A legal assistant, a photographer, and a writer cross the border into Nogales, Sonora. One of us is hung over. One of us is famished. One of us likes to eat animal heads. We sample tacos from five different carts—one cart selling tacos de perro (dog tacos, they’re called, but they’re definitely not made with dog), two carts specializing in beef head (principally jowl and tongue) and stewed meat tacos (cabeza and birria, the two prototypical Nogalense tacos), one cart offering carne asada, Sonoran dogs, and tacos al pastor, and one upscale specialty cart with esoterically dubbed tacos, such as Lorenzo, Tololoche, and the Tarola.
In total, I eat 10 tacos, about half of a chimichanga, a few chiles caribes, and stacks of cucumber and radish slices. Plus, more than a half-pint of salsa. With a beer and coffee halftime break, the whole thing takes about four and a half hours.
According to the estimates of veteran taco-man Antonio León, of Nogales, Sonora, representing taco cart Don José, about 20,000 tacos are eaten in the city of Nogales every single day. León’s first guess is 10,000, but then, after some hard-chuckling thinking, he doubles the number to 20,000, and there he settles.
I ask Oscár Reyes, sub-director of official communication for the City of Nogales, Sonora, how many tacos he thinks are consumed each day in his city. He does some temple-tapping, reminding me of the official and estimated population of the city (240,000 and more than 300,000, respectively), and then lands on the number 5 million. Five million tacos eaten every day, just in Nogales. I repeat the number back to him. “Between five and eight million tacos a day,” he assures me. Sub-director Reyes and taco-man León differ by a factor of at least 250 (more tacos than I could eat in a month).
The verdict: Extremely narrow sample size and complete dismissal of scientific standards notwithstanding, I indubitably conclude that it is impossible to find a bad taco in all of Mexico. You want evidence? Talk to taco-man José Luis Zamora, of Los Compadres. I asked him if he’d ever eaten a bad taco. He told me he’s never heard of the concept.
Stop No. 1
Yes, the literal translation is Dog Taco, but the meat—the two taqueros repeatedly assure us—is not dog meat. Rather, the name comes from the saying, Ando de perro, or (roughly) I’m dogging it—which means you’re impecunious. These tacos cost five pesos a piece, but make up for their poverty in palatability. Crisp, clam-shell tortillas close around buttery refried pinto beans or lightly fried strips of beef. The single salsa option is a hot, mouth-tanging, uncooked slosh of tomato, lime, and pico de pajaro chiles—perfect complement to the mouth-sharp tortilla shards.
Tacos de Perro has been dishing bean, meat, and pork rind tacos, as well as chimichangas, for 30 years, and Joel Galindo, who serves up our tacos, has been working there for 20 of them. He estimates that they sell about 600 tacos a day. I ask Galindo for the most tacos he’s ever seen someone eat. He tells me that a man once sat down and ate 35 tacos before standing back up.
We find that tacos de perro are excellent for hangovers, the crisp tortillas little more than vehicles for the delicious bean grease and the salsa to ride in on. These are the first tacos we tried, and (spoiler alert) they are also the best.
Location: About a block south from the DeConcini Port of Entry, across the street from La Parroquia Iglesia, and nearly in front of the Nogales Museum of Art. Serves tacos dorados and chimichangas.
Hours: 8 a.m. to whenever they run out of food, usually around 4 p.m.
Price: 5 pesos a taco.
Stop No. 2
Two luchadores (Mexican wrestlers) run the cart and have been cooking tacos on the same corner for 50 years. Their lucha names are Genesis and Nocturno. To prove their battle history, they show me the scars on their foreheads; Nocturno points to the enormous lump in his back. Genesis also has at least one stitch on the top of his head. When Nocturno (José Luis Zamora) was a boy, he recalls, tacos cost 1 peso. They now cost 12 (current exchange rate is about 16.5 pesos to the dollar). He serves up melt-in-your-mouth cabeza and swallowable birria, but I find the best thing here is the salsa: a cumulously creamy (without actual cream!) salsa of jalapeño, serrano chile, and oil, served in a Banco Azteca sports water bottle. In between bites, I ask Genesis if he actually hits opponents when he performs in la lucha. “Sí,” he says. “We punch, bite, even stick fingers in each others’ ears.”
“It’s like therapy,” Nocturno chimes in. “A stress relief.”
Though Nocturno claims that he’s never in his life eaten a bad taco, he’s found that tacos in Arizona are made with pallid tortillas: “It’s like they’re sick,” he says. “As if they’re suffering from typhoid.”
These tacos here are good, but it is los compas themselves, Nocturno and Genesis, who are worth the visit.
Location: Southwest corner of Avenida Juarez and Campillo.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Price: 12 pesos a taco.
At Don José, the secret to a good taco is in the hand that prepares it, says Marta, daughter of the late Don José.
Stop No. 3
Our next stop is the handsomely outfitted (tables and an awning) taco stand Don José where we talk to Marta (daughter of the late Don José) about the ingredients essential to a taco. She lists each of the ingredients in her tacos: meat, onions, salsa, tortillas, cabbage, lime, salt.
Marta ate her first taco (an unspecified “many” years ago) at this very stand.
I ask, “Besides all the ingredients, what’s the secret to a good taco?”
Her answer: “The hand that prepares it.” Also, she adds, she uses a molcajete, a stone mortar, to make the salsas and to crush the spices. Instead of liquefying ingredients into uniform gravy, crushing the tomatoes and chiles into the stone of the molcajete pounds them into a mash, so each spoonful has its own soul.
These tacos (birria and cabeza again) were good. Maybe they were better than good. It was getting hard to taste. I scarf one of each, and then down part of a cup of birria broth—deeply spicy, oily, and rich, like soup broth on steroids and sort of what I imagine wolverine milk might taste like.
Marta’s parting wisdom: “If you don’t like tacos, you’re not Mexican.”
Location: Underneath Qahwa Coffee Shop, a funky coffee shop, venue, and art space on the corner of Díaz and Alvaro Obregón.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Price: 12 pesos.
Interlude: The legal assistant, the photographer, and the writer try to pinpoint the color of birria. Is it Burgundy and Chestnut? Merlot and Light Roast Coffee? Is it Muscle-Brown? Does it matter? We wonder, too, what is the color of the universe, the great cosmic latte? Somehow, we are both full and famished. The salt has sucked my throat dry. I quaff a sparkling agua and we hit the streets.
Stop No. 4
The best thing about this taco shop might be that they have a hand-washing station—a little jerry-rigged cooler contraption with a hand-pump full of dish soap.
The worst thing might be the small TV set up on a red plastic chair, volume-blasting Recuerda y Gana, a Mexican quiz show that pits families against each other to win loads of pesos (sort of like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, but two decades even further out of style).
Accompanying the tacos (yes, more tacos, this time carne asada and adobado) are cucumber half-moons, radish full-moons, and plump chiles caribes, pale-yellow and grill-blackened equilateral-triangle-shaped peppers that are hot in the mouth, but not in the throat, or somehow, on the tongue. The taco adobado, a stewed version of the more famous taco al pastor, was gristly. The carne asada was delicately charred, and willingly absconded its dominance in my folded tortilla to the mélange of flavorful salsas, fragmented cabbage, diced onion, and wilted specks of cilantro.
Location: Southwest corner of Obregón and Vasquez.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Price: Slightly drunk on taco meat, I walked away without paying. The taquero ran me down and, apologizing profusely, I gave him a 50-peso bill, which covered our three tacos and tip. They cost 10 pesos a pop.
Stop No. 5
By far the most upscale of the taco stands we visit—it’s run by Pedro Rubio, the chef who cooks in the swanky hotel the taco stand sits in the shadow of, the Fray Marcos de Niza. Though it is still properly a cart, there is more than just one or two taqueros running the place, and the flock that functions as a wait staff is slightly pushy—though they may just be trying to impress what they mistakenly understand (and I sort of fail to correct) to be a team of food critics. Taca-tacos offers the typical taco—carne asada, tripa (intestine, which, with lime, was iron-tasting and slightly chalky) but also delicious specialty tacos: the Tololoche (named after the mariachi bass guitar), with pickled peppers, cheese, and cream; the Tarola, or the Papa Loca (the crazy potato), with beef, cream, potato, and cheese; and the Lorenzo, a crisped tortilla with melted cheese and perfectly grilled (juicy and skin-crisped) pile of meat.
Taca-Tacos also has the most original salsas of all the carts we try: Tatemado, Tatemado Tomatillo, and Salsa Chilosa. The tacos here are fantastic (and probably objectively better than any other we try—high quality meat, fresh ingredients, and careful sazón) but the ambience is a little haughty for street tacos. I miss the dust on the tables, the water-bottle salsas, the rusting 50-year old carritos. If you’re stomach sensitive, however, this is the best stand for you.
Location: Outside of Fray Marcos de Niza Hotel and Restaurant on the corner of Alvaro Obregón and Campillo.
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and Friday to Saturday 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Closed Monday.
Price: Between 18 and 50 pesos.
Post Script: If there were really as many as 8 million tacos eaten a day in Nogales, and we were to go with the official population count of 240,000, that would mean each Nogalense would eat on average just over 33 tacos a day. I ate 10, and, though I was extremely taste-satisfied, I also felt a little high on all the spice and grease celebrating in my gut.
I find that it’s about more than just the taco. Sonora certainly offers taste varieties different from anything you can find north of the border, but besides the delicious taco de perro or molcajete-pounded birria sauce, the culture and history of the taco carts are rich in themselves. ✜
John Washington is a novelist, teacher, and translator based in Tucson. He and Daniela Maria Ugaz co-translated Sandra Rodriguez Nieto’s The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez (Verso Books). Visit jblackburnwashington.com or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.