By Jeremy Schwartz
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
MEXICO CITY — The faithful gather beneath a bridge, drawn by the smell of grilling steak strips and frying sausages. If tacos are holy in Mexico City (and surely they are), then for many, the Chupacabras food stall beneath the freeway Rio Churrubusco is the shrine.
It's lunchtime and the line of office clerks, college students and construction workers spills out onto the street.
"Everybody comes here," says Karla Chavira, a 27-year-old saleswoman. "You ask anyone and they will tell you. These are the best tacos."
I make my way to the front of the line and order the house special, a mix of steak, sausage and cecina, a thin
flank of beef. The sign above the stall claims there are 127 secret spices in the marinade. The taco is delicious; the flavors of the meat mingle with a creamy avocado salsa and perfectly cooked beans. I am hooked.
And so begins my quest for Mexico City's best street food.
The Mexican capital is one of the world's great street food cities, on par with places such as Bangkok, Thailand; New Delhi, India; and Shanghai, China. Every corner, it seems, teems with gorditas, huaraches, sopes, pambazos and, of course, tacos. Unfortunately, worries about its effect on stomachs have scared many tourists away from street food, but for those willing to take a chance, the rewards can be glorious.
"The best Mexican food is the food of the people, and that's the stuff that you find on the street and in the markets," says José Iturriaga, a historian who has written more than 20 books about Mexican cuisine. "There are no concessions in these stalls to gastronomical fashion. These are time-tested recipes."
I collected recommendations from friends and co-workers and built up a formidable list of local favorites.
As my week of gluttony progressed, I realized that trying the city's best street food is not only a way to pleasure my taste buds but a way to explore parts of the megalopolis that don't make it into the guidebooks. The only stomach distress that resulted from my tour came from stuffing myself at my first stop.
My tasting tour began at a stand in far southern Mexico City that sells tortas, a kind of a Mexican sub sandwich. Tortas are made with fresh rolls, avocado and jalapeños and filled with anything edible that the imagination can fathom.
The plain street stall, which sits in the middle-class and tourist-free neighborhood of Coapa (near the canals of Xochimilco), has a dedicated fan base with touching tributes on the Web. The place is called Muertortas (a play on the words torta and muerte, or death), and when I arrived, I learned why.
Muertortas is famous for its massively huge tortas. The biggest, the Cubana, weighs in at 4.4 pounds of ham, pork, cheese, hot dogs and onions. The stall gives them away free to anyone who can put away two. Only one person in the 25-year history of Muertortas has managed the feat.
The Cubana was too much torta for me, so I ordered the Lambada, which is stacked high with marinated pork, chorizo, white cheese and a fried egg. Once I figured out how to take a bite, it was scrumptious. The other customers, I learned, were addicts. "If we are in the neighborhood, we come straight here. It's the first thing we think about," said Jonathan Luna, munching on a torta of hot dogs, pineapple and breaded meat with his fiancée.
The next stop was for carnitas in the remarkably low-key local market of the Del Valle neighborhood, near the Mexico City bullfighting ring. Carnitas, slow-cooked pork (it's deep-fried and crispy in some places), is a weekend lunchtime favorite for Mexican families — it's hard to find any in the city after 4 p.m. The best carnitas, several locals told me, are served up by Jorge Martínez, whose great-grandmother started the business in 1935 as a street stand. Like many of the most successful places, the carnitas stall migrated to the market and became a sit-down restaurant.
Martínez simmers his carnitas with milk and orange juice, and the result is creamy, succulent pork. Carnitas include nearly every part of the pig, from the snout to the stomach. Regular pork is called maciza and is often mixed with more exotic cuts. I tried a taco of maciza and cuero, basically slow-cooked — not fried — pork rinds. It was sinfully fatty and greasy, the cuero nearly melting inside my taco and bathing the pork in yummy goodness. My arteries cried out for mercy, but my taste buds called for more.
After the tortas and the carnitas, I needed something a little lighter. I headed the next day to the market in the Coyoacán neighborhood, a couple of blocks away from legendary artist Frida Kahlo's famous blue house, for some tostadas.
Mexico City residents will argue to the death over the best tacos in the city, but there seems to be almost universal agreement that the Coyoacán market has the city's best tostadas. Tostadas are flat, crunchy tortillas topped with avocado, sour cream, shredded lettuce and a dizzying array of fillings. Inside the cavernous market, dozens of heaping platters tempt passers-by. The market serves up the traditional favorites of shredded chicken and pigs' feet, but also more exotic fillings such as octopus, ceviche and crab.
I tried the surimi, a heavenly mix of shrimp, cilantro, mayonnaise and crab, ordered a fresh pineapple juice and tucked into the meal. Next to me a group of necktie-clad bankers ordered a steady stream of exotic tostadas.
Feeling somewhat refreshed, and even a tiny bit healthy, I was ready to resume hard-core street food tasting. The next day I headed downtown to try some tacos al pastor, Mexico City's equivalent to the ubiquitous New York City pizza slice.
A direct descendant of the Middle Eastern gyro, al pastor consists of big cones of pork spinning vertically on spits. Though it emerged in Mexico only about 50 years ago, tacos al pastor has become the quintessential Mexico City food and is spreading inexorably through the country and into the U.S.
Since 1959, El Huequito has been making what many claim are the city's best tacos al pastor. The name of the place means "little hole" and that's exactly what the stall is — a closet-sized place that requires customers to eat on the sidewalk. Although the location is humble, El Huequito has grown over time. There are now two El Huequito restaurants in more posh parts of town and a catering business. But the hole in the wall on a busy downtown street remains the original.
Guillermo Buendia Gonzalez, who's been selling tacos at El Huequito for 30 years, explained what it takes to make a perfect al pastor taco. First, pork filets are marinated in a secret sauce (most street chefs guard their spices and marinades as though their lives depend on it) and then layered to make the famous orb. It takes an expert hand to correctly and thoroughly cook the meat, spinning it with an exact geometry. Finally the salsas: El Huequito uses two that are renowned throughout the city: a fiery green salsa mixed with chunks of avocado and a sublime orange salsa made of a secret blend of chiles.
The tacos are a revelation; the meat is perfectly crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside.
"This place is on another level," says Eduardo Diaz, an electrical engineer who has been coming to El Huequito since 1990. "The tacos just have a very special taste. You can't pass by without eating some."
With that, my gastronomical tour of Mexico City ended, for now.
Iturriaga, the historian and food expert, tells me that perhaps the single best taco in the city is the "taco de ojo," a taco made of cow eyes, sold in a market just a few blocks from my house. "They are extraordinary," he insists.
I think I'm just going to have to try one.
Street food safety
Getting sick is always a worry when eating street food in Mexico City, and a case of Montezuma's revenge can quickly spoil a trip south of the border. It's necessary to balance a thirst for adventure with common sense. Eating street food might be less dangerous than in the past (Mexico City's tap water has become safer and more street vendors are practicing better hygiene), but you still need to take some precautions. Here are some tips:
Market stalls tend to be safer and cleaner than those on the street.
Get recommendations from locals: Mexico City residents also get sick from some bacteria, and unsafe places quickly get a bad reputation.
Look for lines: The most popular places also tend to be the cleanest.
Lots of lime: Some street food fanatics swear that by drowning their tacos in lime juice, they can ward off bad bacteria.
Others say grapefruit seed extract taken along with a street food meal keeps their stomachs healthy.
Home remedies include drinking olive oil and bicarbonate of soda before a meal.