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Sep 06

A Street Food Tour of Mexico City

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!

15 comments

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  1. Jack Norell

    I *adore* the street food in Mexico and I’ve eaten at dozens of street stalls in D.F. Thanks for covering, and encouraging tourists to eat at these rather than what is often mediocre and overpriced eateries, especially in Centro.

    Another thing about street food is, it’s often more hygienic than restaurant food. As it’s made right in front of you, and you can see who’s dealing with money/food, there’s nothing to hide… A restaurant can have things sit for hours, microwave it, and you’ll be none the wiser until a few hours later…!

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks for your comment Jack. We’ll be writing about the ‘sit-down’ food scene too – and we agree with you. At one recommended restaurant I had a full view of the kitchen and two very overworked microwaves!

  2. Jen Laceda

    Wow, it’s 1 am in Toronto and I’m thinking of raiding my fridge downstairs. I don’t have anything remotely Mexican, but perhaps I can whip up a plate of huevos rancheros tomorrow morning. But for now…I’m imagining the sight, sound, and smell there at D.F. Hmmm…tacos :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hee! Hee! That’s the idea! Thanks, Jen! So did you make them?!

  3. Sarah Chambers

    Can anyone explain to me what cactus tastes like? Frank mentioned it in his winning post for the August competition too, so I am really curious now as to what it’s like, as I simply cannot imagine, and I didn’t even realise you could eat cactus! I absolutely loved Austin when I went over to our HQ for a visit, and now you definitely have me wanting to go to Mexico too. I think a mini road-trip around the southern States and then across the border may be in order!

    Sarah

    1. Frank McMains

      I’m sorry, I saw that you asked this before but I forgot to answer. Cactus leaves or nopales don’t really have much of a flavor aside from a mild vegetable one. It is kind of yellow squash I guess but with a very different and firmer texture. The fruit of the cactus or tuna is sweet and fruity with a lot of eatable seeds, sort of berry-like. Here is a link to what the red tuna look like when cut:

      http://www.lemonsandbeans.com/?p=1369

    2. Lara Dunston

      Hi Sarah – not sure if you’ve tried salt bush before? It’s a naturally growing green salty plant that holds a lot of water that’s found in the desert regions of Australia. There, the indigenous people eat it. We had it served on a stunning plate of food in Mexico City at one of the best restaurants, Pujol, which we’ll blog about tomorrow. Cactus is kind of like a cross between that (which makes sense seeing it’s a desert plant) and choko (green, watery). It’s interesting and works very nicely with some ingredients, though it’s not something I’d crave on its own.
      With that road trip, do take care crossing that border – many Americans are now choosing to fly between Texas and Mexico rather than drive – too dangerous! – but you *must* visit Austin and Mexico!
      Thanks for dropping by! :)

  4. Anna Johnston

    Not tried street food in Mexico but your post has won me over to put that on the list too. Aaahhh, I haven’t quite got my tummy to handle all street foods (still feel a little queasy because I thought I could handle some Thai street food) but its not going to stop me – its some of the best food in the world. Love it too.

    1. Terence Carter

      Anna, totally hear what you’re saying. We both feel that in Thailand and Mexico a lot of the best food is on the streets. Funnily enough, when we were in Thailand late last year, a ‘fancy’ restaurant gave me ‘problems’ that nearly sent me to hospital while researching a book there. The only disappointment in Thai street food was the lame recommendations of the guidebooks! One of our favourite things to do in the world is a stall hop in Bangkok…seriously love it!
      We were never sick in Mexico City from street food at all on this trip – perhaps a mix of good fortune and good choices.

  5. Renae

    Jack hit it on the head! Whenever in Mex, I just dive into the street tacos, fruits, tamales and bacon wrapped hot dogs. Yes, I eat them too and now, I even recreate them. So great to see this post. If you don’t give it a try, you’re truly missing out. Love your blog. Just found it and definitely reading more!!!! Happy trails.

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks Renae, diving in is the best idea!

  6. Frank McMains

    I love street food in Mexico. Some of the best meals I had there were from street vendors. Just as long as there are two people working the stall, one to handle the money and one to cook then I generally feel confident eating it because this is often a sign of attention to food safety. Money is dirty stuff. And, as you know, if there is a big crowd of locals then it is probably both delicious and safe to eat. Great post.

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks Frank. We need to do our bit! So many visitors miss out because they’re told to only eat in the ‘concierge approved’ eateries, where you see a bunch of other visitors all getting cheese-laden rubbish that’s ‘safe’. Meh.

  7. Pola (@jettingaround)

    I’ve had some of the best street food in D.F. and I’d fly there just for that!! Mexican cuisine is my favorite and even though I live in Chicago, where taquerias stay open well into the night, it’s not quite the same. Another trip to MX is in order soon…

    1. Lara Dunston

      Agree! Just thinking about the street food in the city makes us want to return. A trip is long overdue for us too – three years is far too long to go without visiting Mexico City!

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