Run for the Border: Mexico City's Essential Tacos

By goodfoodmexicocity on October 4th, 2016

The taco. There's not much to it; or so it would seem. Tortilla, filling, salsa: it’s as simple as that. It's a generic term in Mexico, yet often confusing to foreigners. The taco is a concept as wide open to interpretation as “sandwich.” The Americanized hard shell hamburger meat version, purveyed by one Mr. Bell, is scoffed at by Mexicans -- if they’ve heard of it at all. In Mexico, the phrase to “echarse un taco” - down a taco - is synonymous with the act of eating. Tortillas, flat cakes made of corn, have been consumed since pre-Hispanic times and the idea of wrapping food in them is surely older than the hills. And now tacos are popular around the world.

National Taco Day was initiated in 2009 and this year falls on Oct. 4.  To help celebrate, ExtremeFoodies asked our long-time contributor from Mexico City, Nicholas Gilman, to recommend the best tacos in the country’s capital.

The following is excerpted and adapted from his book, “Mexico City’s Best Tacos.”

Taco de Milanesa De Jamón Y Queso @ Los Milanesos

Taco de Milanesa De Jamón Y Queso at Los Milanesos
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

Tacos El Calvario, its official name, is known to its many fans as “Los Milanesos.” Nothing more than an extended puesto – stand - under a tent, it is perpetually surrounded by its many fans. Los Milanesos is so-named because of the exquisite and notoriously huge tacos of milanesa  - breaded, fried beef, chicken or ham and cheese. Pre-formed patties are deep fried on demand, sliced in even strips and piled on two warm tortillas. Quick frying keeps the meat succulent; a dollop of rustic salsa verde or roja adds kick. Optional cheese is superfluous. While milanesa is the house special, several rich saucy guisados are always on hand, served out of huge, battered aluminum pots: options are pork rib in adobo, chicharrón with nopal or suadero with nopal.

Tacos al pastor @ El Huequito

Tacos al pastor at El Huequito 
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

This is one of the classic places to sample tacos al pastor – pork marinated in chile and spices and cooked on a vertical spit. El Huequito, which means “little hole in the wall,” is a standing-room-only operation founded in 1959, and claims to be the first place in the city to serve these tacos. At El Huequito, the sliced meat is bathed in a moderately picante salsa of chile de árbol, enhanced with chopped onion and cilantro, then rolled in its small tortilla. Several salsas are available for serious chileros, aka chili lovers. The meat is juicy and succulent, with a smoky grilled aroma that lingers; the balance of salty, spicy, sweet and umami is just about perfect.

Taco de Chilorio @ La Tonina

Taco de Chilorio @ La Tonina
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

Tonina, which opened its doors more than 65 years ago, specializes in tacos from the northern states of Mexico, and may be the only place in town that does. All of the guisados – stews - are meat based; flavors don’t stray from a fairly narrow range. Chilorio, the house special, recalls the taste of that Tex-Mex classic chili con carne, only here it’s beanless. A favorite in the markets of Sinaloa, it is pork cooked with dried chile Colorado, garlic, oregano, cumin and vinegar. It resembles Cuban ropa vieja but with a kick. 

Tacos de Tripa con Chorizo @ Los Cocuyos  

Tacos de Tripa con Chorizo @ Los Cocuyos
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

This stand-up only spot features every part of the cow you’ve ever heard of, and a few you haven’t.  It’s been lauded on TV by one vociferous food maven and for good reason – it’s top in its category. Try a taco of chewy but flavorful suadero – brisket - or melt-in-your-mouth mollejas – sweetbreads. Best of all, however, is the tripe, cooked until buttery tender in fat made smoky by the chorizo that bathes lazily nearby, then “refreshed” on the griddle to give it a crispy edge.

Tacos de Pescado a la Talla @ Tacos El Patán

Tacos of Pescado a la Talla @ Tacos El Patán
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

Buried between kitschy stuffed animal shops in a busy street near edgy Tepito is an extraordinary daytime set-up specializing in fish tacos. Doña Maribel and family prepares fish the way it’s done in her hometown, Lázaro Cardenas on Michoacán’s Pacific coast. Pescado a la Talla might be known to denizens of Contramar or the rustic beaches near Acapulco. But Mari explains, while flipping a 5 kilo sierra, that “THEY use adobo, we do ours with pico de gallo.” The whole sierra – an oily cousin of mackerel perfect for grilling – is splayed open the long way, grilled on one side over a charcoal barbecue, then flipped. It is then removed and placed in foil, slathered with mayonnaise (the secret ingredient, like it or not), chile-infused oil and the aforesaid pico de gallo. It is wrapped and returned to the grill to finish. When done, the contents are scraped off for corn-tortilla tacos. Limes, a fiery chile-oil laden salsa and coleslaw are provided to augment the proceedings.

Tacos de Cochinita Pibil @ El Habanerito

Tacos de Cochinita Pibil @ El Habanerito
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

El Habanerito is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that offers some of the best Yucatecan food in town. It is run by the affable young Joselin Dzul (whose Mayan last name means “gentleman”). Although she grew up in the capital, her grandmother was Yucatecan and her recipes have been passed on to Joselin, who felt it was time to show the world how her grandmother’s cochinita was really supposed to be done. She explains that while due to the urban setting she has no “pib” or traditional clay oven, the marinated meat is cooked in the oven wrapped in banana leaves to give it more depth of flavor. Six traditional fiery salsas are offered, as are two types of pickled onion. 

Tacos de Carnitas @ Azul (El Capote)

Tacos de Carnitas @ Azul.JPG
Courtesy of Good Food in Mexico City

Carnitas are whole pig cooked in its own fat, confit style. This humble, hard-to-spot locale just outside the Metro Insurgentes circle, is star chef Enrique Olvera’s favorite – he sends chefs from all over the world here to sample taquero Rubén Martinez’ succulent offerings. It was a guarded secret until now: Word is out!

To purchase “Mexico City's Best Tacos” by Nicholas Gilman, go to:

Amazon US 
Amazon UK 
Kindle US
Kindle UK 

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Meet the author

Mexico City

Nicholas Gilman was born in New York City. Traveling to Mexico City as a teenager he became interested in the traditions of Mexican painting and culture. He worked as an assistant curator at the Hispanic Society of America for several years and later enrolled in The New York Academy of Art to study classical painting and sculpture. A painter as well as a food writer, he has shown his work extensively in the USA and Mexico. He has studied gastrono…... More