In Mexico City, food is life. Every corner you turn, every block you walk, the scents of freshly cooked foods invade your senses. In fact, it is nearly impossible to visit the Mexican capital without — at least once —opting for street food. From the crack of dawn to well after midnight, in carts, stalls, trucks, and stands all across the city, food vendors prepare classic delicacies for their demanding crowds.
With a surplus of options (and food terms) comes indecision and even intimidation, so where do you start? Here’s a beginner’s guide to Mexico City street food, featuring five popular options, to help you navigate the scene.
1. Tacos al pastor
Tacos al pastor are the quintessential Mexico City tacos. Vendors are easy to spot with their vertical spits (similar to a gyro) slowly roasting seasoned pork with a peeled pineapple crown on top. The cooks are more like performers with their skillful knife movements carving pieces of pork into the tiny corn tortillas. The tacos are topped off with chopped white onions, cilantro, salsa, and a few slices of pineapple.
Tip: Tacos al pastor are the ultimate after-party food; you will find a lot of stands outside of bars and clubs ready to serve your ultimate craving. But these tacos are so tasty that they are eaten at all times of the day.
Tortas are the ultimate Mexican lunch food. They consist of, well, just about anything between two slices of bolillo or telera bread: breaded meat, potato, ham, pierna (pork leg), all types of cheeses and veggies, al pastor, sausages, and the list goes on. There are countless variations for all tastes and preferences. While you can find stands in all parts of the city, they consistently seem to be at subway entrances around lunchtime (2-4pm).
Tip: To test your spicy threshold, try a torta ahogada, a version prevailing from the state of Jaliso filled with chorizo and potato soaked in a watery, very hot tomato sauce and topped with shredded cabbage, sour cream, and cheese.
3. Tacos de carnitas
This type of taco is a pork lover’s dream. Carnitas are made from bit-sized pieces of pork meat (you get to choose what pig part(s) you’d like to eat) slowly braised with lard and other seasonings. The meat is then put on a corn tortilla with your condiments of choice (chopped white onions, cilantro, lime) and usually a red or guacamole salsa.
Tip: There are different names for carnitas depending on the part of the pig you would like to eat: maciza (shoulder – the most popular choice), buche (stomach), cueritos (skin), costilla (rib), achicalada (a mix of everything), lengua (tongue), and just about every other body part you can imagine.
4. Elotes & esquites
In Mexico, corn is typically found in two forms: elote or esquites. An elote is a grilled or boiled corn on the cob topped with a mayonnaise spread, cotija crumbly cheese, chili powder, and lime. For esquites, the corn kernels are removed from the cob and cooked with chicken broth and epazote (a Mexican herb). Esquites are served in a styrofoam cup with the same toppings as for the elotes.
Tip: Many elote and esquite stands are only out in the late evening or at night, so be on the lookout near popular places such as plazas, clubs, bars, and subway exits — exceptions do exist.
Resembling a thick, stuffed tortilla, a tlacoyo is an oval-shaped treat made of blue corn masa stuffed with your choice of chicharrón (pork rinds), requesón (fresh cheese), or haba (mashed fava beans); after it is cooked on the comal (an open-air griddle), anything from nopales to potatoes are added on top, usually followed by cilantro, salsa, and cheese.
Tip: Tlacoyos are generally eaten between 10am and 4pm, but if you want to be sure and have a wide range of fillings and toppings (and a lesser wait), arrive before the lunch rush beginning around 2pm. Also, they may look small, but they are extremely filling.
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