Mexican street food: a beginner's guide

January 17, 2024

To the uninitiated – and, believe me, at the start of my trip I was totally uninitiated – Mexican street food can appear bewildering. Every crossroads in Mexico City has a hawker stall on each corner. Sometimes there are several other stands spread along the block. All of the local people know what to do. Of course they do.

On the other hand, I was lost and only familiar with the Tex-Mex version of Mexican cuisine. Observing from a short distance, there seemed to be a lot of etiquette involved in ordering, adding sauces and toppings, and even eating it and returning the plate; such a situation is very unsettling for an Englishman. We’re reserved. We don’t like to get etiquette wrong and look like the obvious amateur.

I needed an initiation and asked Francisco Vielma, manager of a Mexico City hotel where many G Adventures tours begin, for help. He had two reactions: The first was surprise. “Help? Why?” he wanted to know.

“I’m terrified,” I confessed, feeling like a prize turnip. “I don’t know what to do.” Francisco grinned broadly. “Do what you like. Ask what you like. Observe. Copy. Enjoy.” His second reaction was volunteering to show me around the area. “It will be my great pleasure,” he vowed.

mexico street food pic 1

The starting point, he offered, is corn. Just as pasta goes hand in hand with Italian cuisine, tortilla handmade from corn dough is the base of many Mexican foodstuffs, especially in the Central and Southern regions. Chili is fundamental to the flavours as well as coriander, oregano, allspice, and cinnamon. Chicken, beef and pork are popular fillings.

Francisco mentions that the offices and schools in the surrounding streets are filled with people who begin work early and may have travelled for a couple of hours from their suburban homes to get there. Given that lunch breaks often don’t begin until late afternoon, people need filling foods to keep them going.

“That’s why you have to eat as much as you can,” Francisco advised. “There’s no time to eat before leaving home but once you get to work you will be hungry. Street food is fast, filling, and cheap.”

mexico street food pic 2

The first thing we try is Mexico City’s speciality, taco al pastor. Introduced by immigrants from Lebanon, it’s similar to a kebab cooking on a rotating spit but, although taco al pastor means shepherd’s taco, the meat is pork rather than lamb. What’s more, the pork is marinated in a special sauce before being sliced off and eaten inside a tortilla. This is when the penny drops for me – a taco is simply a soft tortilla with a filling. I had been hoodwinked by a famous global fast food chain into thinking that a taco was a crunchy, U-shaped, deep-fried tortilla but this is part of the great Tex-Mex deception. At any rate, a good taco al pastor sure fills a growling stomach.

mexico street food pic 3

Our next stop is to try a couple of different quesadillas. One tortilla is filled with chicharrón (spiced minced pork belly fat) and the other quesillo (a stringy white cheese from the state of Oaxaca). The quesadillas are folded and sealed – much like ravioli – before being quickly deep-fried in hot oil. We spoon salsa verde, a green sauce based on tomatillo, and salsa roja with a base of tomato on them. I discover that a mouthful of both sauces is surprisingly pleasant.

Noticing that some of these stalls are in the hot sun for hours on end with their food in unrefrigerated containers, I broach the subject of Montezuma’s Revenge, the upset stomachs many travellers experience in Mexico. Francisco is quick to point out that the street vendors boil their food or cook it at high temperatures. The real risk, he claims, is from the water and travellers should stick to bottled water.

As if to prove a point, Francisco takes me to a local market hall abuzz with people from all walks of life. Workers in overalls sit side-by-side with suited business folk enjoying la comida economica. It’s a cheap and quick three-course menu meant to fill any tummy rumbling after a long morning at work. We watch chicken being deftly butchered with an enormous pair of scissors before we each have a lamb torta, known as barbacoa de Borrego. It’s served in a white bread roll with a consistency similar to a baguette and we pile on the spicy salsa verde.

mexico street food pic 4

By now I’m feeling rather full but Francisco wants to take me to one more stall, his favourite local haunt. It’s a good ten-minute walk away so I theoretically work up a little appetite. I spot the stall in question at about the same time as the sizzling meat aroma reaches my nostrils. It’s no surprise to learn that this place specializes in beef. Our tacos are piled high with thinly-sliced cuts of rib-eye, straight from the grill, onto which we ladle caramelized onions and salsa. I’m amazed to finish it but there’s nothing left on the plate by the time I hand it back to the vendor. Delicious!

mexico street food pic 5

One of the things that strikes me is that certain stalls attract big crowds while neighbouring ones are empty. I suppose it’s because of the quality of their food but Francisco quickly puts me right.

“It’s not their food but their salsa. People are attracted by the reputation of a stall for having delicious sauces. When they find one, the word will spread and people will come. They’ll wait for half an hour or more for their taco or torta if they know it will have a great sauce.”

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With three more weeks ahead of me including two of them on the Classic Mexico Adventure, I finally felt equipped to enjoy the many delights of street food. The takeaways are to be confident, to follow the crowds, to watch which sauces and condiments people are adding to their food and, above all, to get over any stuffy inclinations because, in Mexico, street food is king.

Ready to tantalize your taste buds with all of the street foods Mexico has to offer? Here are a few of our top tours to tempt you:

Classic Mexico Adventure
Mexico: Central Mexico & the Yucatan Peninsula
The Many Sides of Mexico: Puerto Vallarto to Oaxaca
Essential Central Mexico

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