Distrito Federal Tacos

In food on 01/08/2009 at 5:47 pm

I can say without reservation that we make THE best tacos in New York City, the soft corn tortilla version like the ones the vendors sell in Mexico City. I’d throwdown with any restaurant or street vendor in the Latin world to defend this claim. We’ve sampled an enormous variety in the city and elsewhere, and we’ve taken all the best elements from each to come up with a soul-satisfying recipe we have at least several times a month. We even have special square taco plates we picked up at a craft fair in New Jersey that we only use for this entree.

The closest thing to taco perfection was once eaten in Milwaukee, of all places, where we encountered a Mexico-town, a small dive the locals ate at, across the street from the overrated ‘highly recommended’ place. Another was had at the Taste of Chicago last summer, the La Justicia stand. And third was Tacos Moreno in Santa Cruz, CA. Nothing in New York has come close. We’ve sampled taco trucks on Broadway and 96th, in Astoria, at Rosa Mexicana, in Williamsburg, in Suset Park. Up in Washington Heights, there are a couple of spots we’re trying in the future, but really, it’s a depressing state of affairs in terms of representing Mexico in Manhattan. Even a chain called Texas Tubbs in Madison makes better tacos than the Big Apple. Oh, I almost forgot to give a shout out to the breakfast tacos I ate in San Antonio back in the day. They were a whole different animal though, thick flour tortillas, almost pita-like, filled with hearty guisados and that’s all they needed. My favorite was the plump chicharrones in green sauce. Oh, salivate…

Let’s break down the ingredients. First, you gotta make your own fresh tortillas. A must! Most street vendors don’t have time to make them fresh, so they resort to grilling packaged ones, or frying them. At best, they taste like warm, greasy paper towels. When I was in San Miguel de Allende, I happened on a woman on the sidewalk making fresh quesadillas with Oaxacan cheese on a simple wok-sized flat grill. She absent-mindedly patted the masa flat and round as if she’d done it a thousand times, but what a revelation when I ate it! So QQ, so corny-licious! It turned my opinion of corn tortillas upside down. They aren’t supposed to be dry and throat-retching; they are manna! If you don’t have a tortilla press, simply put the masa between two sheets of parchment paper and flatten it; then roll it out with a rolling pin. It is worth the extra time and effort.

Next, cabbage, NOT lettuce. When we have it, red cabbage is more flavorful than green. But the key here is the texture and added crunch you don’t get with iceberg lettuce or its heartier cousins. According to urban legend, cabbage is used in Mexico because they didn’t wilt in the tropical weather. But what you’re looking for is apposition of textures, and the only crunchy aspect of a soft taco is the cabbage, unless you’re eating hard tacos from Taco Bell.

Finally, the meat. I’ll tell you my secret ingredient: Liquid Smoke. A Singaporean foodie friend once corraled us into doing a mini-luau of lau laus and Kahlua pig. Since we couldn’t very well dig a pit in our non-existent backyard and do an overnight smoke of a roast suckling pig, he revealed his shortcut of sprinkling a very tiny amount of liquid smoke into the meat and roasting it in the oven. It is a heaven-sent product that adds depth to the meat you can’t get elsewhere.

Now, what type of meat? Again, my ol’ standby, cheap fatty ground pork. Lean cuts of julienned beef just don’t cut it, because the flavor is in the fat. Also, a larger piece of meat may add QQ, but it’s hard to eat in a taco that’s already messy. To have to bite through meat just makes it even more the anti-party food. So that’s where the cabbage saves the day with that much needed crunch.

The last two ingredients of authenticity are diced red or white onion; again, red has a sweeter bent, and cilantro. Some of you may hate cilantro for its spice, and I can relate since I hate parsley for that flat gnarley undercut of gross, so you can substitute parsley if you absolutely must. Good thing I love cilantro.


Fresh Masa for tortillas made according to directions on package. We find Maseca brand has a headier aroma of corn in the final product.

Ground pork. Spices: marinate overnight. Cumin, Paprika, Garlic Powder, Liquid Smoke,  Louisiana Hot sauce for its tangy flavor (salt and pepper while cooking) Use El Yucateco at service for additional hot spicy factor.

Pickled cabbage: Slice very thinly or shred red cabbage and marinate in equal parts sugar and vinegar for 15 minutes prior to use. (This goes with the Southeast Asian philosophy that everything tastes better pickled)

Diced red onion

Chopped scallions

Chopped cilantro

Thin pico de gallo salsa (Trader Jose’s Salsa Verde is good for this purpose)

Fresh lime slices

Prepare all raw ingredients first. Then saute pork until just done. Sprinkle with vinegar at finish. Meat continues cooking after you take it off the stove. Dry meat in tacos is the worst! Roll out tortillas last and make as thin as possible. Here we deviate from the two tortilla  per taco rule because it’s really hard to make them thin enough at home and still be able to peel them off the parchment paper. Cook on a dry skillet, not too long ~1 min on first side, 30 sec on the other. Assemble taco, squeeze of lime, and Mangia!


  1. That sounds like a fantastic taco, I’m new to the cooking scene and am always on the lookout for interesting varieties on old favorites. Tacos are one of those foods that most people have been eating their entire lives and most of us never think about simple variations that could seriously enhance them. Thank you.

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