The rules of street vending dictate two important things: that a quality product must be delivered hot and ready-to-eat at an affordable price, and that it must be prepared as fast as humanly possible.
Few countries take the second rule as seriously as Mexico, which produces world-class artisans that exhibit Cirque du Soleil-level dexterity. Taqueros that can cut fast, assemble tacos in rapid-fire fashion, and entertain the crowd of regulars with their sly wit provide street-level hospitality. These culinary wizards begin at a young age as cashiers, bussers, and waiters before they learn prep, mise en place, knife skills, and actual cooking. They are bred to become specialists—once an al pastor man, always an al pastor man—whose skills are shaped by muscle memory and repetition.
A Mexican street vendor is typically surrounded by a chaotic rush of customers shouting out orders from all angles; there isn’t even time to take any money. That comes later, after you’re satisfied and finally ready to pay the tab (Mexico runs on the honor system). Let the cashier (a.k.a., future taquero) know what you had to eat and drink, and he’ll take your word for it.
There may only be plastic chairs or curb space to for seating, but the show more than makes up for it. Whether it’s flying chunks of pineapple caught on a tortilla filled with marinated pork, or a stream of sauce or stock shot out from a ladle with uncanny precision, the taquero aims to please his spectators. Watch these seven street-vending heroes show off their tricks.
Preparation: Beef birria
Nobody ever sees Fito, the owner of the stand whose job is done once the large pot of stewed beef birria is handed off to the employees around 3:30am. On the other hand, his taqueros are widely-recognized legends for their speed and showmanship. Once the order is fired, the taquero grabs a fistful of birria with a pair of tongs and goes at it with a cleaver before scooping it onto the tortilla. After that it’s a blur—chopped onions and cilantro and two quick flicks of the wrist deliver streams of salsa and birria sauce onto an awaiting tortilla. And, in less that 10 seconds, from start to finish, your taco de birria is in your hand.
Preparation: Tostadas de guisado
Tostadas topped with delicious guisados (stews) are an attraction at the Coyoacan Market, located in in one of the most beautiful and popular boroughs in Mexico’s capital. Tempting mounds of tinga, picadillo, ceviche, and more are pushed onto a tostada as the tostada men dart to and fro between the nearly 20 toppings. The final result consists of a handful of shredded lettuce, queso blanco (a salty crumbling cheese), and a squirt of Mexican cream. The tostadas are assembled in a flash, up to two at a time, by these agile street pros.
Barbacoa Estilo Parral
Preparation: Beef barbacoa
In northern Mexican towns like Parral, beef barbacoa is prepared with traditional pit-roasting methods. The young taquero at this busy stand scoops and plates in constant motion, rhythmically grabbing tortillas and torta buns in between steady, circular swirls of a fork in the steam tray. He finishes the taco or torta with a few pinches of cilantro and onions while grabbing at Styrofoam plates that are handed to customers moments after they’ve placed their order.
Preparation: Al pastor
This famous al pastor chain claims to have been the first to erect a taqueria dedicated to one of Mexico’s most iconic tacos, but the real draw is the flashy taqueros. On this particular night, I arrived at the end of service when the human torso-sized spit had been reduced to a skinny stack of marinated pork. Long downward cuts off the spits slice off thick sections of porcine goodness that are caught on a small taqueria-style corn tortilla; they’re then given the standard seasonings of cilantro and diced onions, and a circus-style flick of pineapple caught onto the tortilla.
Preparation: Carne asada
These taqueros from Azucar de Matamoros are revered for their skills, and they’ve found a niche in the carne asada game all along the Baja peninsula. Here in Tijuana, they finely chop a blend of mesquite-grilled steak and place it on a corn tortilla or tostada. Then come the flavors of Baja: cilantro and onions, a tomato salsa and creamy guacamole, all of which are deftly spooned on top of the savory steak. The tacos are twisted into a conical shape, wrapped in butcher paper, and then plopped on individual sized taco plates.
Preparation: Tacos al vapor
Once the slow process of steaming sweetbreads, beef cheeks, snout, and more has taken place, this ninja-class taquero is ready to serve the public. He grabs various cuts off of the steam table with a warm corn tortilla while bouncing from side to side. Of course, he quickly throws a bit of cilantro and onions, and then launches a spoonful of salsa roja just a few inches above the level of the tortilla. Lunch is served.
No Name Stall, Mexico City
Preparation: Tacos de fritanga
These two taqueros exhibit the precision of boxers, punching at small squares of butcher paper, jabbing at chopped bits of brisket, longaniza sausage, cecina (beef jerky), and chitterlings fried in a stainless steel disc. Each man stakes out a space on the substantial convex center used for searing and warming tortillas, with the senior taquero supervising this sparring match. They both know each others moves, as the younger ace of tacos reaches across the comal for a quick pinch of cilantro and onions; but the veteran shows him who’s boss with a no-look toss of a pair of tacos onto a plastic plate covered in butcher paper. Game, set, and match.