Mexico City Historic Center Street Food Tour Reveals How Every Variety of the Humble Taco Tells a Story

When I meet Jesús Gálvez, a taco tour guide in Mexico City’s historic center, I’m intrigued to learn that he studied and worked for a decade as a chemical engineer. However, after taking salsa lessons, one of his fellow dancers introduced him to a food tour operator 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 salsa dancing,” smiles Gálvez. In the end, office life did not suit him. “No one complained about my work, but they said I chatted too much. Apparently I was too social to be an engineer.

The taco has gone from being a staple of Mexican miners – much like the Cornish pie – to global fast food, served in many variations. And Mexico City, where regional flavors 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 all kinds of tacos, from cheap and cheerful to gourmet (Photo: Reinier Snijders/Getty)

We start our tour at Specials, where chilangos and tourists huddle around metal counters, surrounded by frequently restocked containers of guacamole. Gálvez orders one of each taco.

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

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

Axel Didriksson, taco tour guide in the historic center of Mexico City

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

Fifteen years ago, they were called “tacos sudados”. The last stage of cooking is to pour hot oil, then seal the inside with cling film with steam. The condensation inside lent the name – sweaty tacos.

Jesus Alvarez (Photo: Elena Angelides)

“The problem is that when the tacos arrived around noon, it was very hot and the riders were sweating. So people started making bad connections,” says Gálvez. “That’s the reason they’re not so popular, because of bad marketing.”

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

We dive deeper into the story at El Heuqutio, which is renowned for El Pastor. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, many Lebanese migrated to Mexico, taking with them their fondness for shawarma meat in pita bread. Mexicans found pita bread crumbled when wrapped around the meat, so they replaced it with a tortilla. Gálvez tells me that the Lebanese immigrants combined three influences — shawarma meat from Lebanon, skewers from Turkey, and gyros from Greece — and mixed them with Mexican spices, particularly achiote.

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

Los Cocuyoswhich appeared in the Netflix series The Taco Chronicles is a hole in the wall that only closes from 5am to 9am. Looking inside, I see meat marinating and slowly cooking in a simmering broth. “It’s famous – Anthony Bourdain visited. But they earned that fame,” says Gálvez.

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It serves bull’s eye (ojo), tounge (lengua) small intestine (tripa) as well as the more conventional pastor and suadero. The stand also offers papalo, a delicious leaf from Latin America used as a palate cleanser. Gálvez adds, “If you see a pail of papalo in a taco restaurant, you know it’s authentic.

Not only do these tours tell Mexico’s recent history, they capture it in the making. Gálvez laughs: “there is always something going on in this town. There is always a curve ball. Once, he was leading a group when a feminist demonstration marched through the center. Suddenly, every restaurant lowered its metal shutters and they found themselves trapped inside.

Rather than frightening his guests, he rather took the opportunity to discuss the complexity of these social problems: “demonstrations are not uncommon. The government is not good at listening to citizens and Mexico has a big problem with gender-based violence. Literally, this question is life or death.

A military parade celebrating the Mexican Revolution coincided with another tour, leaving streets closed and guests scattered in the center unable to reach the meeting point. Therefore, he started the tour with one half of the band, then gave the tour in reverse to the second half. He smiles: “I offered a good beer to everyone afterwards. Patience must be rewarded.

How to book:

Tours cost £24 per person, plus 200 pesos (£7) cash for tacos and drinks

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