Culinary Cab Confessions: The Search For Tacos And ‘Authenticity’ In Mexico

The first taxi driver I met in Puerto Vallarta had other plans for me. “You want to go to peliculas?” he asked, looking at me through the rearview mirror. I didn’t particularly want to go to a movie. Especially not the kind he had in mind. “It’s a good movie,” he said in Spanish and then laughed in the way that would have required him to rub his hands together if they weren’t occupied with dodging pedestrians and dogs, as we tore through the streets of this seaside Mexican town.

“Okay,” he said. “Chica? You want a chica?”

“No,” I said. “I already told you. Quiero comer.” I want to eat.

And just then, he poked his head out the window at a short-skirt-wearing, twenty-something female standing on the sidewalk and said “Yo quiero un taco!” and laughed again. He jilted his head back at me and said, “Que una pussy!”

I was hoping to do another installment of my Culinary Cab Confessions in which I test the theory that taxi drivers are a knowledge repository of the best (and cheapest) places to eat, the out-of-the-way gems that you just don’t stumble across. Except this rotund, randy cab driver I was currently with was a knowledge stockroom of other carnal pleasures. Just not the kind I was seeking. I grew up in southern California where Mexican cuisine has become something of a default comfort food. Having lived in good-Mexican-food-deprived New York City for the last nine years, I relish the moments when I’m in a place that has good Mexican food (like, say, Mexico, for example). I just had to find a cab driver who would show me the right place.

When I arrived in this city of 250,000 I immediately had jumped in a cab and pointed it toward the old town. The driver recommended I eat at El Moreno, a taco stand in the Zona Romantico, the cobblestone-street-and-tourist-laden part of town. I found El Moreno, and then I found another taco cart. And another. Two hours later, I had eaten octopus tacos, steamed marlin tacos, several variations on the theme of pork tacos, and unidentified fish tacos. I swore by the time I left I’d be encased in tortilla shell myself. Some of the tacos were good. Some were excellent. All included a requisite gringo or two eating with me.

There were several questions that were nagging at me: Where could I go in town with fewer gringos? Did it really matter? Would my experience be more “authentic” if I were the only non-local? I asked the concierge at my hotel (about where I could eat without encountering other tourists). “No,” she said, shaking her head at me. And then another question arose: was I just being a culinary traveling snob?

“These places don’t exist,” said the concierge when I repeated the question on where I could find good tacos in a gringo-less environment. “We go to the same places the gringos go.” Or, rather, gringos go the same places the locals go. Still, I persisted. There had to be a taqueria-crammed neighborhood that tourists don’t venture to. “No, no, no,” she said. I sighed and walked away.
And then I got in a cab. I explained to the driver what I wanted and he knew immediately where to take me. La Aurora, a neighborhood that was about 10 minutes away.
He let me off at Universo, a street-plaza that was lined with food carts. There were carnitas tacos, porklicious tortas and a guy making Frisbee-sized hamburgers. (I’m not exaggerating.) I settled in at Taqueria Don Roque and ordered the house specialty: the al pastor tacos, the meat of which was shaved off of a huge hunk, like at a shwarma joint. The spicy pork in the tacos was intermingled with chunks of pineapple, an additional taste stratum that I very much appreciated. I ordered two more.
There was a fat man lounging in front of a grill on the corner of the intersection across the street. I wandered over and realized my presence had just roused him out of a sleep. He said he was from Michoacan and was selling a typical snack of his home region: roasted chickpeas. I bought a bag and strolled around the plaza gawking at what to eat next. The chickpeas were still in their encasing, making eating them a tad difficult but worth every juicy chickpea stream that was running down my forearm. I still had no answers to my questions about travel and the “authentic” experience some of us seek. I did, though, have one answer: I’d found the place I was looking for.