I made my first visit to Mexico City a few weeks ago. It was an impromptu trip – we had a few days free, and an expiring travel voucher that had to be used. Plus Mexico City was a relatively quick, direct flight from L.A. But mostly Mexico City was right up there on my Bucket List. I mean, who wouldn’t want to travel to a place that is home to around 30 million people, the largest city in both the Western Hemisphere and in the Americas, as well as the biggest Spanish-speaking city anywhere on the planet.
As is often the case when I visit a place for the first time, my go-to plan of exploration involved getting stuck into the local food. And that meant getting stuck into the culinary style for which Mexico City is most famous: street food.
You see, in Mexico City it is impossible to avoid street food. On every corner and sidewalk there are makeshift stands selling something edible. Markets blanket the city, every nook and cranny of them packed with food stalls. And if that isn’t enough, everywhere you go in Mexico City there are guys on bicycles, old ladies pushing mobile carts, and hole-in-the-wall kitchens, all selling food. Estimates are that over 75% of the city’s inhabitants (so, like, more than 20 million people) eat on the street at least a few times each week. That’s a lot of street food.
But it is not just the volume that sets Mexico City’s street food apart. Locals will tell you that the city’s best food is to be found on the streets, where recipes are often closely-guarded family secrets, and vendors can spend decades perfecting a single dish. Don’t be fooled by appearances: the fellow preparing your taco on the pavement under a tattered umbrella might very well be the Mexican equivalent of a master chef.
Simply put, of all the places I’ve been, I have never seen such a massive proliferation of readily available, super-delicious, and totally affordable yumminess as in Mexico City. Thus explaining why, on an otherwise ordinary Monday morning, I joined a foodie walking tour. Five hours devoted to learning about, and consuming vast quantities of, Mexico City’s best street food.
First though, a small point of clarification. Real Mexican food is nothing like the stodgy, heavy fare you probably associate with “Mexican”. That is largely Tex-Mex in origin, the bastardized version of Mexican food that Americans like to eat, usually served in ridiculously oversized portions and heavily reliant on ingredients mostly absent in Mexico but plentiful north of the border, like yellow cheese, wheat flour, and beef. All of which means that “typical” Mexican dishes like nachos and burritos more or less don’t exist in Mexico. Ask for them and you may as well tattoo directly onto your forehead: “I am a tourist, please feed me crap”.
And with that out of the way, let’s start the show! (All photos are my own – fork to film, as it were).
The tour was scheduled to start at 11am. But even before I got to the meeting point I was already at it. Specifically, I stopped at a little roadside stand to try tamales – pockets of mashed corn meal, filled with white cheese, stuffed into a corn-husk and then steamed. I stopped because I had read these are a breakfast item in Mexico City, eaten by commuters on their way to work. So by 11am they are usually sold out, and I wasn’t sure we’d get to sample these street food essentials on the tour. Oh, and also, the tamale stand I happened to pass by had a seriously long queue in front of it, suggesting that something seriously good was on offer. Basically, it would have been rude of me not to stop.
When my turn came, the vendor dug deep into a steaming aluminum pot to fish out the tamale. He handed it to me with a cup of atole, a sweet drink made from corn (advance warning: in Mexico City, just about everything you put in your mouth involves corn). And then like a local, I stood on the side of the road, peeled back the corn-husk wrapper, and hoed in.
It was wonderful, a thoroughly satisfying blend of savory and sweet tastes. It was also incredibly filling, and I felt stuffed after just the one smallish tamale (ok, maybe two). Perhaps not the best thing to have consumed immediately before the start of an epic food odyssey ….
Act I: Quesadillas
I met the tour group and guide, and we set off on foot. Our first stop, ten minutes later, was at a wooden shack under a battered tarpaulin on the side of a street. A lot of people were milling around, waiting to be served. The guide told us that this particular shack served only blue corn quesadillas, made by a family who lived on a farm outside of the city. There they grew all the raw ingredients, made everything they sold from scratch, and drove two hours in and out of town to sell their wares, each and every day.
Without much ado, a trio of three small blue quesadillas was handed to me on a plastic plate (Mexican street food portions are always quite small, making for flavorful bite-size snacks that are also easy to handle).
The first quesadilla was stuffed with light-as-air squash blossoms and a stringy white cheese that didn’t melt very much. The second was stuffed with a tangy meat and chipotle stew. There was no cheese in that one, the guide explaining that when it came to quesadillas, “to cheese or not to cheese” was a topic that people in Mexico City argued passionately about (unlike Western versions of Mexican food, where a quesadilla is really just an excuse to eat half a block of melted cheddar).
The third quesadilla was the undisputed star of the show, a blue corn shell folded over a mix of ricotta-like cheese and a brownish fungus that apparently infests Mexican corn fields. Which might sound not so great, but trust me, it was magic in the mouth: earthy and rich. Not for nothing is that fungus known colloquially as “Mexican truffle”.
Act II: Taco Relleno
A short walk later brought us to another non-descript street-side stand, again featuring only one dish, this time taco relleno (“stuffed taco”). Although it was not just the taco that was stuffed, but the main ingredient inside of it – in my case, a whole green chili pepper, stuffed with yet another variety of white cheese, then battered, deep fried, popped whole inside of a yellow corn taco, and doused in salsa. Delicious, but munching through layers of corn, chili, fried batter and cheese made for heavy work before noon.
As we were leaving, the taquero (“taco guy”) and our tour guide chatted amiably for a few minutes, like old friends. Later she explained: “One of the perks of my job is many of the best taqueros know me by name. That is the highest honor in Mexico City – even better than being known by the best chef in the best restaurant.”
Act III: Taco Al Pastor
At our next stop, I learned that what is arguably the most iconic of all Mexico City street foods, the taco al pastor, is not even Mexican in the first place. Rather, like me, it has its roots in the Middle East.
About 150 years ago, large numbers of Lebanese migrants arrived in Mexico City. They brought with them their beloved shawarma (meat cooked on an upright spit, then carved into pita). It didn’t take long before some bright locals thought “Aha, let’s carve it into a taco instead” (although being Mexico, the beef or chicken meat typically used in a shawarma was substituted with more readily available pork). Add a sprinkle of sauté onion, a bit of cilantro, and pineapple for sweetness, and hey presto, the taco al pastor was born.
And just like in the Middle East, where people will obsess endlessly over the best shawarma or hummus in town, the identity of the best taco al pastor is one of the most hotly contested food topics in Mexico City. Although the one we had, at a frenetically busy hole-in-the-wall, was supposedly one of the best.
There the taquero expertly sliced a few thin shavings of meat straight into a pair of warm tacos, added a sliver of pineapple, chucked on a scoop of translucent sweated onion, and added the slightest hint of salsa. It took him less than 15 seconds to prepare three of these for me, but his movement was so elegant and fluid I could have been watching a ballerina in action. Not to mention, those tacos al pastor were frikking delicious. It took every ounce of willpower I had to hold back from ordering a second round.
Act IV: Some weird shit
Next our guide led us to the San Juan market, which she said was where Mexico’s best chef’s came to buy their ingredients. As we entered, I felt like I had died and gone to foodie heaven. There were hundreds of stalls, every one of which was offering something tasty, colorful and fragrant. It was overwhelming.
Deep in the market we paused at a small shop. The proprietor passed out shots of mezcal for us to try. He explained (our guide translating) that people in Mexico have a near romantic relationship with mezcal. So while the correct way to consume any other drink is to sip it, mezcal is different and the proper thing to do is besa el mezcal (“kiss the mezcal”).
But before I had a chance to pucker up, the proprietor had moved on to his main act, a sample platter of fried bugs done three ways: in chili, in olive oil, and in lime. These, so he said, were the perfect accompaniment to mezcal. As well as the wedges of fresh orange he handed out too, doused in worm salt (yes, as in salt with bits of dried worm in it).
So I kissed my mezcal, sucked my wormy orange, and ate three good helpings of what turned out to be surprisingly tasty bugs. At the end of which the proprietor pointed out that he’d put “the worm” at the bottom of my shot glass. He beamed proudly and muttered something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand, except for the words “mucho testosterone”. Apparently, he who gets the worm ….
Intermission: Oh, so you thought that was weird shit?
We were given a ten minute break. Most people on the tour used it to find a restroom, but I took the opportunity to wander around the market on my own, and wound up at another stall that sold bugs (a common ingredient in authentic Mexican cuisine – the little critters are packed with protein and not at all considered repulsive). The stall’s owners, a pair of near-identical looking brothers, seemed chuffed by my interest in their creepy-crawly offering, and doled out one sample after another for me to try. Things like ants, crickets, itsy-bitsy spiders, and plump larvae.
And then, naturally, we graduated to the scorpions. I really wasn’t sure if I was up for it (even I have my limits), but before I could say “no”, a particularly juicy looking scorpion had been plucked from a Styrofoam white tray, fried, stuffed into a taco, and covered with super fiery chili salsa. With a side of some still-warm chicharron (crackling). By which point it was impossible to back down.
In any case, the scorpion really wasn’t that bad – crunchy but fairly tasteless, and whatever flavor it may have had was drowned out completely by the scorching salsa. Although once again, after I’d finished, there was a lot of muttering in Spanish, accompanied by a series of exaggerated hand gestures – apparently my libido was about to go into scorpion-induced overdrive.
Acts V, VI, & VII: Slowly slipping into a food coma
OK, so by now I was full. Making the next few stops on the food tour a bit more challenging.
First we visited a cart that cooked up traditional campechano, or mixed meat tacos. In this case a combo of beef and spicy chorizo, although the sausage was a bright green color on account of cilantro and spinach in the filling. There were four salsas to choose from, ranging from mild to scalding. And also a stone pestle filled with hand-smashed guacamole, which I heaped on only to discover it was actually the hottest condiment of the lot, deceptively packed with so much chili it felt like my face might melt off.
Next stop: an agua fresca stall, with over a dozen colorful vats of hand-made drinks in different flavors: strawberry, pine nut, horchata (flavored rice milk), jamaica (hibiscus flower), mango, mixed fruits, and so on. An amiable old lady without any teeth scooped them out by the cup. Meanwhile the guide explained that when she was a kid, every Sunday after church her parents would take her and her siblings out for a meal. If they had been good, they’d get to choose an agua fresca after. But if they’d been bad, they’d get a Coca-Cola instead. “That’s how much we Mexicans love our agua fresca,” she said.
And finally, we stopped at a street corner where two women were sat behind a comal, an open-air griddle. They were cooking tlacoyo on it. Our guide explained that this was the original, most authentic of all Mexico City street foods, eaten in the region since Aztec times.
To make the tlacoyo, the women mixed blue corn dough with a paste of beans, shaped it into an eye-shaped patty, and popped it onto the comal to cook. Once hot and crispy the tlacoyo were topped with salsa, requeson (a fresh cheese), and roasted bits of nopales (cactus leaf). I scoffed two down faster than you can say “tequila”, because they were genuinely scrumptious.
Our guide told us that tradition dictated tlacoyo be made only by women – in this case, a mother-daughter team. I asked how space on the street was allocated among the various street-food vendors, and if the tlacoyo women had to pay rent to anyone. “Are you kidding?” the guide replied, almost doubled over with laughter. “These women have been here as long as anyone can remember. It is like that with most of the good street food vendors. If anyone tried to get them to pay anything, there would be a riot. You just don’t ask your grandma to pay rent or taxes!”
Act VIII: The Finale
We arrived at our final stop, a taco shack specializing in “off cuts”. A huge metal pot was simmering away, inside of which were all the best bits of the animal – brisket, tongue, cheek, tripe, hearts, kidneys, brains, and the rest. I groaned, partly in delight (I love offal), but mainly in the knowledge that despite my sore and distended belly, I would have to push on.
And then the show began. I would point to a piece of meatiness that looked good, the taquero would extract it from the vat on an oversized metal fork, lay it on a wooden board, cut off a bit and chop it into a fine dice. The wooden board had a deep groove down the middle, evidence of years – possibly even decades – of such chopping. Once done, the meat was put into a taco with salsa, and presented to me without ceremony or fanfare. I’d eat it, groan ecstatically, and move onto the next one.
It really was quite brutal, and after my fourth, possible fifth mystery-meat taco, I hit the wall. “No mas,” I moaned, waving my hand in defeat. But the taquero looked thoroughly disappointed at my capitulation. He was enjoying having a gringo customer willing to try it all, and (according to the guide’s translation) had been holding back the best for last.
So like a true athlete in the final stretch of a marathon, I summonsed up every last bit of strength I had, and signaled to the taquero I was ready for one more. He in turn smiled deliriously, reached into his vat, and extracted an eye. Like everything else it got chopped up, stuffed into a taco, and eaten. And which, I have to say, tasted not that bad at all – gelatinous, but mild and delicately flavored. Like the softest part of a perfectly cooked steak.
That was it. I was done, my Mexico City street food tour ending on an “eye note” (groan). I really had reached my max, and could not have eaten another thing. Even if there were still many other amazing Mexican street foods I wanted to try. Despite five hours of solid eating, I had barely scratched the surface.
So don’t be surprised if I’m back in Mexico City again, real soon. It was a foodie paradise like no other, and I can’t wait for the encore.