The sweet temptation of street eats seems to be lurking around just about every other corner in Mexico. With food stalls galore and roaming vendors out in full force, a sit-down meal often becomes a mere afterthought.
Before beginning, here's a word of advice for anyone interested in experimenting with street grub in Mexico: leave behind any guilt about consuming fattening and artery-choking foods. Chocolate-dipped churros (fritters), lard-laden refried beans and deep-fried carnitas immediately come to mind.
An introduction to Mexican street food usually begins with the so-called vitamin T food group: tacos, tostadas and tortas. That includes the ubiquitous taco al pastor, a highly addictive snack. Look for the cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit, then watch the taquero go to work as he slices thin cuts of marinated pork onto a corn tortilla topped with cilantro, diced onion, salsa and pineapple. Some here claim spit-roasted pastor is a distant relative of the shawarma, but that's debatable.
Carnitas, the undisputed king of cholesterol, has a huge following nationwide. And while every region does its own version of deep-fried pig, the state of Michoacán takes the prize as the carnitas capital. The key ingredient in Michoacán-style carnitas is fresh-squeezed orange juice, which gives a sweet citrus flavor to the slow-cooked pork.
Barbacoa (mutton) is another street food classic, but don't get fooled by imitations (some unscrupulous vendors in Mexico City try to pass off barbacoa-style beef as mutton). For the real deal, you simply can't beat Hidalgo-style barbacoa, made where else but in the central state of Hidalgo. When done properly, the mutton is slow-cooked in an oven or underground pit, then it's reheated in a maguey leaf wrap and ready to serve. Order a consommé to accompany the barbacoa and you just might decide to change the date on your return ticket.
What makes the street food experience so interesting in Mexico is the wide variety of regional cuisine on offer. On the Baja California coast, beer-battered fish and shrimp tacos are the main attraction. While down south in Oaxaca, the nation's culinary capital, it's all about the exquisite moles and steaming tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Head east to the Yucatán and you're sure to find papadzules (a hard-boiled egg taco in pumpkin seed sauce).
Contrary to popular thought, vegetarian street fare does exist in Mexico, and it's pretty darn good. In Oaxaca, for instance, stands with charcoal grills fire up gut-busting tlayudas (a large, crisp tortilla folded over beans, lettuce, cheese and salsa). In fact, just about any town worth its salt has a smattering of fruit and juice stands, where you can kick your day off with a refreshing mango and papaya cocktail done up with lime juice and chili powder. And here's the best part about all of this: rarely are any of these goodies going to set you back more than US$5.
All this sounds great, you say, but is it worth the risk of getting sick? Let's just say eating on the street is always a roll of the dice. Mexico City locals go so far as to say that a taco without a little street grime just doesn't taste the same.
We'll let you be the judge.