Why you should care
Because the neighborhood of Narvarte has all the quirks of film-famous Roma — but not the crowds and prices.
Smoke from two spinning spits of chargrilled meat spools into the night sky. It’s an appropriately theatrical backdrop for the chunks of flying pineapple and shavings of bright orange marinated pork that an expert taquero flicks into a waiting tortilla. This is a sight not unfamiliar to visitors in Mexico City — the coming together of a taco al pastor — but El Vilsito might just be the quintessential place to watch the show.
Top taco spot and garage El Vilsito has been churning out oil changes by day and meat-filled tortillas by night for three decades in the colonia (district) of La Narvarte, the umbrella term for five barrios (neighborhoods) — Piedad, Poniente, Oriente, Vértiz and Atenor Salas — where tacos al pastor are ubiquitous. But scratch the surface of one of Mexico City’s most understated, overlooked, kind-of-just-there places, and you’ll find more than tacos. Because Narvarte has all the quirks of Roma — yes, of Oscar-winning film fame — but without the prices (and bands of roaming tourists) to match. It’s also remarkably unchanged which, in a city undergoing a tourism boom, makes residential Narvarte something of a Mexico City unicorn.
Like much of the capital, what’s now Narvarte was once land devoted to haciendas. The functional and streamlined middle-class residences that still dominate the neighborhood didn’t sprout up until the 1940s, and Narvarte — once home to Che Guevara — remains to this day a colonia populated with pastel-painted, tile-fronted apartment blocks.
Narvarte as a whole exudes a vintage, unchanged aesthetic.
In a city where chill is in short supply, Narvarte’s cup runneth over. “It’s always been peaceful,” says Marco Antonio Chávez Méndez, a lifelong Narvarte resident. “It’s a family-friendly neighborhood [but] there’s been a lot of change … housing constructions and businesses have multiplied and the bustle of daily life has increased.” Even so, as the neighborhood’s principal avenues throb with horn-honking traffic, the tranquil Parque las Américas hums with calm, as men do pullups on the chunky metal exercise machines and toddlers slide down yellow plastic tubes in the playground. Narvarte as a whole exudes a vintage, unchanged aesthetic, best exemplified by decades-old tlapalerías (hardware stores) and cobblers who have served the same families for generations.
Wander around and you’ll hit a market eventually, where the heady scent of hundreds of flower arrangements mingles with the nauseating whiff of bubbling lard and the vibrant notes of freshly squeezed orange juice. There’s even a craft beer bar — Beer Bros — because of course there is, although it’s unlike the polished taprooms of the main Mexico City drags (a beer costs 70 pesos, or about $3.50). That’s not to say there aren’t spots that wouldn’t slot neatly into the more gentrified colonias of Roma or Condesa though. Arde Café, where corn, cacao and coffee drinks shape the menu — exactly the kind of reemerging traditional ingredients that are taking over Mexico City at large — is one of them.
As Narvarte resident, food blogger and tour guide Anais Martínez notes, “Since rent here is way cheaper than in the more hip Roma-Condesa area, lots of smaller business owners decided to open businesses [like Arde Café] with very creative concepts.” There’s also the Bigotes de Leche ice cream parlor, known for “puffs” (ice cream encased in warm brioche), as well as an eclectic jumble of international dining options.
Regardless, it’s easy to see why you might skip Narvarte. There’s little to no architectural grandeur à la the historic center or Juárez. And it’s not like wider Mexico City is short on great taco stands, right? Plus, the area is sandwiched in between more popular neighborhoods, a geographical quirk which explains why the area can be overlooked by outsiders searching for popular attractions. Its top extremes skirt the underbelly of Roma Sur, while the shark-tooth point to which Narvarte tapers isn’t close enough to Coyoacán — of Frida Kahlo Blue House fame — to warrant a cursory visit.
Yet young professionals are beginning to recognize the appeal. Some, like Martínez, migrated to Narvarte when the September 2017 earthquake made their buildings unlivable. Others, like photographer friend of mine Alicia Vera, moved back for the nostalgia — her grandma still lives just 20 minutes away.
So many people (like me) slip beneath the streets of Narvarte in the belly of a metro carriage, merely skirting the edges of this five-barrio behemoth. But when you become privy to its above-ground appeal, you’ll soon see why it’s about so much more than tacos.