Coyoacán has long had a reputation as the Greenwich Village or Latin Quarter of Mexico City. What these two former bastions of bohemianism had in common, besides outstanding alternative cultural institutions – clubs, theaters, cinemas and real, live bohemians – was a vibrant public social life. People would meet in cafés, parks, on the street for the express purpose of exchanging ideas. The Village, as I knew it growing up, was one long tertulia. Who can forget the heated, smoke-imbued discussions at Café Cino that I witnessed as a child? Well, everybody who now lives in New York, I suppose.
Our village down south, on the other hand, as charming as it is, never wore its artsy reputation on its sleeve. Yes, the Cineteca flickers as a harbinger of Culture, the Centro Veracruzano stages interesting obras de teatro, the cabaret El Vicio (the former El Hábito)still stands on its own two Avant-Garde feet. There are many pretty places to eat and drink, a couple of great markets. But intellectual social intercourse remains hidden behind closed doors as it always has been.
That’s why La Casa de los Tacos is like a breath of mezcal-perfumed air. A seemingly ordinary fonda on first glance, it turns out to be anything but. From 1970 on La Casa’s owner cranked out serviceable comida corridas. Then she decided to retire and the space was taken over by two creative types with a vision. Hector Ramos, a photographer who runs an art gallery upstairs and Alejandro Escalante, author of the renowned Tacopedia are beyond ‘hipster’ age: “Perhaps that’s why we’re here, and not in La Roma” chuckled Ramos over a smoky Machincuepa mezcal, recently.
They decided to fill a gap in the local culinary/culture scene by opening a restaurant featuring traditional and affordable Mexican food that would also be a forum for the exchange of ideas. Ramos explains that “We wanted to create a reference for locals and visitors, something very Mexican that ought to be here in Coyoacán, but isn’t – there are pizza places everywhere you look but no cafés where people hang out.”
So the partners gussied up the fonda a la ‘cheap & cheerful’. TVs were banished, walls painted muted greys, art was hung. In the faux-colonial fashion of the neighborhood, walls are wainscotted in rustic Casa Azul tiles, floors are terracotta. Then they redid the menu.
The plaque outside under the taquería sign reads “desde 1970″, and they’re still turning out tacos–only now with a twist. Gone are run-of-the-mill pastor, arrachera and costilla. In their place are finely crafted, chef designed but accessibly priced tacos and a separate menu entitled “tacos prehispánicos” which is the farthest reaching conflagration of edible insects I have seen in Mexico. These tacos may not be truly pre-Hispanic – they are bug-filled tortillas of the modern era, utilizing ingredients of the old world, cooking techniques of the new. But the very idea of including them on the menu of a seemingly humble corner lunch spot is ingenious.
The best way to sample this entomological cornucopia is to order the desgustación exótica, which I did on a recent visit.
Now, having grown up in an urban setting where roaches were the only arthropodal company, I admit that the idea of eating them or their relatives has been a great challenge to me here in Mexico. It’s easy enough to munch on a deep fried chillied cricket while downing a tequila, but little white ant eggs, beetle-like cocopaches and gigantic grubs push the envelope.
So a half hour after ordering, enough time for me to consider making a “French leave” to avoid having to eat my insect repast, a spectacular plate arrived containing five terracotta cazuelitas filled with lovingly prepared bugs. It came mercifully augmented with a dollop of conventional frijoles refritos, verdant guacamole, steaming yellow tortillas prepared in view by the same lady who has always been doing it here and three rustic salsas.
I took a deep breath and began with something benign looking, a creamy colored stew containing jumiles – little grey beetles. These crawling treats go down easy as they are small enough to lose themselves in their sauce. They lend a vaguely cinnamon taste to the sofrito of garlic, onion, peppers and tomato.
After several yoga breaths I proceeded, fashioning a taco of chapulines and guacamole: it’s a texture thing, a nice combination of cream and crunch. But Jiminy Cricket has little discernable flavor when fried.
I’ve sampled escamoles (aka Mexican caviar) before, but never quite ‘got’ them – it always seemed to be about the salty burst and the ‘lots of garlic’ utilized in their preparation. This concoction was less garlicky though I still can’t tell you what ant eggs really taste like. And I’m still not sure I want to know.
Next in line were the beautiful/horrific reddish chinicuiles popularly named gusanos de maguey. These come simply sautéed in garlic-infused oil. It’s the soft crunch that people rave about, like a tiny little Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, with a touch of sweetness from the aguamiel (maguey sap) on which they feed. I liked them, though I chose not to look too closely.
Which left the final course, that which I had been avoiding: meocuiles which are grubs the size of a cocktail shrimp. I wrapped a warm tortilla around a couple of the grilled creatures. I bit down. They become light and poofy when heated, losing the gooey heft that I anticipated. A pleasingly crispy thin skin gives way to warm, almost empty interior with a mildly nutty flavor. It was a revelation something so creepy could be good and my sensory self was finally starting to overtake irrational reasoning. I was enjoying my lunch.
In the end, sampling these exotic foodstuffs is like watching a Bergman film. You avoid it because you think it won’t be fun, you have to pay a lot of attention yet little happens, then it begins to draw you into a psychological vortex and you leave a better person for having learned something about yourself. It was Rosetta’s renowned chef Elena Reygadas who said that she loves to eat insects because they “taste of the earth;” I think I’m beginning to know what she means.
But that’s not the end of the story. There are “normal” options on the menu for the less adventurous. A superb taco of pechito de res is an underutilized cut of dense, flavorful beef. A Baja fish taco, done with mero (grouper) allows the lightly battered and fried seafood to be the star of the show, instead of burying it under a scene-stealing load of condiments. Mock pastor, i.e. condimented pork sweetened with pineapple is subtler than the twirling kind.
Market style quesadillas of flor de calabaza and huitlacoche are fashioned to order, so they don’t lose their crispy edge.
Prices are fair – a hearty bug-free lunch can be had for $150. Even the insect options are reasonable.
The Casa de los Tacos has indeed begun to function as a hang-out for locals in and around the arts, which is what the owners hoped would happen. An order of antojitos, a shot of mezcal, and a copy of Kafka may be just what this “bobo” neighborhood needs to push the balance from bourgeois to bohemia. Berets off to La Casa de Los Tacos. Frida would have loved it.
La Casa de Los Tacos
Calle Felipe Carrillo Puerto 16, corner of Ortega, near the main plaza, Coyoacán
Tel. 5554 9492
Open daily 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.