Observe the diners
When looking for a good taco on the street, be alert whenever you see people gathering around a steaming grill or a group of cazuelas filled with colorful guisados. That's the stand to head for. Watching your fellow taco-eaters can also be a good way to figure out the best way to top your taco. Notice how they approach each salsa or the way they add some drops of lime and a dash of salt. If the salsa bowls receive all the attention from the customers, you are in the right place.
Salsas are everything
A good taquero is measured by the quality of his salsas, since the salsa is the element that wakes up your complete sense of taste. Picture the taco as the meaty outline of a room and the salsa as the hand-picked furniture that gives personality to the space. A good taco stand will have at least two types of salsas: red chilli and either green tomatillo or spicy guacamole. Other popular salsas to keep an eye out for are pico de gallo (tomato, onion, and chili chopped and mixed together) and a habanero-onion-vinegar complement.
Dry and dark-looking meat or chorizo, a dark orange hue on an al pastor trompo, or a guisado with an excess of oil mean the food has been sitting on the grill for too long. Some taqueros have meat already chopped to speed up the service. If you notice a lot of meat filling prepared and no people around, stay away. In the case of the taco al pastor, choose a trompo with a fresh color and juicy meat. Finally, if the taco meat is cooked by simmering it in oil, pay attention to the oil's color. An oil with an overly dark or almost black color means it has been used longer than it should.
An organized taco stand will have two people running the show. First, you will see the master taquero making the tacos, working the meat with the machete on a huge block of wood. Then, there is the apprentice or the taquero’s commis, who is in charge of taking orders, heating the tortillas, preparing the mise en place, handing out the sodas, and cleaning up plates. Also, the commis takes care of the money — that way the taquero's hands don't touch dirty bills or coins.
Lime, lime, and more lime
Every taco stand has limes. The quality of the limones is very important. They need to be fresh and cut in fourths, because this makes it easier to remove the seeds.
Taco stands care about cleaning their serving line because if it is dirty or messy, people won’t eat there. They need to solve this problem fast and efficiently. Traditionally, tacos were served taco on a piece of paper on top of a plastic plate, so the oil or the salsa drops will land on the paper, making cleaning the plate easier. Nowadays, taqueros have come up with an even smarter fix: they wrap every plate in a thin plastic bag. Once you are done, they dispose of the bag and wrap the plate in a new one for the next customer. Taqueros figure out how many tacos each customer has eaten by counting the pieces of paper off every plate. Don’t mess with their system by throwing away the papers.
General taco etiquette
Mingle with the crowd and address the taquero as "paisa," which is short for "paisano." How to order: If the taquero asks you: "Con todo?" that means he will serve your taco with cilantro, onion, and salsa. If you prefer to add the salsa at your own discretion, order the taco only "con verdura," that is, with cilantro, onion, and no salsa.
Top photo by Helen Rosner