There are thousands of taco shops, or taquerías, in Mexico City, but El Vilsito is a bit special. Not only are the tacos al pastor to die for, but by day it doubles up as an auto repair shop
This post first appeared on the Culinary Backstreets blog
Ben Herrera for Culinary Backstreets, part of the Guardian Travel Network
Fri 12 Oct 2012 06.00 BSTFirst published on Fri 12 Oct 2012 06.00 BST
El Vilsito taquería in Mexico City
Pit stop … the El Vilsito taquería in Mexico City. Photographs: Ben Herrera
In Mexico, small business owners and entrepreneurs often display high levels of ingenuity. Take the case of El Vilsito, a taquería in the Narvarte neighbourhood that does double duty as an auto repair shop.
We first came to El Vilsito late one night on the recommendation of a friend. We arrived to find a place that was shuttered and dark and looked disconcertingly like an auto parts store. Upon closer inspection, we found the entrance to the taquería a little further down the street, housed in the same building as the garage. Both establishments, it turned out, are owned by the same family, which came up with a clever one-building-fits-all business plan that allows the space to be a car repair shop by day and a taquería by night. (This plan, it must be noted, doesn’t extend to the personnel: fortunately, the garage’s daytime mechanics are not the taquería’s nighttime chefs.)
A gringa taco, made with white wheat flour rather than corn
Like many auto repair shops, El Vilsito was accessed through a pair of large, matching, roll-up doors. We half expected to find stacks of tires and piles of greasy rags inside, but once we passed through the garage doors the interior magically transformed into a typical taquería without a hint of the neighbouring auto business. Brightly lit and packed with people, the taquería was comprised of a few tables and an open kitchen, lined with a counter with bar stools behind which chefs busily prepared food for hungry customers. Even at 2am, every seat was taken and customers overflowed on to the sidewalk, where they ate standing up. Most people gathered around the taco preparation areas situated on either side of the restaurant. These two prep stations offered El Vilsito’s most famous dish, tacos al pastor.
In Mexico City, tacos al pastor are made from layered, marinated pork that is put on a spit and slowly rotated through an open flame. The practice of roasting meat this way was brought over to Mexico in the 1920s by Lebanese and other Middle Eastern immigrants, and the tacos were originally made with lamb. Pork is now used instead of lamb in the tacos, which go by the name of tacos árabes, or Arabian tacos.
The Mexico City version is known as tacos al pastor, or shepherd’s tacos, a word play evoking their lamb-based origins. What sets tacos al pastor apart from tacos árabes is that they are served in tortillas instead of pita bread, while the meat is marinated in a special sauce – usually made with annatto seeds (achiote), peppers, spices, and even nuts and raisins – that gives the meat a reddish colour. As with tacos árabes, the pork is sliced thinly off the spit by a chef who then cuts pieces off of a pineapple that has also been rotating atop the spit. As the chef slices away, the meat and pineapple land masterfully in a small, round corn tortilla he holds in one hand. From there, a customer can add different types of salsa or have the chef prepare the taco with diced onion and cilantro.
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Along with three tacos al pastor, which we topped off with a bit of green chili salsa, we ordered a homemade horchata, a sweet rice water drink, and dug in. The tacos were excellent, the pastor meat easily some of the best we’d had in the city. The tender pork had just the right amount of spicy flavour, which was perfectly complimented by the sweetness of the pineapple slices. We immediately understood why so many people were in line for these tacos, and quickly ordered another round. (El Vilsito also serves up a taco called a gringa, made with white wheat flour instead of the usual corn flour, and adds melted cheese to the mix.)
At most taquerías, customers can fill their bellies without breaking the bank, and El Vilsito is no exception. We were able to gorge ourselves on delicious food for about 100 pesos (about £5) a head. Refuelled, we left El Vilsito with the hope that – unlike with an auto repair shop – our next visit here will come sooner rather than later.
• Avenida Universidad 274 (corner with Calle Petén), Colonia Narvarte, no phone, Facebook page. Open Monday-Thursday 9pm-3am, Friday 4pm-6am, Saturday 7pm-6am, Sunday 4pm-midnight