travelog 62

Variations in Taco

If we don't tell you about plants, then it's for sure we tell you about something culinary to make your mouth water. On virtually every corner, at most intersections, at bus stations, in front of office and government buildings, around the main plaza, at gas stations, on the beach and in public parks, in a word, wherever there are people, there's a taco stall in Mexico. A taco in Mexico looks totally different than in Mexican restaurants in Europe and the US, or even in one of the Mexican fast food chains found almost everywhere in the US. Here in Mexico a taco consists of a corn tortilla varying in size that is filled with meat or fish depending on each stall. The tacos are often sprinkled with chopped onions and cilantro, then different salsas are added. Don't forget the lime juice.

We think these taco stalls are a brilliant idea. How many times did we travel around Europe and suddenly feel the urgent need for something to eat. We were not really hungry but we felt like eating something small. What to do? Good question, because in Europe it's almost impossible to find something small. In a restaurant you have to order a salad, or you can get a sandwich that is really small, but nonetheless, costs a fortune. For all these hunger attacks, there's a taco stall in Mexico. Whether you order a lot or a little you can keep adding to your order until you are finished. You don't pay until the end of your meal. The owners of the taco stall have confidence that you won't beat it without paying after your delicious meal. Most stalls have some place to sit down, either on a few plastic chairs on the sidewalk or on benches at long tables. Now we can already hear your objections about how unhygienic and dangerous all these places can be. Of course you don't sit down at every taco stall, and of course a clean looking taco place is no guarantee that you won't catch something bad. But our experience, until now, is that at taco stalls people prepare only a certain amount of food. If the meat is gone, they pack their things and close the place for the day. In restaurants, you risk that certain foods and salsas will be taken out of the refrigerator again and again, and after closing-time these things will be stored until the next day when they're served again. In any case, tourists, after all they read, expect to catch Moctezuma's Revenge when traveling to Mexico. To avoid contact with dirty water, some places throw the plates into plastic bags. That saves them from washing the dishes but it also produces unnecessary garbage. Money is normally received by a cashier who does not touch the food or by the cook who puts on plastic gloves when receiving money. Eyewash, we hear you murmur. Nevertheless, we won't let you spoil our appetite!

In cities there are small taco stalls but also restaurants that specialize in tacos. Until about 2pm one place is open and after that it's another place around the corner that serves customers until the wee hours of the morning. In little villages, tacos can also be sold out of pickup trucks where the trunk serves as the stall. The bed of the truck is skillfullly remodeled. On one side a board can be pulled down to hold the many salsa containers, the tortillas are kept warm in a cooler, a huge aluminum pot contains the "carne al vapor", meat cooked with steam, and of course there are also some plastic chairs for seating. Other imaginative cooks convert their bicycle with a little trailer into a rolling kitchen. The ones who have already made some money drive their converted bike to their favorite street corner. Boys help refill the salsas, take your order, are sent around the corner to buy more limes, or they collect the money which is immediately counted by the owner. After awhile you start having your favorite places. With time you learn that the two grumpy older ladies behind the post office in Hermosillo, where they fry the best chimichangas, are very religious and don't work on Sundays and Holidays. You know that juicy tacos de carnitas are served along the freeway near Irapuato. You find the best tacos al pastor in a village in Jalisco where they are served until 3pm in one place and after that around the corner on the main plaza. You know that if this place is closed too, you can still go down to the bus station on the main highway where the trucks almost thunder over your toes. For us it's always a surprise where we end up if we decide to have tacos. We love to follow our noses to the placs with the most intense smell.

This can also lead you to tacos de tripitas, roasted intestines, that are chopped into small pieces. We met a cook in Durango who was so delighted to have us exotic visitors, that he didn't want to let us go without having tried his tacos. We knew that it was intestines, but it was hard to say no, besides they smelled tempting, as almost anything does when you're hungry! We tried his tacos, of course with the obligatory salsa and lime juice, but we couldn't hide the fact that the contents of the tacos seemed pretty tough. In addition, the man was so kind he gave us an extra large portion because he wanted to show us how delicious his tacos were. Besides intestines there are other entrails and more parts of various animals that are processed into tacos. Most of these don't appeal to Europeans at all. One exception is probably tongue that is also served in Switzerland and that we already tried in tacos. With other things we decline, with thanks, from the start and look for something else. Tacos de cabeza (boiled cow head), tacos de ubre (udder), but also tacos de labio (lips), tacos de trompa (pig snout), tacos de ojo (eyes, only the meat around the eyes is used), tacos de carnaza (cheeks), and tacos de sesos (brains) all belong in this category. Tacos de viril (penis) for example are a delicacy in Michoacán. "Unfortunately" we didn't have the opportunity yet to verify this. Tacos de creadillas (testicles) must be another rarity, but some of you might know something similar from Spain. Tacos de higado (liver) are the big seller at one street corner in Dolores Hidalgo. The people wait in line to get the admittedly tempting smelling roasted slices of liver in their tacos. But after we saw posters elsewhere warning about consuming liver because of its high antibiotic content, we prefer to go for tacos al pastor around the corner.

Tacos al pastor are a lot better than the others. Thin slices of meat are put together on a large spit where the outer parts are roasted. These almost look like the Turkish kebab. Often the cook asks you if you want the tacos with everything. If so, he garnishes your meal with chopped onions and cilantro, sometimes he adds a spoonful of beans, and of course there's some spicy red salsa to go with it. If that's not enough for you, guacamole or other spicy salsas from the molcajete, a stone mortar, can still be added. Very popular are the stalls where you have the choice between many different tacos. On a round metal sheet where the roasting fat is in an outer ring, not only meat but also onions and chiles are prepared. The standard here is chorizo (a spicy sausage), carne asada (grilled beef chopped in small pieces), adobada (spicy marinated pork), and chicharrón (pork cracklings). If you feel like it, you can is,also get a portion of roasted onions and hot chiles. The salsas are different at every taco stall. Everybody has his secret recipes. Guacamole, avocado puree, is one of the standards. Also pico de gallo, a salsa with chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice, is always available. Then there's normally a spicy red salsa and an equally spicy green salsa that is prepared with chiles and tomatillos, small green tomatoes that grow in a papery husk. Jalapeños en escabeche, spicy green chiles pickled with onion rings, garlic and carrots, are also very popular. And the most important ingredient that gives each taco its special taste is, of course, the small limes.

But also people who don't like meat can find tacos in Mexico, namely tacos de pescado. Fish fillets are cut into stripes, rolled a coating and deep-fried. Then the pieces of fried fish are put onto a tortilla, garnished with chopped cabbage and served with mayonnaise. The customer is responsible for adding the lime juice and the salsas.

Many other regional specialties are served as tacos. Every dish that you can order as a portion on a plate, is also available as a taco. For example one of our favorites is carnitas. For the carnitas a pig is cut in pieces and cooked for hours in lard together with various spices and orange halves. You can get fresh carnitas in front of butcher shops on certain days. You can choose between the different pieces of meat. It's advisable to choose pieces with a little bit of fat otherwise the meat is too dry. We always order "pura maciza", only meat without entrails or other "Schweinereien" (a German word derived from the word "Schwein" for pig, probably best translated as disgusting things). For example the curly tail or the little ears that a very nice market woman wanted to pawn off on us because she thought that the gentleman was surely a gourmet and would be fond of such delicacies. When we declined laughingly, the woman showed us the snout that floated on top of the fat with the two nostrils pointing up. She said in that case she would warmly recommend this treat to the gentleman. She absolutely couldn't understand that we don't like these delicacies at all. Another of our favorites is birria. The translation for this word would be something like garbage or mess. Birria is lamb meat cooked in a delicious broth and normally served in portions in the broth. You can also enjoy birria in tacos. The meat is packed onto tortillas and garnished with chopped onions. There's always toasted chile de arbol or another small and spicy chile on the table to eat with the birria. And if you're thirsty it's best to order a cup of hot broth.

Of course we don't want to conceal the risks of eating tacos from you. You can catch germs that pass through you body quickly or worse parasites that are more difficult to get rid of. We have heard many such stories, but still believe that many people catching these parasites ate at very unhygienic taco places or restaurants. We have learned to watch the cook first, to see how he treats the food, to notice whether he touches the food and the money with the same hands and to see how the plates are washed. Besides, also the number of people eating at a specific taco stall will tell you a lot about the quality of the food. The bigger the eating crowd, the better the food.

Enjoy your meal!

April-June 2004

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen