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.

Culinary Cab Confessions: where to eat raw meat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The cab driver didn’t blink when I told him what I wanted. It might have been one of the most unusual requests he’d ever had. But he didn’t even look back at me or take a glance in the rearview mirror. He pointed his diminutive blue taxi up the wide boulevard and asked where I was from. As we turned on to Chechnya Street, named because of the apparent anything-goes debauchery that takes place here when the sun goes down, he turned into a de facto tour guide, pointing out the places where one might encounter a prostitute.

But I wasn’t seeking thrills of a sexual nature. I wanted to eat. And to eat at a place I may never find on my own. Welcome to Culinary Cab Confessions, a short series about letting cab drivers decide where I’ll be eating. There’s a long-standing belief that taxi drivers hold the secret to a city’s best eateries; not the upscale variety, but the affordable, no frills type; the places where we may never think of going and in neighborhoods where we might rarely venture. Wherever I’m traveling in the world or if I’m home in New York City, I’ll be hopping in cabs and telling the driver to take me to wherever he–or she–likes to eat. And then I’ll be writing about it. If the driver is hungry and inclined, I’m always happy to have a culinary guide to the restaurant. Lunch is on me.

Today I’m in Addis Ababa, the chaotic capital of Ethiopia. I walked out of my hotel, the Hilton, and jumped in the first taxi I saw. I got lucky. Fekadu Kebede, 27 years old, said he had a special treat in store for me. He looked excited. I’d been here already for almost two weeks and was slowly tiring of the usual local fare. I hoped he had something different up his sleeve. After cruising down relatively tame Chechnya Street (it was still daytime), we made a few twists and turns before navigating onto a bumpy dirt road. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.” I put my hand on the door knob and then paused. “Come on,” he said, beckoning me to get out with a wave. There are no street lights on this road–somewhat typical of Addis–and so at night we would have been wandering into the blackness. Wherever it was Fekadu was taking me. There was no sign to indicate what it was, just two open gates and a hallway flanked by ceiling-to-floor bamboo. “Welcome to Yohannes,” he said. “This is the best kitfo in Addis.”

I needed no introduction to kitfo. I had read about it in my guidebook and hoped to try it while I was here. Kitfo is an Ethiopian specialty: raw hamburger meat. I know what some of you are thinking: eating uncooked meat in a developing east African country would be about as questionable a decision as Justin Bieber deciding to make a sudden, unexpected appearance wearing ass-less chaps at a NAMBLA convention. The guidebook and everything else aimed at non-Ethiopians strongly recommended to get the cooked version of kifto. But I wanted whatever Fekadu was having. He ordered for us and within minutes small cast iron bowls were set in front of us, each one layered with an ensete leaf. The server plopped a huge mound of minced, raw beef in each bowl, garnished with dollops of soft, spiced cheese. I was nervous. Was this going to be a turning point for this trip? An Ethiopian version of the Delhi Belly, the Addis Ababa Bowel Effusion? Fekadu went first and I followed. It was delicious. Imagine steak tartar but imbued with mitmita, a spicy chili powder and then doused with niter kibbeh, a spice-and-herb-infused butter.

I ate mine so fast that Fekadu scooped some of his kifto into my bowl. As we ate, sometimes with the spoon, other times scooping it up with injera, the ubiquitous spongy bread Ethiopians use as edible silverware, my new friend told me about how he dreams of taking his wife and their seven-year-old son to live in San Diego where his older sister has been living for the last 20 years.

“We will not find kifto there,” he said. “But I think that’s an okay trade off, no?”

And with that I raised my beer, Fekadu his soda, and our bottles clinked, echoing for a long second to the high ceilings of a restaurant I would have never found on my own. In the end, I took his picture next to his car–yes, that’s really Fekadu above–and he drove me back to my hotel.

So, where, you’re most certainly wondering, is Yohannes? I couldn’t tell you. After all, that’s what cab drivers are for.