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Puebla’s Take on the Taco

Pork is carved off the spit at Al Jalifa.The taco árabe, or “Arab-style taco,” is perhaps the most popular fast food in Puebla. Introduced in 1933, the Middle Eastern take on the tortilla-as-delivery system features sliced, spit-roasted pork wrapped in pita-style flatbread. Diners then typically add salt, lime juice, and salsa to taste. “To come to Puebla and not eat a taco árabe — a dish that’s reached its silver anniversary — is like missing out on mole or a cemita,” the magazine La Intolerancia says in a 2008 cover story on the subject. In other words, skipping the experience would be a sacrilege.

Fans may be surprised to discover that, contrary to widespread belief, the first tacos árabes were made by recent arrivals from Iraq, not Lebanon.

Exactly who deserves the credit remains in dispute, but observers seem to have narrowed it down to the families of two World War I-era immigrants from Iraq: Jorge Tabe, who opened the city’s first taqueria, in front of La Victoria market, and Zayas Galeana Antar, who ran a busy cantina near the Variedades theater. Both expats reportedly borrowed the idea from sandwiches that most Americans would recognize as gyros. After some experimentation and tweaking, the “Arab-style” taco as poblanos know it was born.

“The first tacos árabes were made with mutton (it’s said that ram meat was originally used for optimal results) and the flatbread was made to order by hand (at first the rounds were too hard, like inedible asbestos tiles, but little by little they were made softer) and grilled over a charcoal flame,” writes Claudio de la Lata, a food columnist for Milenio newspapers. Some early cooks dressed the tacos with tahini or yogurt sauce, a practice that has since given way to chipotle and other special salsas to please local palates.

Purists today argue that real tacos árabes are made by layering pork loin and onions on a spit and then slowly roasting everything to perfection in front of hot coals. Variations, no matter how delicious, are just not the same, they say. But most diners have embraced the dish in all of its forms: Some 300 vendors, about 25 of which are considered authentic, now sell their take on the taco in the greater metropolitan area. The Tabe and Galeana families are behind the two largest chains, Antigua Taquería La Oriental and Tacos Tony, respectively. At the center of town, you’ll find La Oriental at 2 Oriente #8 (near 2 Norte) and Tacos Tony at 3 Poniente #149 (near 3 Sur). Smaller but reputable operations include Taquería El Sultan, Taquería Al Jalifa, and Tacos Beyrut. Why not try them all?

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