They're billed as “tacos de canasta” — or “basket tacos” — on the menu at Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana, which is probably a better name for the snack than the one locals regularly use on the streets of Mexico: “tacos sudados,” which literally translates to “sweated tacos” but is known colloquially as “sweaty tacos.”
Relax, the “sweat” has nothing to do with human perspiration, a ubiquitous resource on the hot, crowded streets of Mexico City. “Sweat,” in this case, is just a ticklish synonym for “steam.” These pre-made street tacos, swathed in plastic wrap and towels, steam while layered in a basket.
I first learned about basket tacos from author and PBS host Pati Jinich, who wrote about the meal in her latest cookbook, “Mexican Today”: “The tacos are made every morning, a few hours before the bicycle vendor takes off on his route, so they are fresh. They are packed in the basket inside layers of plastic, kitchen towels and butcher paper, and because of this, they continue to steam as the vendor cycles along his route, becoming infused with flavor.”
The vendors park near abarroterias, or grocery stores, that sell water or sodas since the cyclists can't carry both baskets and bottles. Basket tacos are a favorite among Mexican laborers on lunch break. They're especially popular among construction workers, says Alfredo Solis, owner and chef behind Mezcalero, which opened Jan. 13 on 14th Street NW.
The key to quality basket tacos is giving the folded tortillas enough time to steam in their own juices. It can be tricky to replicate this process at home or in a restaurant, where folks frequently don't have time to burn. Jinich has developed a recipe that simulates the basket-steaming technique in a low-temperature oven with tacos layered in a baking dish tightly covered with plastic wrap and foil. Solis first tried to place his pre-made tacos in a commercial steamer before serving them, but the results were, well, messy.
“When people tried to eat it, it was breaking apart,” says the chef, who also runs the terrific El Sol on 11th Street NW. Diners resorted to forks to feast on their tacos, which is just wrong, like politicians who bite into New York pizza with utensils.
Solis has since changed his process. He takes fresh, house-made tortillas and dips them in guajillo sauce, then fries the rounds briefly in oil on a flat-top. From there, the tortillas go straight into the steamer — without their fillings. Once an order comes in, the kitchen takes three guajillo-dipped tortillas out of the steamer and stuffs each with a separate filling: refried black beans, chorizo and potatoes, and chicharron. They're then folded and immediately placed in a wax-paper-lined basket with a side bowl of tomatillo-avocado salsa.
The tortillas are simultaneously soggy in the center and crispy around the edges. And thanks to their dip in guajillo sauce, the rounds are also deeply crimson, as if they sat on a tanning bed too long. If the tortillas haven't had time to absorb the flavor of the fillings, that's okay. The corn wrappers are so thin, the fillings speak loud and clear on their own. Drizzled with some of the tomatillo-avocado salsa, the snacks make for a taco experience unlike any other in Washington.
These tacos are silky, soft, crispy and fiercely spicy. You won't soon forget them.
Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana, 3714 14th St. NW, 202-803-2114.