Mexico City, the nation’s cultural and financial heart, grew from a reasonably sized urb of three million to a sprawling megalopolis of 18 million in the space of a mere 30 years. Scary. Like many capitals, el Distrito Federal’s residents (capitalinos, as those born here are called, and newcomers or chilangos), descend mostly from people from the provinces who came to the big city looking for a better life. Each brought his or her way of cooking. Small groups of Chinese, Italians, French and Germans started arriving in the late 19th century, followed by Lebanese who settled here and in the Yucatan. These immigrations escalated in the early 20th after the revolution, when large numbers of exiles from the Spanish Civil War arrived along with Jews rejected from the U.S. (which closed its doors to immigration at an inopportune time, just about when Hitler came to power). These groups added successive bastings to the preexisting fusion of indigenous and Spanish cooking. Mexico City’s food continues to reflect this diaspora.
Even before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, foods were shipped from rural areas to Tenochtitlan, as the city was known to the Aztecs. Fish, game and all sorts of tropical fruits have always been available here, but because of the assimilation of many ethnic groups, the city didn’t develop a truly local cuisine. For the most part, the newcomers’ culinary identity was absorbed into the mainstream, although traces survive. Most Mexican Jews today, for example, eat Mexican food, their Eastern European or Middle Eastern culture now mostly memories. The Sinai Kosher restaurant in the fabric district downtown serves up enchiladas and sopa de tortilla just like its “treif” neighbors; the owner explains that nobody asks for mahtzoh ball soup or chopped liver anymore.
Tortas and tacos with heritage
But certain foreign dishes, like the torta, a sandwich that is the legacy of the Italian panino, were adapted to Mexican tastes and stuck. Another, tacos al pastor, which translates as “Shepherd’s tacos,” is now quintessential Mexico City food. Its history is vague. Some say Lebanese immigrants brought their shawarma to nearby Puebla in the 1930s and the Middle Eastern method of cooking seasoned lamb on an upright spit, which evolved from the Turkish doner kebab, morphed into an essentially Mexican foodstuff. Others claim the introduction was later, in the ’50s, and the setting was the capital. Regardless, it is agreed that lamb was first used in the tacos, but because Mexico is not a lamb-eating society, pork was substituted and condiments were added to suit Mexican tastes.
To make tacos al pastor, sliced, pounded strips of pork are marinated in fruit juice, chili and spices such as cumin, achiote and oregano, then stacked on an upright skewer and grilled, manually turned from time to time. The recipes vary from stand to stand — proprietors are loath to give away their secrets. Because the special grill and spit are necessary to make the dish, no one in Mexico sees fit — or is logistically able — to make it at home and tacos al pastor are almost always found in street stands or small restaurants called fondas. True recipes are thus hard to come by. Restaurateur Martha Chapa (of the acclaimed Dulce Pátria in Mexico City) provides an intriguing home adaptation in Los Tacos de México that includes pineapple vinegar and fresh juice, guajillo and ancho chilies, garlic, onion and cilantro. Chicago-based Rick Bayless’ recipe features achiote (sometimes called annatto, it’s extracted from the seeds of the red spiny achiote fruit) that colors the marinade red, as well as canned chipotle chilies.
While at home the meat would be cooked over an open grill, in professional venues the vertical apparatus is topped by a hunk of pineapple and onion which render their sweet juices. The meat is sliced off by the pastorero, (a tacos al pastor maker) and served as an open taco on a small soft corn tortilla. A sliver of the pineapple, chopped cilantro, onion and a dollop of drippings top it off. Diners augment with lime and salsa to taste.
Where to go for tacos el pastor
One of my favorite places to eat tacos al pastor is El Huequito (which means “the little hole”), a tiny operation in this city’s Centro Histórico, founded in 1959 and among the first places in the city to serve tacos al pastor. At El Huequito the sliced meat is bathed in a moderately picante salsa of chile de árbol, enhanced with chopped onion and cilantro and rolled up in its small tortilla. Several salsas are available for serious chileros — chili lovers. The meat is juicy and succulent, the smoky grilled aroma lingering until you take the next bite. Washed down with an ice-cold horchata or agua de Jamaica, these morsels are simply divine.
But I live in the Art Deco district of La Condesa, a couple of miles from Mexico City’s old center. When I need a quick lunch I stroll over to El Tizoncito, a much-loved open-air taquería surrounded by high stools. Like many places, it claims to have “invented” the taco al pastor. As the large, conical pastor roasts slowly in front of the red-hot vertical grill, curls of aromatic, heady, meaty smoke waft lazily toward the hungry diners. Fresh-fried tortilla chips are delivered with the salsa stand and its five little pots of colorful sauces in varying shades of bright greens and brick reds. Another pot contains warm bean purée.
The pastorero works swiftly, slicing off the hottest, crustiest pieces from the mound along with a bit of bronzed pineapple and a spoonful of drippings. He quickly sprinkles on diced sweet white onion and dusts the top of the taco with finely chopped cilantro. The plate of three open tacos is whisked to my table. Only three at a time, that’s the limit. I think about adding more salsa, lime — but, no — why gild the lily? I pick up a taco, folding up the sides with thumb and index finger, closing the end with the forefinger. With the first bite, I immediately get that flavor of roast pork, the perfume of cilantro, the bite of the onion, subtle bitter aroma of chili, and the sweet heady piña. One more small bite and the first taco’s gone. The second and third follow. I hail the waiter and ask for more. I think about the bittersweet experience of downing a dozen of the best oysters, that feeling of mourning you enter when you’re on number 12. It’s always over too soon.
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.
Top photo: Tacos al pastor in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman