Whether Charco de las Ranas is the *premier* taqueria in Mexico City I can't say - it's a problem of too many taquerias and too little time - but I can attest to the fact that Charco de las Ranas is good, very, very good. Located in the Mixcoac neighborhood of D.F, it is well worth making an effort to seek it out.
A rather large group of us turned up at the brightly lit, yellow and orange taqueria on a recent Friday night. The restaurants probably seats around 75 and does a brisk take-out business, although these tacos are best eaten straight off the grill. One side of the room contained the open kitchen and was entirely taken up by fiery open grills and white-hot flat tops where everything is cooked to order.
With lightening efficiency, 5 creamers of salsa were delivered to our tables as soon as we were seated. Salsa Verde, Salsa Guacamole that had been enhanced with tomatillos and chile, Pico de Gallo, Salsa Chipotle and a roasted tomato salsa with a deep, full flavor. Now, there usually is nothing subtle or distinct about tacos, they're a pretty straightforward snack, but each of the 5 salsas created different flavor nuances, giving an unexpected diversity of flavor to the simple taco. While all were good, two stood out. The Salsa Chipotle had the warm smoky flavor typical of smoked jalapenos and enhanced everything it touched. The star of the 5 salsas, however, was the roasted tomato salsa which was both rich and sweet, with hints of heat from the chile, all of which melded together to create a perfectly balanced salsa that complimented everything yet overwhelmed nothing.
The salsas were followed by plates of grilled onions that were easy to eat straight or with a little salsa to perk up the sweetness and char. Next up was one of the house specialties, Chicharonnes de Queso. Handfuls of a good melting cheese (Chihuahua?) were thrown on to the grill top and the oil scraped off as it separated out from the cheese. As the remaining cheese began to get crusty it was deftly folded into a large cylinder making a deliciously light and crispy snack. Or, as some of us discovered, Chicharonnes de Queso was a sinfully good way to consume even more of the addictive salsas.
When people think of fish tacos, they usually think of them as being a Baja "thing. Not exactly, the fish taco has reached Mexico City. Generous amounts of mild white fish had been marinated in an array of seasonings, mostly likely achiote -based, and then grilled over an open flame to give them a slightly smoky taste. This version of fish tacos was good, but not as good as a Baja fish taco, and, besides, Charco de las Ranas had other much better options.
The arrachera tacos featured strips of tender, grilled skirt steak, which satisfied the beef lovers among us. Better still were the tacos al pastor, which is the real house specialty. Long, thin strips of pork had been seasoned, once again most likely with some sort of achiote based rub, and then threaded onto a very large spit to make a cylinder that very much resembled a gyro. The meat was hung vertically in front of a very hot and very large plume of a flame (I'd guess being fired by a very large propane tank somewhere). As tacos al pastor were ordered a cook with an enormous knife shaved off thin pieces of meat for each order.
Tender, lush, succulent, porky, redolent of spices and smoky, each taco was garnished with a small piece of grilled or smoke pineapple. Topped with a dab of the salsas we all happily munched away until we could eat no more. The conversations ebbed as we each reached taco nirvana. Or at least until the sopes arrived.........
The menu at Charco de las Ranas offers all the other usual taqueria suspects (though not burritos), along with the usual meat, poultry, innards and veggie options for filling things. In addition, alambres, fajitas, sopa, enchiladas, quesadillas, etc. are also offered. Prices are at the upper end of inexpensive by American standards and moderate by Mexican. Beer, soft drinks and a very decent house made horchata are available as beverages. I believe there are multiple Charco de Las Ranas around D.F., I was at the one in Mixcoac, which I was told was the original location. I had the menu with the address, but have not been able to find it since arriving home.