Almost Fearless

A Totally Incomplete Guide to Mexico City Street Food



I’ve lived in Mexico for the past 14 months and tasted almost all of the street food in Puerto Vallarta (I’ve also taken two street food tours with Vallarta Eats — I paid for those, not comped — and they are well worth it). There’s a lot of cross-pollination in Puerto Vallarta, I suspect because there are so many seasonal workers that come from other parts of Mexico to work the tourism high season, but it was nothing like I experienced in Mexico City. We’d been eating our way across Mexico from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara to Guanajuato and all the places in between, but in DF we found the best of all worlds. It reminds me of New York in a way, the constant influx of new arrivals changes the culinary landscape until the locals will accept nothing less than the best representations from each region.

Of course, it all starts with the tortilla. Unlike the US, most people don’t buy their tortillas at the store. They get them fresh from the tortilleria, a tortilla factory that is usually a very small one-room shop, with a single tortilla machine with 1-2 workers overseeing the creation of tortilla dough (corn flour and water, maybe a little slacked lime as a preservative) and the tortilla press (a large machine that creates and roasts the tortillas on an assembly line):

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She worked so fast gathering the fresh tortillas her hands blurred on the first few shots I took:

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If you’ve always loved flour tortillas then you’ve probably never had fresh corn tortillas hot off the press. They age quickly, within 48 hours they are hard as a rock and terrible, but warm, fresh and with a little salt, they are heaven.

Some of the stands make their own tortillas, but the majority buy them from the tortilleria each morning, much like you’d go to a bakery for fresh bread in the morning.

From there you have tacos. If you wander around the city, you can get almost anything. The only thing that really makes it a taco is that tortilla, the rest of the ingredients can range from any kind of meat: chicken, beef, chorizo, deep-fried fish or shrimp — to any kind of vegetable from peppers, onions, blue corn, cactus, mushrooms, lettuce or cabbage.

Each one is prepared as you wait:

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Then topped with whatever kind of salsa you want, from really spicy salsa, to corn and cactus salsa, to onions, to fresh cilantro, to avocado sauce (thick guacamole is rarely seen but a thinner avocado sauce is common) to crema (thick cream is more common than the sour cream you’d find in the US), to fresh crumbly cheese, and more. Salsas tend to vary based on the peppers used, there are smokey chipotle salsas (or other smoked/dried peppers), tame pico de gallo (salsa mexicana), insanely hot habanero-based salsas and for the very mild, you can just put some frijoles on top (no heat at all). If you’re rusty on your Spanish you can just ask, “picante?” if you’re wondering if it’s spicy.

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I’ve written about street food and tacos here before, but this was a totally new to me dish. The tlacoyo, a stuffed, oval-shaped taco that’s then topped with whatever you want. I chose nopales (the cactus paddles that are popular here) with cheese. It’s warm, fresh and so comforting. The cactus has a mild flavor, a kind of green bean taste without any bitterness.

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Also new to me were the tacos de canasta (literally, basket tacos). These are the exception in that they are pre-made, but then put into a cooler to keep warm during the day. I got a pibil cochinita (slow roasted pork with achiote) and I can see the appeal. It makes for a warm, soft taco, as comforting as a grilled cheese sandwich, and they come out extremely fast. All of these things cost about $1 or less per taco…

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Tamales are big too, as are fruit stands. For the first time since leaving Thailand I was confronted with frequent juice stands, where they blend up juice combinations like “mango mango” on the spot. You can also get whole fruit sliced up and topped with chile powder (see below), lime and salt. I really loved the pineapple this way, the spice, salt and sweet/sour taste of the pineapple is amazing together. I still can’t eat papayas, I’m working on it though. Everyone gives me the sideways look when I say I don’t like them, but to me they taste a little like feet (“not my feet” one person told me, I took their word for it).

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I spent just two days in Mexico City which was a massive oversight on my part. It’s a joke to even try to cover it all, I barely dipped a toe into possibilities but everything I had was so consistently high quality, I was really impressed. The one interesting thing is their take on the quesadilla, which differs from the rest of Mexico. It doesn’t have to have cheese, or at least I’m told. In a way, I am kind of glad I didn’t spend more time in DF, because now I have a fantastic excuse to return (“I must solve this quesadilla dilemma! When is a taco a quesadilla! The people must know!”)

They have burritos too, but in the US the big Chipotle California style burritos have become so popular you might be surprised to see it doesn’t automatically come with rice and beans. Below is zucchini flower being prepared for my burrito:

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There’s onions and peppers in there too, but then they cover it with cheese, let it melt a little, then fold it into a flour tortilla shell (only time I saw flour tortillas, but I suppose you can get them elsewhere too):

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It was topped with a salsa and I got to pick from about a dozen ranging in heat.

One of my favorite dishes — and I have to admit this is good across Mexico, not just in the city — is the carnita. It’s pork meat cooked in pork fat. It’s so bad, but oh so good. Here’s the chamorro carnita I got, covered in some onions, cilantro, salsa verde and a little lime:

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I learned on this trip that there are different cuts of meat that you can order for your carnita (I had just been ordering “carnita” which is sort of like ordering your steak by saying, “cow”  — they’ll bring you something but it’s really up to them).

  • Bofe – lung
  • Buche – stomach
  • Chamorro – calf or leg (I was told this, couldn’t verify but it’s my favorite one)
  • Pierna de cerdo – leg
  • Criadilla – testicles
  • Cuerito – skin (not the same as chicharron which is more crispy)
  • Moño o trenza – braided intestines before frying
  • Machitos – intestines
  • Nenepil – uterus mixed with stomach
  • Maciza – meat with skin or bones
  • Costilla – ribs
  • Oreja – ear
  • Tripa – intestines
  • Trompa – pig snout
  • Cachete – high fat meat
  • Viril – penis

When we ordered carnitas by the kilo, they just give you a bag of it to take home with some salsa and tortillas. Since I didn’t specify we just got a little bit of everything, the ribs, the fatty meat, the regular meat, some intestines and skin (maybe there was some ear in there, I didn’t notice) . When they say they cook the entire pig, they really do cook all the bits. Nothing goes to waste.

The other fantastic dish is the tacos al pastor. You can find these throughout Mexico as well, but it’s best to look for a place that’s really cooking them, not just reheating or worse serving warmed pastor. They typically top it with pineapple and between the marinade for the meat and the slow, smoky cooking style, you have this super flavorful taco for about 50 cents.

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Does this look familiar? It’s taken from the Lebanese, the shawarma, but the spices in the marinade are totally different (and it’s pork not lamb). When they make your al pastor, they quickly shave a couple of pieces off the slowly rotating spit. Yum. This stand was outside a huge restaurant that was dead instead, but they were doing rapid service with their tacos.

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I didn’t even get to the soups! I know there is so much I missed. I loved getting to eat at Pujol, which takes local ingredients and turns them into this high end food-art, but I didn’t regret a single bite of street food in DF either. It’s nice to experience both sides, but for my money, that tlacoyo with nopales and queso was the best dish of the trip.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”

THERE ARE RARELY HAMMOCKS.

http://christinegilbert.com

36 comments

  • I LOVE this post. Thank you! Unfortunately, I read it after dinner. Tomorrow I’ll be heading to the Mexican market for a much needed carnita fix… Cheers!

  • Wow, this post made me soo hungry. I would especially love to try the chamorro carnita- YUM!

  • Drooling all over my keyboard here (hope Apple warranties cover that…)! I love how effortless and vibrant the street food in Mexico City seems to be—fast & fresh, what could be better?

    I am so excited to eat my way through the carnitas guide you’ve posted. Mexican “tripa” is my favorite way to eat intestine (it always seems so flaccid when I’ve had it in Asian soups), so I’d love to see how they deal with other organs. Totally cracking up that “pig’s snout” is called “trompa”.

    Did you take these photos with your new camera?

    • Yes, everything on this trip is with my Alpha 7, which I am loving. It’s really fast and the auto settings are all that’s needed 90% of the time even in really dark restaurants — something I could never do with my Canon 5D Mark III — I always shot in manual mode in low light. The autofocus is super fast and I don’t get that searching-for-focus issue that you can sometimes get on Canon. The only downside has been the lens. I got the $1000 55 mm Carl Zeiss Alpha mount but there are only a handful of available lenses and they haven’t come out with anything that compares to the 24-70 mm f 2/8 from Canon which is really the perfect food and travel lens. So the 55 mm is a little hard to work with for food, I have to really move back to take photos, putting the camera over my head at times, if I want to remain sitting and take food shots. I know they will have new lenses this year and next, but in the interim the 55mm has great bokeh and is really sharp, it’s just not as flexible as a zoom.

  • I think your mexican food posts are brilliant. I even used one of the salsa recipies you published in my street food business. Thank you!

  • Christine, my husband and I are planning a week long mini vacation in DF next month. Last time we were there we agreed that 3 days wasn’t nearly enough. It reminded me of Paris but I’ve never been to Madrid. Where did you stay and would you recommend it? Also did the street food ever make you sick?
    Thanks, Marion

    • We stayed in Downtown Beds, a hostel that is attached to a boutique hotel, so it was simple but nice. But I didn’t love the downtown area next to the zocalo (main plaza) at night, everything shuts down early. I thought Condessa or the Zona Rosa looked more fun — but I wasn’t there for very long, so I’m probably not the best to ask.

      The street food never made me sick, but I follow a couple of rules: look for locals, look for a line (higher turnover on the food means it’s more fresh) and make sure the person who takes the money isn’t also handling food (that’s usually how you get sick, they take the money, get the germs from all those people on their hands, then touch your food). Personally, I have rarely if ever gotten sick from street food because it’s usually cooked fresh and they do everything in front of you. I have gotten sick from restaurants where you have no idea what is happening in the kitchen or how clean it is… usually it’s when I break my rule and eat in a place that has no customers. Always a bad sign.

      Enjoy your trip!

  • Well you didn’t answer my BIG question when it comes to Mexican street food, why do you get two tortillas when you order one taco al pastor? I never figured that out while there myself but i found a quick way to make them better.

    Since you get two tortillas with each $0.50 taco and since they always have a ton of condiments you can add on top (I even seen mashed potatoes once at a stall), I would take the bottom tortilla, scrape a little meat from the order into it and presto I got 2 tacos now. I’d pill on toppings until they weighed about 1/2 lb each. So my typical lunch was $1 USD that I turned 2 tacos into 4. I can’t think of any other country were I ate that good for so little.

    • A taco could have many ingredients inside and, including the sauce, that’s to much for a single thin tortilla, it could be broken easily, (“tacos al pastor” tortilla is not a common tortilla, is a special one: smaller and thinner) that’s why “tacos al pastor” have 2 tortillas, to make it strong. What you do is great!

    • Ha! That’s a great idea. They do that for other tacos as well… and if they don’t you can ask for another.

      • @almostfearless:disqus: when I went to the Yucatan for 3 weeks, I decided I would do the taco/burrito diet the whole time, only eating cheap local stuff on the street for all meals. I made it about a week before I was shitting jalapeños and my ass was on fire! lol I’m not sure what I did wrong as I was careful on what I ate and making sure it wasn’t contaminated but I think the suspect that made me have Montezuma’s revenge was the sauces on the street cart. Think a lot of them use local water to make them.

    • Let’s exploit the 0.50 Taco Vendor! WOW, you are not just a gringo but a gringHOLE. I am sure that your taco filling exploits are appreciated by the Mexican Community at large. 1/2lb Tacos ? 4 tacos? So for 0.50 you robbed the Vendor of at least 1 1/2 lbs. resources? Did you send your regards to their family that he or she is probably supporting? Nahhhhhhhhhhh, why should you? Disgusting.

  • I love the way you write. You describe not only the facts but your whole feelings too! Here in Mexico, we make jokes almost for everything, we call “T vitamin” to all kind of food is not so good (because you can fatten) but delicious, whose name begin with letter T, such as: Tamales, Tacos, Tostadas, Tlacoyos, etc. By the way, a Tlacoyo is not a taco, it’s just like, but not a taco. The Tlacoyo is made with fresh dough; they make a ball with the dough and inside they put fried beans or fried broad beans or cotagge cheese, then they flatten the dough and give it the final form. The ingredient inside tlacoyo can’t be seen easily at first sight.

    Congratulations, your photos are great!!!

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it, I’m especially happy when people from Mexico like my posts, then I know I did the food justice!

  • I LOVEE ITTT!! I’m going to print this article out and bring it with me when I visit Mexico City in October! AH! Thanks, Christine!

  • I’ve been looking forward to my Mexico City trip for sometime but after reading your post I’m even more excited. Only a few weeks until I can taste some those delicious treats you mention. Thanks for specifying the cuts of meat — I’ve been wondering what sorts of things I might eat due to my inability to speak Spanish. Happy travels and thanks again!

  • I’ve been looking forward to my Mexico City trip for sometime but after reading this post I’m even more excited. Only a few weeks until I can taste some those delicious treats you mention. Thanks for specifying the cuts of meat — I’ve been wondering what sorts of things I might eat due to my inability to speak Spanish. Happy travels!

  • Dammit Christine. I’m in Australia and even though I’ve been able to make something verging on Mexican food, it’s nothing like that. Now all I can think about is fresh tortillas from the grill and carnitas.

  • Great roundup. I guess I’ve been ordering carnitas the wrong way, too. Glad to know how to order now!

  • Cachete is the face, Buche is the neck. Not even important to Know, just translating. And there are Also sesos, brains, patita or pata, feet.
    For non meat eaters, you can order: cactus, beans, mushrooms, pumpkin flower, (nopales, frijoles, , hongos, flor de calabaza) just ask to clean grill so your veggies do not have meat flavor and ask if fried beans have lard, Manteca or pig fat , that is quite common. I normally stay away from lettuce, cabbage, radishes, and anything that is raw unless I am sure it has been washed in water with a few drops of some clorine to kill bacteria.
    There is also eggs with geen beans, eggs with nopales, and cheeses if you can have eggs and cheese. Even if the restaurant is a meat place they always have (sopa de arroz) rice, beans quesadillas for a vegetarian meal.

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  • Hello! I love to travel and Im always looking for mexican food posts, because Ive noticed that people in other countries dont really know mexican food, and actually it kind of bothers me, I think is a type of food that is really underestimated. Actually I found rare that you found burritos in D.F, because actually in the city are no that common, is more like a northish meal. Flour tortillas are common at the house when you are having dinner or breakfast, but for a meal or for street food are not that common. You definitely have to come back there are plenty of stuff in the streets that you need to taste. I also love carnitas! And you have to taste the way we eat sheep. Thanks for blogging in such a truthful way!