Tacos in Mexico are something like burgers in the states, and even more common. Busy subway stations have taco stands outside, some open 24 hours, as do most parks and plazas. They’re simple and more or less standardized. They’re delicious and unhealthy. And they’re appealing to Mexicans from all walks of life. Eating tacos at the stand next to my apartment I’m as likely to sit with a pair of businessmen as a group of police officers.
Tacos el Progreso is a restaurant on Antonio Caso, one street over from el monumento. It’s been open 16 years, and its clientele is a great example of the mass taco appeal and inclusiveness I mentioned. Laborers without fixed schedules arrive throughout the day, and white collar workers (Godínez) stop in before or after work for breakfast and dinner. In the afternoon between 2 and 4 it’s especially busy, filled with government employees on their lunch breaks, arriving from the offices that line nearby Reforma. When I go for lunch around this time there’s no place to sit and most people eat standing up, inside the restaurant and crowded outside under the awning. On the weekend families and couples fill up the restaurant and watch footy on the TV while they eat dinner.
Aside from 3 small tables and a metal counter along one of the walls, el Progreso is just a big kitchen. It has two side by side areas and two entrances. On the smaller right side are the juice bar and a stand with standard tacos de cabeza, and on the left side are the big tacos de guisado with the delicious serve yourself sides for which the restaurant is known. The food is stored upstairs, but all of it, except for the aforementioned salsas and sides, is prepared downstairs in front of everyone. There are two grills, one for meat and one for tortillas. The first is right next to the sidewalk, where it blocks half of the entrance and attracts a mass of people that block most of the other half. You can order and receive your tacos standing outside, and then stepping in you ladle on sides from their trays next to the grill. Many people do this and then step out again, standing and eating on the sidewalk. The restaurant is small and serves a lot of people. Its peach colored walls, half tile and half glossy stucco, evoke an immaculate public bathroom, and indeed everything inside suggests efficiency and functionality. It’s a pleasant aesthetic.
There are 27 juices and smoothies at the juice bar. It features the combined menus of most of the juice stands I’ve seen in Mexico, plus more, from carrot juice to granola smoothies, vampiros, fruit cocktails, and even a special “anti-influenza” concoction. I enjoy that they also make thicker licuados instead of just aguas. The little taco stand next to the juice bar is also admirably complete, serving normal street taco fare along with delicacies I’ve yet to try, like cheek, lips, eyes and brain.
Still, the real highlight is the big tacos on the left. There’s always something cooking on the grill, thin cuts of steak being further cut into pieces, and on the edges are mounds of cooked longaniza and chuleta waiting to be scooped up in a tortilla. The meat is delicious and salty, and the big corn tortillas are supple and not brittle, but also smooth and not grainy. They combine aspects I normally associate separately with corn and flour tortillas. Tacos with cheese are even better, a good fistful of queso Oaxaca melted on the grill along with the meat.
Then there’s the guisados and salsas, the sides that really make the tacos special. There are frijoles de olla cooked with lard, salty nopalitos, slightly chewy with an even slighter hint of sourness, soft oily mashed potatoes with jalapeños, a dangerous sour and spicy mix of fermented onion and delicate habanero ribbons, dark red salsa guajillo, a little sweet and even fruity, with a dull spiciness that takes over at the end, and a liquid-like guacamole with bits of chile. Guacamole is very common with tacos, but it’s usually half avocado/half chile and unbearably spicy. Here the flavor, consistency and appearance are delightful: smooth, soft, and thick. Even the limes are pleasing. I’ve squeezed many limes where I can count the falling drops, but here they’re juicy and a pair of wedges is more than enough for a pair of tacos. My personal favorite is bistec con queso, with guacamole and salsa roja, lime, nopalitos, potatoes, and beans… It doesn’t really fit in the tortilla!
I’m a big eater, and part of what attracted me to el Progreso at first was the prospect of filling up on guisados. I filled my tacos and put lots more on top, and ate with my chopsticks, because I didn’t see utensils anywhere. One day I noticed a sign above the grill that asks customers to refrain from doing exactly what had been doing, and since then I’ve been more conservative. My tacos don’t all split open when I’m eating them anymore. I really like to eat sitting down, so if I arrive midday and it’s crowded I just wait. People are in and out so fast that it’s never long. When I’m sitting, I enjoy my food and the restaurant more thoroughly. I chew slowly for my health and I watch the woman making tortillas, flattening a lump of masa in the press and laying it on the grill. She works with great skill and urgency, her mouth half open in concentration with her tongue pressed against the inside of her lower lip. I watch a boy hurry carefully down the stairs holding a platter with pounds and pounds of beef. I watch the people mill around the steaming grill, and the man with his butcher knife hack 40 sausages into a mountain of giblets. And when I’m done I go to the strange wood paneled pulpit, in a recess of the passageway connecting the two sides. I tell the man 2 tacos, uno con queso y el otro no, and I pay him 30 pesos.
My friend Shaun is coming from Korea to visit me in 10 days, and he expects me to show him all sorts of Mexican food in the short week he’s here. I think I’ll take him to Tacos el Progreso the day he arrives.
Tacos El Progreso, Antonio Caso 30, Colonia Tabacalera
Open Monday-Saturday, 7am-10pm, Closed Sunday