On the trail of the world's best tacos in Mexico City

Story highlights

  • The centrally located Narvarte neighborhood has some of Mexico City's best taquerias
  • Taqueria La Costilla, Marquesh Purpura and Tacos Manolo are among the highlights

(CNN)It's 9 p.m., and Marco Ayoba, a taquero at Taqueria El Vilsito in Mexico City, is just getting started.

Blue apron, backward baseball cap, he works nimbly, slicing from a vertical spit of chili-rubbed pork crowned with a pineapple.
He captures the thin shavings of pork with a warm, corn tortilla held in his open palm.
    A quick flick of the wrist and his blade nicks the pineapple at the top and the sliver of fruit falls directly into his waiting hand.
    Ayoba will assemble hundreds of these tacos al pastor over the course of the night as families, couples and clusters of friends trickle to the restaurant.
    Gathering outside of taquerias like El Vilsito (Petén 248, Narvarte, México, DF; +52 55 5682 7213) -- which is actually a working car garage by day, taco temple by night -- is a city tradition.
    Mexico City is the taco capital of the world.

    Know the tacos

    From Coyoacan to Tepito, excellent tacos can be found throughout the federal district's 600 square miles (Distrito Federal, known as "DF" to locals).
    Unlike New York City, for example, where a handful of key places get repped for the best pizza or Austin, where the top BBQ spots can be counted on one hand, Mexico City's size and scale has produced, literally, hundreds of contenders for best taco.
    There are different styles as well.
    Al pastor is a citywide specialty but there is also suadero, braised beef similar to brisket that demands its own category; and there are legions of taquerias devoted to carnitas, pork submerged and slowly simmered in its own fat -- essentially pork confit.
    Add to the mix the dozens of regional tacos born in other states that have migrated to the city's center.
    The point being, the pool is deep and trying to sample a comprehensive array of the city's best makes for a tough, albeit delicious, challenge.  

    Taqueria La Costilla

    A well-charred rubble of beef is the star of La Costilla's namesake taco.
    Enter Narvarte, a quiet, centrally located, middle-class neighborhood that's off the main tourist grooves, but close enough to them.
    The colonia (or neighborhood) is defined by two wide avenues that run diagonally, meeting in the middle at a large roundabout; here, charmingly called a glorieta in Spanish.  
    With its circular plaza and towering palm trees, la glorieta Doctor Vertiz provides the nexus for a concentration of superlative taquerias, all of which can be reached by walking.
    On the eastern side of the glorieta, Taqueria La Costilla (Cumbres de Maltrata 352, Narvarte, Mexico, DF; +52 (55) 5579 1852) is noticeable by smell, first.
    Smoke pours from the kitchen onto the street, perfuming the area with an aroma of charcoal and grilling meats.
    Order their namesake, a costilla taco, and service is quick to hand over a well-charred rubble of beef unceremoniously plunked onto a plastic plate.
    It's 100 grams of meat with three tortillas -- little more than the iron-twang of good beef, salt and a little garlic, all begging for one of their incendiary salsas.

    Maquech Purpura

    Not 100 yards away is Marquesh Purpura (Tepozteco 808, Narvarte, Mexico, DF; +52 (55) 5590 9577), where cochinita pibil reigns.
    "We have over 40 years making cochinita," a manager says, gesturing to a wall of faded black-and-white framed photographs.
    "We started as a cart on the street, two blocks away, and bit by bit we grew to where we are today."
    The kitchen rubs pork with a scarlet marinade of ground achiote (also known as annatto), sour orange, salt and oregano. It's then wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted.
    Once shredded, it's fashioned into tacos, overflowing with sopping threads of pork, served with pickled red onions and habanero salsa.
    It's one of the true jewels of Yucatecan gastronomy, transported to the urban jungle.
    "You know what's crazy?" says the manager, "Just an hour ago, I saw an eagle with something in its claws fly over and land on the top of that tree" pointing to a fir in the glorieta. "He was eating, too."

    Tacos Manolo

    A quick jaunt west, down Luz Savinon, is the popular Tacos Manolo (Calle Luz Saviñón 1305, Narvarte, Mexico, DF; +52 (55) 4437 1463), two locations which sit across the street from each other.
    They started as a street stand, and then expanded to a proper sit-down location.
    Their specialty is a taco Manolo, which melds chopped steak with bacon and flecks of caramelized onion.
    It can be ordered on corn tortillas or pan árabe, a flat wheat bread that's a culinary cross-pollination brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the early 20th century.
    They brought the technique of spinning meat on a vertical rotisserie, shawarma-style, swapping out lamb for pork once in Mexico.
    Tacos Manolo is like most taquerias in the city, an alternative realm that blurs the line between restaurant and public space.
    The doors open onto the street and while there is table service, seating is minimal; most patrons stand while eating, dripping salsa onto the sidewalk.
    These eateries meld indoor with the open air and dining among strangers is de rigueur.

    Tacos Tony

    The taco "jacuzzi" at Tacos Tony.
    There's always a flock of patrons in front of Tacos Tony (Calle Torres Adalid 1702, Narvarte, Mexico, DF), a free-standing stall on a slim median between two streets.
    Only open at night, its bright lights draw diners who are mesmerized by the circular trough called a choricero, filled with bubbling fat.
    It's a jacuzzi and everyone is invited: suadero in big hunks; squiggles of tripe; thick, red longaniza sausages; and cebollitas, or spring onions, bobbing like ping pong balls in the hot liquid.
    Mateo, a taquero manning the stand, chops a fistful of meat on a well-worn wooden chopping block.
    "Compared to some of the old-time taquerias in the neighborhood, we're relatively new.
    "Only 10 years," he says.
    Parsley is draped on the counter like garland.
    Office workers with their ties thrown over the shoulder, heads cocked to the side, inhale suadero tacos on double tortillas.

    Tacos Beto

    And, finally, at the end of the trail is Tacos Beto (Dr José María Vertiz 1028, Narvarte, Mexico, DF), a matchbox of a taqueria with harsh fluorescent lighting and sidewalk seating.
    On one recent visit, they had an entire quarter of a cow hanging on a hook waiting for breakdown.
    Their specialty is a taco cochinada, a play on the slang word for pig, cochino, meaning filthy or sloppy.
    The taco contains braised pork that is fried on the flat-top and slipped onto a tortilla.
    All of the residual, crispy bits that adhere to the cooking surface are scraped up and slapped on top.
    It's a glorious taco, almost a hash of porcine crumbles, best offset with a squeeze of lime and a spoonful of green salsa.