a foreigner to hail a taxi off the street. Plus, most of the time they are more expensive than an Uber, which will cost you anywhere from $2 to $8. An exception to this are taxi sitios, basically a collective that you can call and schedule a taxi pickup. These taxis will have the sitio information painted on the rear window and use radios to stay in touch with the dispatcher and are considered safe. If you don’t have cell service then pretty much any place you are at can call a taxi for you from one of these sitios.

Metro

If there’s a ton of traffic or you want to experience the authentic CDMX commute, then the metro is the best option to get to most areas of the city. It costs 5 pesos (or 25 cents) per ride so it’s used extensively by the working class and those of the middle class who are sick of the traffic. In my opinion it’s one of the easiest to navigate metros that I’ve experienced with a system of colors with a name and picture for each station (due to high levels of illiteracy). Overall the trains and stations are slightly to very dingy though the newer lines are a lot nicer in terms of cleanliness and conveniences like verbal announcements for the stops and TVs. In true Mexican fashion, you are able to buy anything from hair elastics to gum to pirated CDs from the vendors who walk through the cars yelling out their sing-song announcements. You can also hear music which varies from blind people singing karaoke style with a backpack speaker to a solo didgeridoo player to three person bands with electric guitars covering 90s rock. There are also all kinds of beggars walking around barefoot, occasionally with children in tow, either making speeches or handing out little slips of paper which tell their story then coming back around to collect the papers and any money that you feel inclined to give them. The stations can also be experiences in and of themselves, complete with murals, museums, cartoons and vendors of food and hair accessories.

There are, however, definite security concerns on the metro. Due to the high volume of people passing through it is the favorite hangout for pickpockets who are mainly on the prowl for smart phones. They work in groups and will usually scope you out on the platform then as the train arrives they’ll start pushing and shoving you, which does sometimes happen when the metro is really crowded and everyone is trying to get on. But in these cases they’ll take advantage of your distraction to grab your phone from whatever pocket or purse compartment it is in then turn around to go sell it in the places that buy used electronics. The metro police aren’t too much help with this as some of these groups give them a kickback for doing nothing. To avoid being a target for these groups it’s a good idea to not take your phone out once you enter the metro and to keep it in a place that’s hard to get at.

Despite the prevalence of pickpockets there’s something special about the CDMX metro that makes me feel comfortable using it daily – the women’s only section. The first few cars are reserved for women, children and elderly people (although usually only during peak hours). Although this started for the unfortunate reason of women being sexually assaulted on the metro, it has resulted in an area that is usually much less crowded than the rest of the train so you may even get a seat or at least not have to be crowded in like sardines with the hot stale air providing no relief. Especially after I got my phone stolen by a group of men on the metro I’ve come to cherish the women’s section even more.

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The other downside of the metro is that it does not reach every neighborhood in Mexico City. Luckily, there are more options for getting to places where the metro doesn’t go.

Metrobus

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The metrobus is a newer addition to the transport options in the city and is noticeably cleaner and more mechanized (a machine sells you tickets instead of a person). The cost is slightly higher than the metro but still only 6 pesos, or 30 cents. The main line (Red or 1) runs through Avenida Insurgentes, the main thoroughfare through the commercial/business areas and will get you all the way to Tlalpan, one of the southernmost areas in Mexico City. It gets to be even more crowded than the metro though you do get some fresh air through the windows and once again, the women’s section is mostly less crowded (though it can get to be really full and the women are really fierce getting on and off). The metrobus travels through a private dedicated lane so you’re able to breeze by the cars sitting in traffic although crowded intersections will still slow you down a bit.

Peseros/Microbuses

Peseros are privately run microbuses that used to cost one peso (hence the name) that have sprung up in areas where there are no city-run transportation options or for more local transit. Being more informal, there are no maps available online to show where they go, rather, they have signs on their front dashboards that say the places that they will pass by. You really need to know the area where you are going in order to use peseros because in addition to not having published routes, they also don’t have established stops. When it’s time for you to get off you have to get up and approach the door where there is a button to press to request a stop (or if it’s broken you have to yell over the cumbia music to the driver to stop and let you out). To get on you have to hail a ride as you would a taxi and between everyone getting on and off the peseros will swerve back and forth to stop on the side of the street then speed up to zip through traffic in the middle lanes. Drivers are financially incentivized to crowd in as many passengers as possible so they also fill up to the point where you’ll see multiple people hanging out the door as the pesero speeds along. Trying to get out at these moments is quite the challenge though when people get on through the back and can’t reach the driver other passengers are very accustomed to passing the money for the fare up towards the driver and then passing back the change. Peseros cost between 5 and 6 pesos depending on the size or more if you’re going a far distance. I feel like peseros really encompass Mexico City culture but I wouldn’t recommend them to tourists unless they have a deep knowledge of the city.

Trolebús

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Image from Quinto Poder

The electric trolley bus travels through and to the outskirts of the city with the main line running parallel but on the opposite side of the city as the metrobus. Unlike the peseros, this is city-run transit so there are programmed stops and you get a slip of paper for your ticket as you enter (I’ve heard that you should hang on to this because if you were involved in an accident on the trolley bus this would serve as proof that you were a passenger and your medical costs would be covered). On the cleanliness spectrum it’s less clean than the metrobus but generally a little cleaner than the metro. At 4 pesos it’s even cheaper than the metro and although it has a semi-dedicated lane to use, cyclists, peseros and parked cars tend to occupy this lane as well so you get the same swerving back and forth as in the pesero and sometimes get slowed down by traffic.

Biking

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The biking trend has definitely arrived to Mexico City and you’ll see expert bike commuters zipping through traffic and occasionally through intersections. I have attempted to commute to work on a bike when I worked closer to my house but I only did it once as I am honestly not the most comfortable with urban biking on main roads during rush hour. There are definitely areas (like Roma and Condesa) which are more bike friendly but the city is creating bike lanes all around. Another great option if you don’t have your own bike or if you are linking together metro and biking within your commute is the Ecobici. It’s a bike sharing program that has 480 bike stations around the city. It’s not in every area but in the areas where it exists there are stations evenly and frequently spread out to make it a popular option for local travel. You need a pass (annual with a Mexican bank account or daily for tourists) and with the pass you’re able to check out a bike free of charge for up to 45 minutes at which point you have to return it to a station. There’s an app you can download to see the stations near you and even if they have bikes or not or if there are only a few. The bikes are usually not in the absolute best shape but they all have lights and are comfortable to ride. It’s a great way to take a quick trip to the bank or to get around the hip neighborhoods that have tree-lined bike and pedestrian lanes in the middle of streets.

Walking

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Due to the sprawling nature of the city walking is not a practical option if you want to go to another area of the city. Within neighborhoods, walking can be a great option in some areas (Del Valle, Condesa, Centro, Roma, etc.) or practically impossible in others (Santa Fe, Xochimilco or some areas of Tlalpan). However, mostly all the touristy areas are pedestrian-friendly and strolling around can be a great way to experience the city.

However you chose to get around there’s lots to see and experience in Mexico City, even the transportation itself if you let go of your strict timeline and take it all in.