When traveling abroad I always sniff around for regional specialties, but I don’t make rigid rules as to what I will or should eat; my mind and stomach are open. In centrally located capitals made up of people from all over, such as Madrid and Paris, the best their host countries have to offer can be found. Mexico City is that way too. Here, if you know where to look, cochinita pibil every bit as good as that in the Yucatán, great Oaxacan and Poblano moles, artesan tortas ahogadas and birria are proudly prepared by immigrants from those states. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover, hidden from all but the most divining eyes and nostrils, a stand proffering grilled fish tacos – something unique in this urban melting pot of regional cooking.
Buried between kitchy stuffed animal shops in a busy street near edgy Tepito is an extraordinary daytime set-up specializing in just such maritime delights. Doña Maribel and family’s Tacos El Patán prepares fish the way they do it in her hometown, Lázaro Cardenas on Michoacán’s Pacific coast. And she’s the only game in town. Pescado a la talla might be known to denizens of Contramar or the rustic beaches near Acapulco. But Mari explains, while flipping a 5 kilo sierra, that “THEY use adobo, we do ours with pico de gallo.” Regional variation when explained by a local always implies an agreement that “our way is better.” Mari heads to the Mercado de la Nueva Viga every morning “before 6 a.m., otherwise you’ll get yesterday’s frozen leftovers.”
She goes through at least five fish daily. The whole sierra – a cousin of mackerel which is a bit oily so perfect for grilling – is splayed open the long way, grilled on one side over a charcoal bbq, then flipped. It is then removed and placed in foil, slathered with mayonnaise (the secret ingredient, like it or not), chile-infused oil and the aforesaid pico de gallo. It is wrapped and returned to the grill to finish. When done, the contents are scraped off for corn-tortilla tacos. Limes, a fiery chile-oil laden salsa and cole slaw are provided to augment the proceedings.
Regulars who consist of vendors, policemen, shady bikers and housewives stop by for a taco or two and a Sidral orchela. Plastic chairs line the walls of the alley this whole scene is set into so the smoky conflagration of nautical gastronomes can hang out comfortably. The mood is jolly and interactive: somehow the haven of walls is enlivening and makes for familiar banter and less transiency. Besides fish tacos, Mari also prepares extraordinary brochetas de camarón with sweet pepper to be consumed as is or in a taco. The sweet shrimp, charred at the edges retain their succulence and are good to eat shell and all. I haven’t seen such subtle street grilling since my last trip to Bangkok.
El Patán is the kind of secret place, famous to locals in the know, that makes this city a great place to eat. And Live.
Tacos El Patán
República de Bolivar 75 (between Calle del Carmen & Rodriguez Puebla, 3 blocks north of San Ildefonso) Centro
Open Monday, Wednesday - Saturday, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., closed Tuesday and Sunday