Street food tour of Mexico City’s historical centre reveals how each variety of the humble taco tells a story

Street food tour of Mexico City’s historical centre reveals how each variety of the humble taco tells a story

When I meet Jesús Gálvez, a taco tour guide in Mexico City’s historical centre, I am intrigued to find out that he studied and worked for a decade as a chemical engineer. However, after taking up salsa classes, one of his fellow dancers introduced him to the organiser of a food tour and he became interested in how his country’s recent history intersects with street food.

“All the good things in my life, their origin is dancing salsa,” Gálvez smiles. In the end, office life didn’t suit him. “Nobody complained about my work, but they said I chatted too much. Apparently, I was too sociable to be an engineer.”

The taco has gone from a staple of Mexican miners – much like the Cornish pasty – to global fast food, served in many variations. And Mexico City – where regional flavours and interpretations converge via immigrant populations – is the best place to understand how each taco tells a story.

Mexico’s capital, Mexico City is the best place to try every kind of taco, from the cheap and cheerful to the gourmet (Photo: Reinier Snijders/Getty)

We begin our tour at Los Especiales, where chilangos and tourists huddle around metal-top counters, surrounded by containers of frequently replenished guacamole. Gálvez orders one of each taco.

“The best thing to do is to cut them in half, so we can try everything,” he explains, using a knife to slice them in two for the group. “But it’s a crime to use cutlery to eat tacos.”

The tour was designed by chef Axel Didriksson – who grew up in the Historic Centre – to explain Mexico‘s recent history to visitors, and how it has influenced the street food that dominates the city today.

Axel Didriksson, a taco tour guide in Mexico’s City’s Historic Centre

A speciality of Los Especiales is “tacos de canasta” – basket tacos. The cheapest and most humble variety, these tacos traditionally arrived at offices and schools at lunch time in a basket on the back of a bike. Gálvez explains that their popularity waned after an unfortunate association.

Fifteen years ago, they were called “tacos sudados”. The final stage of cooking involves pouring on hot oil and then sealing inside cling film to steam. The condensation inside lent the name – sweaty tacos.

Jesus Alvarez (Photo: Elena Angelides)

“The problem was, when the tacos arrived around midday, it was really hot and the bike drivers were sweating. So, people started making the wrong connections,” Gálvez says. “That’s the reason they are not so popular, because of bad marketing.”

The intersection of history and food are personal, he explains: “My father was a history teacher and my mother runs a catering business with my sister. Food is a language of love. It has a strong connection with feelings.”

We delve deeper into history at El Heuqutio, which is renowned for El Pastor. After the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, many Lebanese migrated to Mexico, taking with them their penchant for shawarma meat inside pitta bread. Mexicans found pitta bread crumbled when wrapped around the meat, so replaced it with a tortilla. Gálvez tells me that Lebanese immigrants combined three influences – shawarma meat from Lebanon, kebabs from Turkey and gyros from Greece – and mixed it with Mexican spices, especially achiote.

Originally, the meat was lamb, as it was consumed by Muslims, but he explains that without religious restrictions, Mexicans use pork. “Pastor means shepherd. It doesn’t make sense anymore because nobody herds pigs, but that’s how it is!”

Los Cocuyos, which featured in Netflix series The Taco Chronicles is a hole in the wall that closes only from 5-9am through. Peering inside, I see meat marinating and slowly cooking in a simmering broth. “It famous – Anthony Bourdain visited. But they have earned this fame,” Gálvez says.

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It serves beef eye (ojo), tounge (lengua) small intestines (tripa) as well the more conventional pastor and suadero. The stand also offers papalo, a delicious Latin American leaf used as a palate-cleanser. Gálvez adds, “if you see a bucket of papalo in a taco place, you know it’s authentic.”

Not only do these tours retell Mexico’s recent history, but capture it in the making. Gálvez laughs: “there is always something happening in this city. There is always a curve ball.” Once, he was guiding a group when a feminist demonstration marched through the centre. Suddenly, every restaurant pulled down its metal shutters and they were trapped inside.

Rather than allowing his guests to feel fearful, he instead used the opportunity to discuss the complexity of these social problems: “demonstrations are not uncommon. The government doesn’t excel at hearing citizens and Mexico has a big problem with gender violence. Literally, this issue is life or death.”

A military parade celebrating Mexico’s revolution coincided with another tour, leaving the streets closed and guests scattered around the centre, unable to reach the meeting point. Consequently, he started the tour with one half of the group and then gave the tour in reverse to the second half. He smiles: “I offered a nice beer to everyone after. Patience must be rewarded.”

How to book:

Tours are £24pp, plus 200 pesos (£7) in cash for tacos and drinks