Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tackling the Taco in Mexico City

Informal, exuberant, fast, yet satisfying, tacos are perfectly in tune with Mexico City. It was the powerhouse of pre-Hispanic America and still burns brightly today, mixing ancient traditions with high-tech, urban sophistication. Whether you’re in arty Roma, the centro histórico or well-heeled Polanco, pick your taquería and enjoy a taco or two alongside the 25 million locals.

Without setting foot outside the massive metropolis of Mexico City, travelers can experience cultures nearly 700 years apart, all in the midst of teeming humanity, streaming traffic, and – more often than not – the unmistakable sound of an approaching mariachi band. Mexico’s vast capital city is full of urban energy. Made up of a series of neighborhoods, each has a very distinct character, and many warrant exploration. It’s almost impossible to miss the historic downtown, which includes the huge Zócalo (the central square) and the ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor (the Great Temple). The best hotels are found in the elegant Polanco district, which sits alongside the vast green space of Chapultepec Park, near the renowned Anthropology Museum. Just outside the city, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon rise up in ancient Teotihuacán.
In such heady surroundings, the tasty, speedy taco could have been invented with the regular and robust refueling of Mexico City’s overwhelmed visitors in mind. In fact, however, its origins may well date back as far as the Mayans and Aztecs. It makes use of that most traditional of Mexican foodstuffs – the corn tortilla – and the ubiquitous taco is a mainstay of the national diet. The name “taco” is a generic way to describe some kind of filling wrapped inside a tortilla, so it’s essentially a Mexican-style sandwich. Many of the country’s indigenous crops feature as fillings, such as chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados, and beans, usually accompanied by some type of meat or fish.

Colorful trajineras (gondolas) offer a unique way to tour Xochimilco, an Aztec site just outside Mexico City
Most common at lunch time, tacos make ideal late-night snacks too, with recipes and ingredients varying according to family traditions and regional influences. The taco al pastor, or shepherd-style taco, is a favorite; this usually contains pork, sliced directly and showily from the rotisserie into the tortilla, although it can also be made with chicken or shredded steak. Fishy versions commonly consist of grilled or fried fish or shrimp along with lettuce or cabbage. The trick is to pile two or three of your choice onto a gaudy plastic plate, then retire to the condiments counter for lime, onion, cilantro, and guacamole, topped off with fiery salsa. Roll, fold, and devour – no cutlery required.

A taquería (taco restaurant) often has a maestro taquero, a master-taco maker

Best Places to Eat Tacos

El Califa
There are four El Califa taquerías in Mexico City, but the Condesa branch is the easiest to find, and it buzzes with a healthy mix of visitors and locals. This canteen-style restaurant is sufficiently stark and industrial to feel “authentic,” but the quality of its food and hygiene make it a perfect entry to the world of the taquería – start here, and head for the street stalls when you and your palate are ready! Vegetarians will struggle here, but carnivores can choose from various cuts of beef steak, rib, or chop, and chicken or pork. El Califa’s specialty is to serve the meat griddle-roasted and in whole pieces, rather than minced. Tortillas come to you fresh from the oven, liberally laden with melted Oaxaca cheese, golden from the grill.
Choose an al pastor (pork in guajillo chili salsa and grilled pineapple) and your marinated meat will be shaved off the spit in front of you. The gaonera (a slice of tender beef fillet with raw tomatillo sauce in a thick, handmade tortilla) is delicious. Take care when ordering from the salsa menu – they’re all hot, despite what the menu might say.
Altata 22, Condesa; open from 1 PM “until the early hours”;

Soft tacos – tortillas stuffed with spicy meat, beans, fresh vegetables, and jalapeño peppers – make a great picnic on the run

Also in Mexico City
El Borrego Viudo (“the widowed sheep”) (Avenida Revolución Tacubaya; inexpensive) is certainly authentic and well worth a late-night pilgrimage to this less-than-glamorous spot alongside the viaduct. Armies of servers clad in chef’s whites bustle around the cavernous feeding house, taking tacos out to drive-through clients in the huge parking lot. Open 24 hours a day, it specializes in tacos al pastor.
Also in Mexico
Around six hours’ drive southeast of Mexico City, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial cities. Follow the billowing smoke from Mercado 20 de Noviembre, an atmospheric and inexpensive food market, to find sizzling tacos. The stands are mostly frequented by local people, and best at lunch time; pick the stand with the longest line.
Around the World
Serving from a small gazebo with the menu propped up against it on a blackboard, Buen Provecho (inexpensive) is a one-man band consisting of Arturo Ortega Rodriguez, who serves up what must surely be London’s most authentic Mexican food. He’s in Waterloo (Lower Marsh) lunchtime market during the week and Elephant and Castle market on Sundays. Tacos come with a choice of marinated meat fillings, and the salsa is for sale, should you want to reproduce the experience at home.
What Else to Eat
 European and North American chain restaurants churning out “Mexican” dishes do no justice to a varied and imaginative national cuisine that makes full use of fresh indigenous produce.
When you’ve had all the tacos you can take, be sure to try tamales, tasty and inexpensive snacks often sold from baskets by street sellers and once eaten by pre-Colombians. A tamal is a steamed parcel of corn dough with a sweet or savory filling, wrapped within a corn husk or banana leaf. Alternatively, seek out a torta (sandwich) or tortilla containing nopal: chopped, de-spined prickly pear cactus “paddles,” or leaf pads, which look and taste a little like avocado.
Although Mexico City is inland, the fish dishes are superb; tuck into shrimp in tangy sauces from Veracruz or whole fish fresh from the market, accompanied by hot, fresh salsa.
A Day in Mexico City
One day is precious little time in a city as large and interesting as Mexico City, but with careful planning and taco-fueled stamina, it’s surprising how much can be enjoyed and achieved.
MORNING : Start the day in the cultural heart of the Centro Historico. In the huge main square (the Zócalo), take a guided tour of the ruined Aztec Templo Mayor and then drop into the National Palace to admire the Diego Rivera murals of revolutionary scenes.
AFTERNOON  :Take Line 2 of the metro as far south as it goes and change on to a Tren Ligero (light train) to explore the floating gardens of Xochimilco. It’s best on a Sunday, when it’s usually thronged with families and gaudily decorated barges. Join a punting trip and drift past lamb barbecues, mariachi musicians, and endless stalls.
EVENING : Begin with alfresco drinks in Plaza Garibaldi. Then choose between a top-flight restaurant or a simple eatery, before hopping into a taxi to Zona Rosa for late-night clubbing; or head for home, stopping off for churros and chocolate on the way.
Getting to Mexico City
Benito Juarez International Airport is 10 miles (16 km) east of the city, around 30 minutes by authorized taxi or the metro (Line 5). Get around the city on the excellent metro or use the iconic VW Beetle “bug” taxis.
Where to stay in Mexico City
Casa de la Condesa (inexpensive) is a modern, clean, and comfortable hotel in Roma Norte. All rooms have kitchens. www.casadelacondesa.netv
Hotel Casa Vieja (moderate) is a boutique gem in Polanco that offers luxurious suites and roof-terrace dining. www.casavieja.comv
Condesa DF (expensive): minimalist design hotel in upmarket Condesa with a noted Japanesefusion restaurant.
Above Soft tacos – tortillas stuffed with spicy meat, beans, fresh

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