Tasty tacos and roasted goat: a culinary tour of Monterrey's delicious Mexican specialties

A food tour of Monterrey reveals there’s far more to this mountain-fringed Mexican city than its speciality, baby goat meat.Tuesday, 5 November 2019

On an extended visit to Monterrey 20 years ago, there was nothing to eat but meat: I had machaca (dried, salted shredded beef) with eggs for breakfast, cabrito (baby goat, Monterrey’s most iconic dish) for lunch and a steak for dinner. Finally, having pleaded desperately for a salad, I was told, “Well, we do have guacamole...” 

But culinary times have changed in Mexico’s third-largest city. Industry brought money, which in turn bought culture. New museums arose and fine dining establishments followed. There’s far more to the place now, so I set off for a weekend visit, staying at the uber-cool Hotel Habita MTY and fashioning a self-guided tour that combined refined chef-driven restaurants with bustling local taquerías (eateries specialising in tacos).

The city feels chilly at first, surrounded by imposing, craggy mountains that can embrace or seem ominous depending on one’s mood. A recent crop of modernist high-rises looks to the future; the past seems less important here than it does in other parts of the country.

I begin at the best-known taco joint, Taqueria Orinoco, which has a red-and-white-tiled interior that pays nostalgic homage to the typical locale of yore. Only three exquisite meat tacos are on offer: trompo (condimented pork roasted on a revolving spit); res (tender, sauteed beef); and my favourite, chicharrón (crisp confit of pork belly), which melts in my mouth and crunches at the same time. 

It feels weird to follow up such a heavenly taco experience with the fanciest place in town, and I wonder if I’m dressed up enough to enter the glitzy, award-winning Pangea. Here, chefs Guillermo González Berristáin and Eduardo Morali offer a menu of beautifully executed dishes that refer to local, as well as foreign, traditions. Most produce and meats are locally sourced; seafood is brought in from the Pacific. Cabrito is on the menu, as is magret of duck with an orange mole, a Mexican play on that French bistro classic; pretentiousness is happily absent from the food.

The next day, after a leisurely stroll through the centre, I head to the bustling Mercado Juarez market for Monterrey’s headliner, cabrito al pastor (kid seasoned with salt and spices, dry-roasted in a wood oven). I pick a table at the legendary El Pipiripau, founded 30 years ago by Don Francisco Caballero Chávez and still run by his family, and watch as cooks tend to the beasts that are roasting away, rather hellishly strung up. Locals dragging shopping carts laden with meat — and some veg — scuttle by. Uninitiated, I order the ‘Nunca he venido’ (‘I’ve never been’), which includes various parts of the animal, plus tortillas and hot sauce. The white meat of the cabrito is tender, smoky and surprisingly mild in flavour. 

That evening, I head to another new classic, Koli. The plain decor may imply simple food, but the young Rivera Río brothers have created an ingenious tasting menu that turns tradition upside-down and inside-out. They travel to remote areas of the state in search of forgotten recipes and ingredients, then reinvent them. Each dish in the multi-course menu is presented by one of the chefs, who explains its context and history while serving. I revel in my dinner here; it’s a theatrical experience. And yet I still dream of tacos. 

So, guiltily, I head to the late-night Tacos Primo. Loyal customers are lined up outside for the only kind of taco on the menu: fragrant chopped flank steak stewed in its own juices, heaped on a tortilla and topped with chopped onion, coriander and spiky salsa. I wolf down three and go to sleep happy.

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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