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Tacos: A Little Piece of Mexico in D.C.

by Cyntia Aranday   The humble taco has been a part of Mexican culture for a long time. As Mexico opened up to outside contact, the taco found its way to America and the rest of the world.

by Cyntia Aranday


The humble taco has been a part of Mexican culture for a long time. As Mexico opened up to outside contact, the taco found its way to America and the rest of the world. Now the simple corn based staple has become irrevocably linked with Mexican culture, but with a postmodern twist. Different nations and different cultures have tweaked the taco to suit their own cuisine and palates. But, where did it really originate? And how do Mexicans actually enjoy this dish?


It is hard to produce a definitive timeline for the taco. Sixteenth century Spanish writers Bernal Diaz del Castillo and San Bernardino de Sahagún mention it in the books they wrote about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. History has it that the taco first appeared as a result of a specific necessity. In most pre-hispanic cultures men went to work in the fields while the women stayed at home, taking care of the children and preparing the meals. Women would take food out to their husbands while they worked. They needed an easier way to transport the food,and so they created the taco using the tortilla as an edible container in which to hold the food and prevent it from spilling or getting cold.


Throughout his life, Sahagún wrote about the different types of tortillas he had come in contact with, while Diaz del Bernal, in his book “True history of the Conquest of New Spain,” mentions the first ever recorded taquiza, a gathering where people eat only tacos. He uses the word quauhtaqualli which became shortened to taqualli, and subsequently taco, by the Spanish who struggled with the original pronunciation.


A more recent American version regarding the origin of the taco, has been developed by Professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher (professor of history at the University of Minnesota). He claims that tacos were created much later in the Eighteenth century Mexican silver mines. The word taco Pilcher suggests referred to small slips of paper used to wrap up explosive charges used to extract the ore.


  1. Castillo, B. (1800). The True History of the Conquest of Mexico Originally written 1568. Translated from the original Spanish, by Maurice Keatinge Esq. London: Printed for J. Wright, by John Dean, Congleton.
  2.  De Sahagún, F., & Anderson, A. (1982). General History of the Things of New Spain. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.
  3. Jeffrey M. Pilcher (2012) Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press)


Whatever the origins, there is no doubt that in modern Mexico, the taco is now part of everyday life. A taco is composed of a soft tortilla which cradles a filling of meat or beans usually with a delicious, often spicy sauce. It is found in a plethora of locations and in myriad forms; from sudados or de canasta that are usually kept in a basket and covered and stuffed with various fillings, to tacos de cabeza (head), moronga (blood) or ojo (eye).


For a Mexican living abroad, a taco can represent a piece of home, reminding us of the people, the places and the ambience of the place one grew up in. Many “Mexican” eateries in the USA in general, and D.C. in particular have more of a Tex-Mex vibe than a purely Mexican one. The Americanized Tex-Mex version replaces the original soft tortilla with a crispy hard-shell. There are still some places however that provide an authentic Mexican experience. Here are some of the places you can drop by and get that homey-feel and flavor whatever your budget. When only a taco will do, try these out for size.


Oyamel Cocina Mexicana ($$$)

Located at 401 7th St NW.

Here you can experience a gourmet approach to some Mexican classics, from Tacos de Tinga Poblana con Puerco (a stew of shredded pork with chorizo, chipotle, lettuce and avocado), de Suadero (brisket), de Cochinita Pibil con Cebolla en Escabeche (typical dish from Yucatán pit barbecue pork with pickled red onion and Mexican sour orange) to the truly exotic Chapulines (sauteed grasshoppers).


District Taco ($)

Situated in three different locations in Washington (M Street, Pennsylvania Ave & F St NW) this food chain has some incredible tacos, a combination of tortilla and a choice of topping. I recommend that you try the Tacos Al Pastor (carved rotisserie pork marinated in Guajillo chilli and served with chopped pineapple), Carnitas (slow-cooked pork) and Barbacoa (slow-cooked shredded beef) all with coriander and onion and salsa. Be brave and try the most spicy one!


El Chilango ($)

This is a food stand located at 14th St N & N Quinn St in Arlington. A bit outside the District but it is worth a trip to check out the Al Pastor de Chorizo (spicy sausage) and Carne Asada (steak) again all prepared with onion and coriander.


Taco Bar ($)

Located on Fields Road, this place offers some of the best quality tacos and tortas (which are another staple of Mexican street food). Make sure you try the tacos de suadero (a type of beef), de chorizo or, if you really want to sound like an expert, ask for Campechanos (A style of taco in which several meats, usually beef and pork (a chicharrón, longaniza, etc.), are combined to delicious effect). For the more adventurous among you give the lengua (tongue) a try!


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