We’ve always loved street food. One of our earliest food memories of Mexico City is the smell of corn tortillas on the street, long before food was banned from being sold on the historic centre sidewalks.
In the Middle East, where we’ve been based for over a decade, we’re smitten with the shawarma, we’d go anywhere for great falafel, and we’ll climb hills for creamy hommous. One of our favourite magazine assignments last year was an informal street food tour with a local chef in Amman, Jordan.
While we’re familiar with Mexican food, our knowledge of street food was fairly limited until this trip. Despite being cautious when it came to eating on our first few visits to Mexico many years ago, we experienced several ugly bouts of Moctezuma’s Revenge, putting us off street food for a while. A long while.
These days, our stomachs can pretty much handle anything – toughened up by our anything goes-style of eating around the world in recent years, and the constant travelling that has pretty much prepared our bodies for almost any kind of bacteria.That, combined with the fact we fell in love with tacos all over again in Austin, Texas (thanks to a little help from our Taco Journalism friends), had us eager to explore more street food in Mexico this time.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to look hard to find Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico. A journalist living in D.F., Lesley offers foodie tours when she’s not learning the art of Mexican cooking and blogging at The Mija Chronicles. We meet Lesley mid-morning on Río Lerma in Colonia Cuauhtémoc where she gives us some background as we begin to walk.
“I’m a third generation Mexican-American and I’m rediscovering my roots in a way. I started doing this because I was seeing so many people visiting Mexico City and missing out on this stuff,” Lesley explains. “They are too scared to try street food or they don’t know what to eat or how to order it.”
“Street food is so ingrained in Mexican culture,” she says. “Some of these vendors have been here forever, like this woman on the corner who I’m going to take you to who has been selling here for 11 years. They pay ‘rent’ for their space, but they don’t pay tax. It’s kind of a grey area. People need to be fed so they fill a niche.”
As we stroll, Lesley explains how different street foods are sold at different times of the day – for example, tamales are only sold from around 8-10.30am – and signs to look when deciding where to eat: “If it’s busy, it’s good! Also look out for cleanliness – you don’t want the same person making the food to be handling the money!”
We’ve missed the tamale woman where Lesley usually starts her street food crawl – she’s obviously sold her treats and has gone home for the day – so we move onto Tacos Don Güero on the corner of Río Lerma and Río Amazonas. Here the specialty is tacos al pastor, the tacos that are synonymous with Mexico City, and have quickly become our favourite.
Grilled on a vertical spit with a pineapple on top, the meat is shaved off and kept warm on the grill below, then placed on the tortilla with onion, salsa and cilantro, to order. An ancestor of shawarma, which was brought to Mexico by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in the 1920s, the main difference is in the types of spices and that pork is used in Mexico instead of lamb or chicken.
Coincidentally we’d noticed this stand when we wandered by a couple of days earlier and had intended to return. We’re glad we have and we’re not disappointed. The pork is incredibly tasty and the tacos are sublime.
“It’s unique to find taco places open this early. Tacos are more of an evening thing,” Lesley says. “But what I really love about tacos is that they’re not just a food, they’re a way of eating!”
Our next stop is the stand of the woman who has been working on the street for 11 years selling her tlacoyos, fried masa patties that look a bit like fat, oval-shaped tortillas. We try one topped with beans and chicharones (pork crackling), another with beans and nopales (cactus paddles), and another with quelite (wild Mexican greens). It’s rustic, home-cooked fare but it all tastes fantastic.
A shorts amble away on the corner of Río Lerma and Río Rhin, we stop at La Abuela, where a dapper old gentleman in a smart tie and with rosy cheeks, sells tacos de canasta or ‘basket tacos’. The pre-prepared tacos are filled while both the tortillas and fillings are hot, put in a basket, and covered with a cloth, so they’re steamed. We try the cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) and tinga de pollo (spicy stewed and shredded chicken with chipotle) and they’re both scrumptious.
Our last stop is a busy, no-name stand, manned by two amiable young guys who look like they take their job as seriously as we take their tasty carnitas or little meats. The specialty is the succulent pork, slow-cooked in lard in a cauldron of sorts, then roasted. You can also order specific cuts, such as the nana (uterus) or trompa (snout), buche (throat), and lengua (tongue). We order sortida, a combination of pork mixed with the fatty bits, and it’s sublime.
“These places never have any signs,” Lesley warns. “Look for the glass case with pork steaming inside, and listen for the sound of chopping on a wooden breadboard,” Lesley suggests. A great tip, among many, and one we’ll be following!