Every country has its own take on street food, from Australia to Thailand to Colombia to Italy, but Mexico has some of the best street food in the world.
Street food is a window into the local culture and people, a look at who they are, as seen through the barometer of their favorite foods. It tells a story of what’s in season and what’s grown or produced locally. Street food is very much a reflection of the area and its people—and it would be impossible to try and write about everything Mexico has to offer. Each of its different climates and areas, from coast to coast and in-between, has their own street food specialties.
A few tips: Don’t be put off by the simplicity of a food cart or stand; standards are quite different than in the U.S. or Canada and some of the best food you can find will come from tables set up in front of someone’s house. Look for crowds of people, longevity and whatever cleanliness standards make you feel comfortable. And while there may be some sort of printed menu or sign, asking what’s available is always the best.
Wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, these plump bundles of aromatic, melt-in-your-mouth flavor are deservedly the stuff of legend. The trick is to get them fresh-made and to know what’s inside. (Shrimp eyeballs and antennae, anyone?) Savory fillings include the standard chicken, pork or beef; sweet fillings can be pineapple, banana, raisins or other dried fruit, cajeta (goat milk caramel). But really, in the case of tamales, the sky’s the limit as to what the creative cook wants to wrap masa around. Spices, sweeteners and marinades are as varied as the wind. My suggestion? Buy one of each and see which you like the best. Provecho!
How to talk about tacos? With a million delicious fillings and even more salsas and garnishes that go into the makings, they truly are a barometer of the local culinary scene, wherever you may be. Some are traditionally eaten in the morning; some for lunch and still others only appear once the sun goes down. Quesabirria, cochito tatemado, carne asada, every imaginable organ and part of the cow (ask before you eat or throw caution to the wind!), al pastor, barbacoa, tinga, lengua, sesos, camaron capeado…the list goes on and on.
Size varies from a cymbal-sized criminal to a tiny taco de canasta, corn or flour tortillas filled with who-knows-what tempt us from every direction. In places like Mexico City and Oaxaca, where the street food scene is legendary, you’ll find lots of unfamiliar local ingredients. Dare to eat courageously or stick to the tried and true.
The delicious answer to the now-illegal turtle soup is caguamanta, supposedly “invented” in Mazatlán. Satisfying and filling, the hearty, tomato-based stew tastes like beef but folks, I have to tell ya: that meat is manta ray, the same ones you see at the aquarium or sliding along in the shallows at the beach. Why does it taste so good? I have no idea, but hey, it does, especially on chilly mornings, served with steaming-hot corn tortillas and lime to squeeze on top. For another eating milestone, ask for aleta de atun (tuna fin) added to your soup or tacos.
Who knew baked potatoes could taste this good?! The secret is in the details: fire-roasted, then covered with the salsas of your choice, guacamole, crema and butter, and, if you like, carne asada. How best to eat such a thing? With fresh corn tortillas, of course, either blanditas (soft) or dorados (dry-fried and crispy), used in place of a spoon or a fork.
Elsewhere, these might be called a Frito Pie, but that’s where the similarity ends. Mexico’s tostilocos use the basic foundation of a bag of chips—in this case Tostitos—and then pile on the toppings. “Traditional” tostilocos, created in Tijuana in the ‘90s, include cueritos (fried pork skin or chicharrón), cucumber, rueditas (small fried wheels of flour) jícama, lime juice, hot sauce, chamoy, Tajín, salt, and cacahuates japoneses (sweet coated peanuts). Nowadays, ceviche, cut-up hot dogs and all the fixin’s, mayonnaise, hot sauce and lime, and nacho cheese sauce are all fair game.
The hype about coconut water’s health benefits may or may not be true, but boy oh boy, it sure makes a body feel good! Especially during the hot summer, an icy cold, fresh cut coco frio is a delicious way to stay hydrated. If you live on the coast, fresh cocos frios will be easily and readily available. (Inlanders, it might be a different story.) For the best experience, be sure your coco is cold as can be; the vendor will chop a hole off the top with a machete, stick a straw in and balance a couple of lime wedges on the side. When you finish drinking the water, give the coconut back to the vendor—he’ll split it, scoop out the coconut meat and give it all back to you to eat. (Mexican-style includes an array of hot sauces and Tajin; personally, I like mine plain.)
Sometimes I ask for the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle “para llevar” (to-go) and then take water and meat home to the blender to whip up as a base for Thai curry.
There’s something unabashedly delightful about a still-hot twist of sweet, deep-fried dough, drenched in sugar, eaten with the fingers. Wherever you are and whatever you call it, it’s just plain delicious. In Mexico, this bit of culinary decadence is called a churro. They can be plain, rolled in cinnamon sugar, or stuffed (relleno) with hot fudge, Nutella or jam. Made from a simple batter of flour, sugar, cinnamon and water, churros are pumped from a special extruder, like a big pastry gun, into hot corn oil. The thin, ridged tubes or spirals turn a perfect golden color as they bob and cook. They’re then removed, dredged in cinnamon sugar, and packed in small brown paper bags that fit, still warm, right in your hand. Churro vendors can be found on many streets, in many neighborhoods, most commonly at the end of the day as the sun is going down and folks are making their way home from work.
Who doesn’t like a sno-cone? Called raspados in Mexico, these are just like the shaved ice you may already be familiar with. The vendor scrapes from a giant block of ice into a paper cone, then douses it with whichever fruit syrup you’ve decided on, sometimes adding a generous pour of the ubiquitous lechera, or sweetened condensed milk. The best raspados are those made the old-fashioned way, with real fruit cooked in a sugar syrup, as opposed to just colored flavored syrup.
Pretty to look at, delicious to drink, Mexico’s aguas frescas always hit the proverbial spot, whatever part of the country you happen to be in. Fruit-based, usually highly-sweetened, agua fresca—which translates to “fresh water”—can be made from any kind of fruit: melon, guayaba, pineapple, mango, strawberry, watermelon, lime, et al. Sometimes fresh herbs are added, too, like mint or basil. You’ll also find jamaica(hibiscus flowers), tamarind, horchata (made from rice) and cebada (made from barley).
Somewhere in Between
A favorite in the Yucatan—which perhaps explains the Dutch Gouda cheese—these sweet or savory treats are one of the most unusual flavor combos I’ve ever had. A thin, sweet crispy waffle-like shell is made on the spot and rolled into a long tube while warm. Next, sweet fillings like caramel and lechera (sweetened condensed milk) are poured inside, along with shredded Gouda cheese. Topped with something jaunty like a banana slice (depending on what flavors you opt for) the resulting marqueza is both sweet and salty, perfectly crispy and lusciously soft.
Mexican history says tejuino is a drink of the Gods. Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa all lay claim to the thick, tangy, corn-based beverage; others say it hails from the Tarahumara in Chihuahua. But tejuino also claims more earthly benefits: Hung-over, dehydrated, cruda? Have a glass of tejuino (teh-hwee-noh). Some say it’s better than coffee; others say it’s good for pregnant women or nursing mothers. Whatever the case, it’s definitely an unusual drink.
Making tejuino is a complex, multi-step process best left to the experts. It starts with masa (corn flour), piloncillo (brown, unrefined cane sugar), water and salt, all boiled together in proportions that vary with the cook. The mixture is left to ferment for about a week at room temperature, like a sourdough starter. When the fermentation process is complete, the thick, silvery mash is transferred into insulated coolers and chilled. Usually vendors have two coolers: one with the concentrated, rather gelatinous mixture, another thinned with crushed ice. When served, fresh lime juice is first squeezed into a cup and a pinch of salt and baking soda added. The dilutedtejuino is added, and the mixture is poured back and forth rapidly several times between two cups or containers to thoroughly mix it.
Both the taste and the texture are unusual—you’ll either love it or hate it. It’s sweet but salty at the same time and there’s a slight tang from the fermentation and the lime juice. The corn flavor is subtle but yummy; sort of like a sweet ‘n sour lime-cornbread Icee.
Atole & Gorditas
You may have seen them: Shiny, puffed-up rounds of glistening dough cooling on a wire rack, with balls of dough and what look like corn tortillas, perfect rolled-out circles, nearby. On what is probably a rickety table, there’s a gas burner with a pot of heather-colored liquid being stirred vigorously with a big whisk. The drink, atole, is a sweet, hot, thick drink made with corn. Usually sold in tandem with gorditas(different than the thick corn tortilla shells topped with carne asada), it’s a traditional Mexican and Central American drink made from toasted masa (corn flour) mixed with water, sweetened with piloncillo, vanilla and cinnamon. It can be thick like porridge or a thinner drink; the texture is one of those things you either love or hate. Sometimes you can find champurrado, a chocolate version, too. Gorditas taste like sweet cornbread but are also reminiscent of East Indian puris or Mexican sopes. Deep-fried in corn oil, the dough is just masa (corn flour), sugar and water. The flavor and mouth-feel is crispy-flaky, sweet corn goodness, warm and steaming as they come out of the hot oil.
Camotes & Platanos Machos
Perhaps you’ve heard the low, train-like whistle some evenings and wondered what it was. Maybe you’ve followed the breathy sound to its source, and discovered the warm, melt-in-your-mouth goodness that comes out of these rolling steam ovens (camoteros). Inside the compact stainless-steel carts, platanos machos (plantains) and camote (sweet potatoes) are slowly baked. This slow cooking releases all the natural sugars, resulting in an unbelievably delicious treat that can be eaten as-is, or the way locals do it, drenched with lechera (sweetened condensed milk). I like to get an order of half plantains and half sweet potato, then rush home to eat them with some good butter and a little salt.
If you have any questions about this mouth-watering Mexican street food, let me know!