Discovered – Real Tacos!
Destination: Mexico City
Mode of Transport: Tacos al Pastor
It was 2005, our daughter was almost one-years-old, and we survived our first year of parenthood…barely. Andrew and I were not one of those couples who were natural parents. Although Andrew and I were at the “supposed” right age for parenthood, we were not mentally prepared.
How does one prepare to be a parent?
I was 34 and Andrew was 37 when our daughter was born. It was hard for me because being the youngest of 6, I didn’t know how to naturally care for a human being who was so fragile. Andrew was not quite ready to let all the attention go to our daughter. We were a mess and we needed a break, badly. We needed to travel again; we needed an escape from reality.
We needed to travel…badly.
We were living only on Andrew’s income. We couldn’t go to Europe because it was too expensive. We couldn’t go to Asia because we only had 2 weeks and Asia was too far. One of our friends mentioned that we should go to Mexico.
What? really? Mexico? With a one-year-old? He grew up in Mexico City and said that it was a lovely place to go as it was just a few hours’ plane ride and it was cheap. He said that it had a “bad” rap but the crime really just happens in pockets of the city, just like in Manhattan.
I was also reminded once we started thinking about Mexico City, that I’d read an article about it recently in Travel and Leisure. It was an article Rima Suqi wrote for the magazine’s October 2004 issue about a neighborhood much like our neighborhood in Manhattan.
It was called the Condesa, next to the Roma, which was an up and coming neighborhood becoming full of designer boutiques and hotels.
In the article she wrote, Rima Suqi stated one fact that connected our 2 cities: “Crime has dropped some 50 percent in the past decade (thanks in part to the hiring of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a ‘crime consultant’) and a new generation is invigorating once-sleepy neighborhoods.”
This one fact alone was what convinced Andrew and I to go ahead with our plans to go to Mexico City. We are fans of Rudy and have seen first-hand, how capable Rudy was of eradicating crime.
One of the most memorable parts of our Mexico City trip was of course, the food, and to be more specific, the TACO. I grew up on Taco Bell, which I ate but didn’t really find to be so good. I would only eat there when a friend had to have it and dragged me along.
So my impression of tacos were pretty bad. It wasn’t my favorite food. In Rima Suqi’s article she mentioned we should eat at a place called El Califa Taqueria (“a house of tacos”) which was in the neighborhood our hotel (Hotel Condesa DF) was located.
Andrew loves tacos of all sorts so he wanted to try it. As we walked up to the restaurant, we could smell the meat searing…it smelled ridiculously good. It was lunch time, super busy. Bailey and I secured a table outside while Andrew ordered a variety of tacos.
He ordered everything on the menu, but my absolute favorite was Tacos al Pastor, which is pork shoulder cooked in a vertical grill, like the ones they cook lamb in shawarma places.
This type of grill was first introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the 1930’s. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, there was a big surge in Lebanese immigration to Mexico in the 19th and 20th centuries. Roughly 100,000 Lebanese settled in various parts of Mexico. Food in Mexico was influenced by the Lebanese a bit, especially in the Tacos al Pastor. In reading an article in the Washington Post by William Booth, Tacos al Pastor has its origins as Tacos Arabes, which was made with lamb as the Lebanese preferred lamb, and later morphed into the Pastor with pork. The Tacos Arabes was also served in a pita bread and later was transformed to a soft corn tortilla that was more traditionally Mexican, according to Mr. Booth’s article.
La Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City is actually one of the original hubs for Tacos al Pastor; it’s their specialty. What surprised me about the history of the Tacos al Pastor though is that it’s a relatively new type of Mexican street food.
It wasn’t until the 1950’s that it became an iconic street food in Mexico City. After we had that first taste of the Tacos al Pastor at El Califa, we started trying all sorts of tacos in the streets and they were all excellent!
Tacos Al Pastor
Andrew and I both never had soft tacos before, and Tacos al Pastor in Mexico City changed the way we both thought of tacos completely; not only do we love tacos, but we now crave them from time to time. That had never happened with tacos in hard shells and ground beef – well, maybe for Andrew but really not me.
The Taco al Pastor was served in a small soft white corn tortilla, not like the hard yellow ones I’ve always associated tacos with. Then the meat served with it was just the right amount for the taco and served with onions, cilantro and hot sauce- that’s it.
Oh, maybe a bit of avocado? I can’t remember exactly. As I bit into the taco, the juice from the pastor dripped down my arm; normally, I can’t stand that feeling, but I didn’t care.
It was that good. I, again, was transformed by food. Taco was never again a food that was just ok. Oh and also, the perfect partner was Sol (Mexican beer), so good!
In 2004 in NYC, this type of taco was still not very popular. Now, even in my little neighborhood, there are at least 4 or 5 taquerias within a 3-block radius. This past Sunday, we craved it.
We went to Pinche Taqueria on Lafayette St., which is a great place because it really captures Mexico and the tacos are authentic. They pride themselves on the freshest ingredients and you can really taste it in their food.
Brings us back to Mexico City from NYC
We ordered a few Taco de Pescados (fish), a couple of Taco de Carne Asada (charbroiled steak) and of course Taco al Pastor (spit grilled pork – like the one we had in Mexico City). I’ll just focus on the Tacos al Pastor. The color was exactly the same from the one in El Califa, from what I can remember – very red.
It was also very juicy and was served with guacamole, onions and cilantro. Most importantly, it was served in a soft, white taco shell. It was almost exactly like the one served to me in Mexico City.
There were 2 differences I noticed: 1 – There was more meat in this one, and 2 – The chop of the meat was smaller than the one in Mexico City. Doesn’t matter though; tasting this taco at Pinche Taqueria in NYC transported me right back to Mexico City where I first fell for a real taco.
Being in this taqueria, reflecting on our lives together, Andrew and I thought back to our time when our daughter was only 1 and having her first taco in Mexico City. She’s 10 now and, wow, time has changed so much!
She’s almost as tall as I am, she is so busy with her own life. Andrew and I went through some very hard times as a couple after this trip, but are now stronger than ever together. This trip was our calm before the storm.
Even NYC has seen so many changes in just 10 years. One of the best developments is that tacos served here now are the real thing; I bet New Yorkers and tourists both like it that way.
Tell us your first experience with real tacos in the comments, we’re so curious. Let’s travel the world, one dish at a time! Please share this on Facebook if you love tacos and Mexico City.