Little has changed over the centuries and street food still plays a huge part in daily Mexican life. In the capital, Mexico City, thousands of stalls and taquerias sell tamales and quesadillas, elote (roasted corn on the cob), chapulines (roasted grasshoppers), and much, much more. The sheer variety can be overwhelming, however, so how do you navigate this gastronomic landscape when you can’t tell your tacos from your tamales? We decided to take a tour through the maze of options, following our guide Arturo, a young chef and all-round Mexican food connoisseur and enthusiast, through the central neighbourhoods of Cuauhtémoc, Juárez and Zona Rosa. Bearing in mind his advice to pace ourselves, we set off.
On the corner of Río Lerma and Río Danubio in Cuauhtémoc we sample street food number one, a tamale. These traditional Mexican breakfast snacks, literally meaning “wrapped in a leaf”, were first made for warring Aztec and Mayan tribes. Pockets of masa (a type of starchy corn dough) are stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings, wrapped in banana leaves or cornhusks and then steamed. Arturo, fortunately, reminds us to remove the wrapper before eating. Tamales often go hand-in-hand with atole, a thick corn-based drink that is served lukewarm in a variety of flavours. We go for the champurrado, a chocolate-based atole that is tasty, but doesn’t have quite the same effect as a double espresso.
Stop number two is a tortillería. Tortillas, a type of thin, unleavened flatbread made from finely ground corn, are a staple of Mexican cuisine and have been for hundreds of years. Every neighbourhood in the country has one of these small, hole-in-the-wall outlets where a machine spits out freshly made tortillas onto a conveyor belt. Our particular spot, on Río Tigris, between Río Lerma & Río Panuco in Cuauhtémoc, makes up to 800kg of tortillas a day, costing just M$12 pesos per kilo; although Arturo says this is a little pricey compared to other neighbourhoods.
Jugo (fresh juice)
A short walk away our next stop is a fresh juice stand on the corner of Río Lerma and Río Sena, Cuauhtémoc. These juice bars are everywhere in the capital and range from mobile carts serving freshly squeezed fresh oranges to permanent structures such as this one. Juice options go from the single fruit to the more elaborate. I order a jugo verde (green juice), a combination of apple, celery, parsley and the ubiquitous Mexican cactus or nopal. Alongside is a food cart where quesadillas and tlacoyos are cooked on the spot. Quesadillas traditionally always contain cheese (which explains the queso part of the name) but Mexico City is the one place in the country where you can order one without. Even tastier, however, are the tlacoyos. These are flattened masa pockets filled with cheese, fava beans or refried beans and then topped with a variety of trimmings including nopal, sour cream and coriander. Best eaten straight off the grill, they are a popular Mexico City snack made almost exclusively by women.
Tacos de Canasta
Our next port of call is Tacos de Canasta, La Abuela, further along Río Lerma on the corner with Río Rhin and run by the most convivial señor in the capital. He tells us that he’s been selling tacos for the last 18 years and shifts over 800 a day. At M$8 pesos a taco, business is good. Literally meaning “tacos in a basket” these are another favourite snack. Traditionally made with soft corn tortillas they can be filled with a variety of different flavours such as frijoles (refried beans), potatoes, eggs and pork. We opt for the cochinita pibil, gently spiced, slow roasted pork, and it is delicious.
Fortunately there’s some walking to be done before our next stop, although we do pause briefly to share a cup of freshly sliced mango along the way at a fruit stall on the corner of Havre and Hamburgo streets in Juárez. As with much of the fruit and vegetables in Mexico, our mango is doused liberally in lime juice and chilli powder. “Why?” we ask. “Because it tastes good,” replies Arturo. And it does.
Street stand number eight makes burritos, one of the few of its kind in the capital. Traditionally a food of northern Mexico (and far more commonplace across the border in the US), it’s an unusual roadside food to find in Mexico City. We share an enormous burrito among our group of four; a large flour tortilla filled with mushrooms, peppers and cheese. Arturo says that the sign of a good street food stand is the salsas that they have on offer, and this place, on the corner of calles Liverpool and Niza, has dozens of them of varying degrees of heat.
By now we’re heading towards the Zona Rosa, a neighbourhood popular for its nightlife and the location of our final two tasting venues. The first is on Río Sena, between Río Lerma and Paseo de la Reforma, and sells carnitas, meaning “little meats”, pork that’s braised or simmered in oil or lard until tender. Most carnita stands use the entire pig so you need to be confident of your animal parts when ordering unless you want to end up with the stomach or intestine. Arturo orders for us and we’re quietly relieved to find chopped pig’s calf on our tortilla (and not uterus, another possible option), sprinkled with diced onion, chopped coriander leaves and salsa.
Tacos al pastor
Fittingly enough, our final stop on the corner of Río Guadalquivir and Río Lerma is home to one of the most popular varieties of tacos on offer in the city - tacos al pastor (“in the style of the shepherd”). Similar in style to the kebab, these thick strips of pork sliced off a spit and placed on a corn tortilla are thought to have originated in the 1920s with the arrival of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Mexico. Toppings include onions, chopped cilantro and pineapple. And, despite how much we have already eaten, we devour them.
Tips on choosing your street snack stand
- Look for places with a crowd waiting to be served. Anywhere that kids/labourers are eating is usually especially good.
- Make sure the stand looks clean and that, whoever handles the money, isn’t also preparing the food.
- If it smells bad, walk away.
- Don’t be late! Mobile street stands open early morning and close when their stock has sold out.
My gastronomic odyssey was organised through “Eat Mexico”, a company founded by Lesley Tellez and Jesica Lopez Sol in 2010 which focuses exclusively on discovering the best street food that the capital has to offer through a handful of tours.
Katja Gaskell is a travel writer based in Mexico City. She is the co-founder of globetotting.com, a website that discovers the best in adventurous family travel and the author of Lonely Planet guides to Australia, China and India. She’s also partial to a taco or two. Say hello @katjagaskell