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By Masahiro Iztapawood, an expert on Mexico City’s street food after 50 years of living in Mexico’s capital
By Elodi Troskie
The culinary scene in Mexico City is explosive and truly offers something for everyone. From the wide variety of very affordable street food vendors to fresh produce markets to urban, international restaurants, you’ll never run out of places to eat in Mexico City. My work in the advertisement industry allows me to travel a lot, but I always look forward to coming home again. My favourite thing about street food in Mexico City is how it has evolved from food traditionally cooked in poorer communities to the diverse culture it accommodates nowadays, and how you can find anything ranging from simple, traditional Mexican dishes to gourmet cuisine. Here are my recommendations for 10 must-try street foods in Mexico City to really experience eating like a local.
Tamales are one of the most popular choices for a street food breakfast in Mexico City. Tamal is made from corn masa that is then wrapped in a corn husk and filled with anything your heart desires. Meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables – the filling possibilities are endless. Tamales are my favourite street food breakfast at one of the city’s food markets. Depending on the local traditions and seasonal ingredients, almost every state in Mexico has unique versions of tamales. The most common fillings in Mexico City are chicken and pork in a red or green mole. Often accompanying tamales is atole, a hot corn-based drink sweetened with unrefined sugar and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon. Surprisingly, it’s not as sweet as you might imagine! Atole is especially popular around the Christmas holidays. In Mexico City, you’ll find vendors selling tamales and atole from the early hours of the morning, perfect for an on-the-go breakfast for locals heading to work.
Tacos are an obvious choice when it comes to street food in the city. The usual fillings are meat-based but accommodating the spike in both locals and visitors with meat-free dietary requirements, you’ll also find really good vegetarian options. Tacos Gus is a hidden gem for the vegetarian traveller where you’ll find some of the best tacos in Mexico City. With the wide variety of tacos you’ll find on the streets of Mexico City, make sure you know you taco vocab! Al Pastor is one of the most popular options – filled with tender pork roasted on a giant spit and topped with onions and cilantro. Al pastor refers to the cooking method of roasting the meat on a vertical spit, while guisado refers to stewed meat and a la plancha describes meat cooked on a griddle. If you’re a seafood lover, look out for tacos de mariscos and pescado (fish). You won’t need to search long and far to find a taco street vendor. In fact, you’re most likely never more than just a few minutes from the nearest taco stand. Prepare to adopt tacos as your staple food while in Mexico City!
The Mexico City version of the classic sandwich, tortas consist of toasted telera bread or a bolillo roll filled with anything from meat to cheese to vegetables (this seems to be a recurring theme in the Mexican cuisine). With the endless options of filling variations for tortas, tacos, tamales and quesadillas, you’ll never have to wonder what to eat in Mexico City. A few of the most popular fillings for tortas are chorizo, melted cheese, roasted pork, carnitas, avocado, jalapenos and a variety of beans. One of the best places to find tortas in Mexico City is El Esquina de Chilaquiles, a street food stall in the Condesa area. You can expect to pay around 40 MXN for a meal that will keep you going for the rest of the day. The stall is open every day from 08:00 until midnight.
Quesadillas have been adopted in many countries across the world, but they don’t come close to the traditional Mexican quesadilla. Similar to tacos, quesadilla are characterised by the use of longer tortillas. Despite what the name suggests, quesadillas aren’t always filled with cheese. In fact, in Mexico City, they don’t come with cheese unless you specifically request it. Typical fillings include potatoes, cooked mushrooms, chorizo and pulled meat with salsa. And cheese – should you ask for it. In Mexico City, there are mainly two variations of quesadilla. The first is yellow corn dough filled with your desired guisado and then deep fried. Secondly, gordita de chicharrón: corn dough filled with chicharrón (generally fried pork belly, although variations of chicken, mutton and beef aren’t uncommon). Only after it’s cooked, the tortilla is split open again to be topped with salsa, cilantro and onion. One of the best places to get quesadillas in Mexico City is at the Quesadillas Colima on the corner of Colima and Merida Street – a very popular spot for a lunch break.
Tlacoyos are made with blue corn dough and traditionally filled with chicharrón, requeson (cheese) or a mixture of beans. Tlacoyos are made by adding the fillings before cooking and then topping with nopales (Mexican cacti often used as a cooking ingredient), salsa and cheese. Tlacoyos are always eaten hot. The best place to eat tlacoyos in Mexico City is at a popular but unnamed street food stall at Mercado La Merced, one of the biggest and best-known markets in Mexico City. This particular stall can be found close to the market’s main entrance. The stall is only open a few days of the week, making it a bit of a Mexico City mystery – but one worth figuring out! Mercado La Merced is packed with a big variety of traditional Mexican food, one of the most popular places to eat in Mexico City and ideal if you’re looking for a street food tour adventure. The market is open every day from 05:00 until 19:00 (06:00 until 17:00 on Sundays).
Let’s move on to some street food options for the sweet tooth travellers. Camotes, sweet potato served with strawberry jam and condensed milk, are one of Mexico’s oldest street food traditions. The sweet potatoes are pressure cooked in a charcoal oven and then topped with sweet garnishes. You’ll hear a camote cart before you see it: when the vendor releases steam from the oven used to cook the sweet potato, a high-pitched whistle will sound through the streets. This is a common street sound in Mexico City that you’ll grow to find comforting after a while in the city, letting you know a sweet treat isn’t far away. Although camotes are considered a dessert, you can trick yourself into believing you’re really just getting your daily portion of vegetables in.
In Mexico City, you’ll find churros like nowhere else in the world. These sweet fried delicacies are the go-to late-night snack after a night of exploring the city. Churros are typically topped with cinnamon sugar, but almost every churro vendor will have the option to add chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, or dulce de leche sauces – the ultimate delight! Look for a churro stand at one of the many food markets in Mexico City. A popular choice are the street food stalls in the Colonia Roma district, located in the hipster Cuauhtémoc area where you’ll still find traditional street food among the plentiful international cuisines. Cuauhtémoc houses El Moro, a budget-friendly café considered by many the best place to get churros in Mexico City. Indulge alongside a hot cup of coffee!
Elotes, a salty corn-on-the-cob snack, is another popular late-night treat since elotes stands generally only open at night. Mainly two varieties of elotes can be found in Mexico City: boiled and grilled. For the first, the corn is boiled with chilli, cheese and mayonnaise. The second version is grilled corn with the toppings added afterwards. Closely related to elotes are esquites, where the kernels are removed from the cob, cooked with chicken broth and epazote, a traditional Mexican herb, and served in a cup with similar toppings that would be used for elotes.
You may have picked up that Mexicans don’t hold back when it comes to pork. Chicharron is crispy fried pork skin, a popular on-the-go snack among locals. Chicharrones are eaten like potato chips and are best served covered in hot sauce. Chicharrones are especially popular among children, who find its shapes and sizes rather entertaining. Chicharrones can be as big as one meter in length, so you might be snacking for a while. Some street food vendors sell chicharron made of flour or corn, which might sound like cheating to some, although this provides a meat-free option for vegetarians. At chicharron carts, you’ll usually find other fried Mexican snacks as well.
Agua fresca is a refreshing non-alcoholic fruit-based drink. Many variations of this drink can be found in Mexico and interesting ingredients like cereal, seeds and hibiscus flowers are often used. Some of the most popular flavours are guava, tamarind, mamey and hibiscus. Another variation is licuados, where evaporated milk is added to make a fresh fruity milkshake. Agua fresca can be found at street food stalls and restaurants all across the city. Some of the best agua fresca in Mexico City can be found at El Abuelo at the Xochimilco Market, located in the historically and culturally rich Xochimilco District. Flavours are changed up daily and you’ll have about ten different kinds to choose from every day. Perfect to cool down and re-energise in between your street food hopping!
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