Damián Labarrère

Damián is something of a Renaissance man. Multitalented, multilingual, well read and traveled, a calm demeanor, and full of surprises. Walking through the streets of Mexico City, he knew the history of the buildings and who they belonged to, why this kind of tree is found in this neighborhood and how it got here, the stories behind the peoples and foods of Mexico. Our walk to the the corner stand for gorditas was a walk through time and culture. Classically trained in the Mexican culinary tradition, Damián is well acquainted with fine dining and the "alta cocina."And yet the self titled "Ta-Connoisseur" loves to eat on the street. Tacos, tlacoyos, empanadas, tamales, quesadillas, birria, aguas frescas, the variety of food found on Mexico City streets is exciting and essentially limitless. He stretches his arms out towards the bountiful streets as we pass by cart after cart of food, "Éste es México, amigo!" This is Mexico. 

"Eating on the street is one of the greatest pleasures we have in this life," he comments as we walk past dozens of street venders selling everything from fresh fried potato chips with chile and hot sauce, to tacos, huaraches, gorditas, hot cakes, esquites and everything you can imagine. The sheer amount of food available at any given time, wherever you may be, is one of the most striking things about the city. Stuck in traffic? Venders wade through the cars carrying trays of neatly packed clear plastic containers filled with fruit or cakes and other snacks. Taking the metro? Cooks and venders occupy the spaces between connecting lines, filling the hallways with the smell of baking bread and pop corn. Bus stops and street corners are teaming with complex systems of tents and carts, large comals and hot plates. The sharp sizzle of meat on the grill and the gentle thud of the tortilla press surround you as cooks call out specials in the form of the ubiquitous question "¿Qué le damos?" "What can we give you?" In a city that has some 28 million inhabitants, having access to food everywhere at all hours just works. "You have everything here," I say in awe as we pass el Palacio de Bellas Artes in between taco stops. "I know, dude," he laughs. "That's why I'm not leaving."

Ricos Tacos Guisados "Las Aguilas", CDMX, México

Ricos Tacos Guisados "Las Aguilas", CDMX, México

Here in Texas, what passes for Mexican food is often unrecognizable to Mexicans. Tex-Mex has it's place in the culinary world, don't get me wrong, but please take the word "authentic" out of your neon sign. As Damián showed me the different types of food found throughout the city he explained that even in Mexico a lot of what is thought of as traditional Mexican cuisine has it's roots in other countries. "Mexico is the best country to live in," he says convincingly. "But we don't even know what we have here, or where it comes from. We think that chorizo is Mexican, but it's Spanish. Real Mexican cuisine is indigenous, everything else is fusion." And there's nothing wrong with fusion, fusion is delicious, but we should know what we're eating and why. When you appreciate the history, you appreciate the food more. That's one of the beautiful things about Damián's view of Mexico City. He talks about the city as one in love. He knows its past, is aware of its many flaws, and yet he loves it anyway. The city can be difficult and frustrating, but he sees it as beautiful and fascinating, a never ending maze meant to be explored and cherished. When Damián eats on the street, it's not haphazardly. It's not because he couldn't find a decent restaurante to eat at, or due to poor planning or timing, it's because he really loves it. He sees the time and effort and tradition in street food, the elegance of the flavors that are nearly impossible to replicate indoors, and the dignity and transcendent delight of eating with your hands while sitting on a crowded street corner. 

Tacos campechanos con chorizo verde

Tacos campechanos con chorizo verde

I asked Damián to sum up Mexican food in a single paragraph, and he did so beautifully. It's best heard in Spanish, but I will do my best to translate.

 "Es como una fiesta en la boca, llena de sabores, colores, texturas; pasas de lo sublime a lo emocionante y de lo triste a lo feliz en un solo bocado."
 -Damián Labarrère

Translated: "It's like a party in your mouth, packed with flavors and colors and textures; you go from the sublime to the exciting and from sad to happy in a single bite." I couldn't agree with you more, buddy.

Keep your eye out for more from Damián on the blog in the near future, as well as more posts from Mexico City. 

¡Buen provecho!


Tacos al Pastor

Zócalo, Ciudad de Mexico

Zócalo, Ciudad de Mexico

It's been a while guys, I apologize for the extended absence things have been a little crazy. To a certain degree we expect life to give us lemons so we kind of plan on making lemonade at the end of the day, but it doesn't always work out like that. Sometimes life gives you an onion. What am I supposed to do with an onion? A lot more possibilities, but a little bit trickery to figure out. Life recently gave me an onion, so I made tacos with it. Actually, I did even better and went to Mexico City and had master taqueros make tacos with it. 


But that's enough kitchen metaphors. Let's talk about tacos. If the only taco options you have ever been given were "soft or crunchy?" please allow me the pleasure of showing you something magical. Real tacos. Real tacos are not just for Tuesdays, they are for any and all days; they are for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything inbetween.  And with the limitless varieties of tacos, they are the perfect culinary starting point on your latin journey. Since tacos are kind of a big deal, I'm splitting this up into two posts. Post one (this one) will give you some background on a Mexico City classic: Tacos al Pastor. Post two (next week) will show you how to make them. Listo?


Tacos al pastor are one of my all time favorite street foods and consist of seasoned pork topped with pineapple, onion, cilantro and lime. The fresh cilantro, sweet pineapple and crisp, acidic lime are incredibly refreshing and pair perfectly with the savory pork. The pork is traditionally cooked on a vertical spit called a trompo (Spanish for "spinning top") with a pineapple skewered on top, letting the juices drip down onto the slow cooking meat as it spins round and round in a tantalizing taco dance. 

Super Tacos Las Chupa Cabras, Coyoacán CDMX   |  Photo © Pako Escobar

Super Tacos Las Chupa Cabras, Coyoacán CDMX  | Photo © Pako Escobar

The very first time I had tacos al pastor was (of all places) at a fútbol tournament in Jackson, Mississippi. The tacos were served out of a food truck (or more accurately a truck that was serving food) parked alongside one of the fields. They had a three foot portable speaker connected to cell phone blaring bachata and reggetón with the bass on blast and a small chalk board with a menu full of tacos I had never heard of before. I barely spoke Spanish at the time and was new to the taco scene so I asked the taquero what he recommended. "Tacos al pastor, wero" he said. "Dame tres," I responded. I had no idea what I was eating, but I was hooked after the first bite.


The name is kind of curious, it translates literally as "tacos of the pasture" or "pasture style tacos", which is odd because they are pork tacos and pigs aren't pasture animals. Some believe that the name is tied to the the origin of these tacos, way on the other side of the world in the Middle East.

Kebap El Sultán, Alicante España |   Photo: Roberto Auz

Kebap El Sultán, Alicante España | Photo: Roberto Auz

Hold up. Middle East? I thought we were talking about classic Mexican tacos! Let me explain. So in the Middle East and Europe you will find something called Döner Kebap. Kebap is strikingly similar to tacos al pastor in that it consists of thinly sliced meat cooked on a spinning vertical spit served as a street food. Kebap is almost always lamb or chicken but beef kebap is not unheard of. Pork, however, is not too common for obvious reasons. Kebap is topped with a number of things such as sliced cabbage with carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, etc. and then slathered in white and red salsas, some spicy, some not. It was a favorite of mine while in Spain because it's delicious, fast, cheap and available on most street corners. Ojo, whenever I try to explain Kebap to someone the usual response is "Oh, so it's like a gyro." No. They look similar, but the flavor profiles and cooking methods are worlds apart. Kebap is not a gyro, just like you are not your cousin Jennifer.   


The generally accepted story is that Middle Eastern migrants to Mexico took the Kebap tradition with them, as it was blended into the Mexican culture the lamb meat was substituted for the more affordable and easily accessible pork meat and tacos arabes were born. Tacos arabes are similar to tacos al pastor in the use of pork cooked on a trompo but instead of a traditional corn or flour tortilla a type of thin peta bread is used, the meat is also seasoned differently and has a distinct taste. Tacos arabes then eventually developed into what we now know as tacos al pastor.

Pizzas y Parilla Lily, Nezahualcóyotl, CDMX |   Photo © Adrian Júarez  

Pizzas y Parilla Lily, Nezahualcóyotl, CDMX | Photo © Adrian Júarez 


Depending on where you go, tacos al pastor will vary quite a bit. Sometimes the pineapple is just on top of the trompo and not diced in with the meat. Sometimes the pineapple is on the table with the salsas and guacamoles as an option. Sometimes it's cooked in with the meat on a grill and not even on a trompo. There is no one way to make them. They are a reflection of Mexico City: ever changing, ever growing, ever developing. Mexican writer Juan Villoro said it best

"El Distrito Federal y la zona conurbada se han transformado a tal ritmo que el espacio no puede ser visto como una categoría fija. Estamos ante una metrópoli nómada que migra hacia sí misma.
The Federal District (Mexico City) and conurbation have transformed at such a rapid speed that the area cannot fit into any fixed category. We are before a nomadic metropolis that is migrating towards itself." 

Tacos al pastor are kind of like that. They are recognizable, undeniably Mexico City, and ever evolving. Next post I'll show you how to make your own.

¡Hasta pronto!