Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Street Foods of Mexico City: Don't Be Afraid, Just Eat It.

Ready to devour the tacos al pastor at El Huequito
Most mainstream guidebooks and Web sites about visiting Mexico City contain dire warnings against eating the street food. These admonitions are often panicked in tone: "Do not, under any circumstances, eat anything from a street vendor! Ever! Stay away!"

What a shame.

I cannot imagine walking by all of the glorious stands filled with beautiful tacos, papas, tortas, tlacoyos, and more - and not ever tasting one single thing. And I don't think you can get a true culinary picture of the city and its vibrant culture without experiencing the joys of street eating. Now, I am not suggesting that you eat anything you please, from any stand that strikes your fancy. Just like anywhere else, in Mexico City most food providers adhere to acceptable or even exemplary standards of hygiene, while a minority of others most definitely do not.

Some of it comes down to research. Nicholas Gilman's book, Good Food in Mexico City, as well as his blog of the same name, are fabulous resources to the street foods (and restaurants of all types) of the city. You also need to exercise common sense. Before chowing down, ask yourself: Does the place look clean? Good. Is it busy? Great - locals know a good thing, and that means there's a lot of turnover on the food. Is the person who is cooking the food also handling the money? Not so good - best to move on. I also read somewhere that squeezing liberal amounts of lime on everything can help keep stomach upset at bay. No problem, as lime accompanies just about everything, and is muy rico!

But know that no matter how much due diligence you perform, eventually something may not agree with you. I'm not going to lie - I had a day of tummy tumult near the end of the trip. But so what? It was worth it, and supposedly travel is about trying new things and broadening your horizons, right?  I wouldn't have missed any of these food experiences for twice the tummy trouble - and I think by the end of this post you'll see why.

One of my favorite street foods were the tacos al pastor from El Huequito. We went multiple times. Tacos like this make me want to cry for the people who think that those hard, bright yellow, crispy/hard corn tortilla shells they get in the "Mexican" section of the grocery store have anything to do with actual Mexican food.
If that hunk of goodness on the right reminds you of gyro meat you aren't wrong -  this concept was brought to Mexico City by Lebanese immigrants in the '50s. The meat is cut very thin, and the spit must be constantly rotated so the meat doesn't burn. As a result, it's wonderfully crispy, a great contrast with the soft corn tortilla, which is rolled up like a tube. Poppa Trix shot this short video of the taco master at work. I was too busy stuffing my face.



Get them "con todo," i.e., with everything

 Just down the street is Taqueria los Cocuyos, with its big bubbling vat of meats:
 You pick out the meat you want and the guy with the cleaver chops it up, fries it, and stuffs it in a corn tortilla. Poppa had the meat on the upper left:
 As well as whatever is in that tube, which I also had. It was very spicy, very chorizo-like:
 I am not sure what cuts these were exactly. As you can see from the sign, it could have been brain (sesos), cabeza (head), cheek (cachete), eye (ojo) lengua (tongue) gizzard (molleja) ...

 Whatever the meats were, these tacos were amazing. As always, get them con todo. Look how colorful!


The perfect snack after a night watching the luchadors at Lucha Libre!
Poppa was in heaven:
Early in our trip, we went on a mission to find a particular torta stand at the Lagunilla Market. I was psyched to have a cochinita pibil torta, while Poppa had a hankering for the torta de bacalao, or salted fish. When we set out on our quest, we had no idea how huge the market is, and it took us much wandering around, and asking many people "Donde estan las tortas de bacalao, por favor?" before we finally found it.
Success! 

 As good as they were, we did witness something a bit troubling as we ate: The guy who made our tortas handled money from another customer, and then made another torta without washing his hands. Doh! Time to move on. And I'm so glad we did, because we happened upon another stand that looked very promising, and it was here that I had one of my new favorite things, tlacoyos, long, thick torpedo shaped corn cakes stuffed with cheese or beans and topped with goodies. Here, our bean-stuffed tlacoyo is topped with nopales (cactus), onion, cilantro, and queso fresco:

We also had blue corn quesadillas. This one was stuffed with flor de calabaza, or zucchini flowers and cheese:
 And this one has a real treat, huitlacoche. Sometimes referred to as Mexican truffles, it's actually a corn fungus. How to describe the taste? Earthy, a tad fermented ... very big umami flavor:
 Happy Poppa with a Mexican Coke!


 This is the woman who lured us to her tlacoyo stand. So glad she did!
 I spent a long time watching these women shape the tlacoyos, but I despair of ever creating such perfect specimens:
Of course you have to have little snacks now and then, and we indulged during a trip to the zoo and the castle at Chapultepec Park. These sweet gorditas were scented with cinnamon:


 And I had been craving papas (potato chips) with hot sauce. This bag is for you, Nancy!
One afternoon on the way to the Mercado San Juan, Poppa developed a sudden and intense need for a torta, and we liked the look of this place:
 Poppa approved!
It's so hard to choose my very favorite street food place. As I was eating any given thing I would think: "This is the best thing I have ever had," but the seafood at El Caguamo may be the street food winner, by a nose (or a fin). The stuff here is, by all accounts, as fresh as it gets.  You sit at the counter, in a very tight space, but somehow once you sit it doesn't feel crowded:
 I had the sopa de camaron, or shrimp soup. So salty and spicy and good:

 We had this incredibly flaky empanada:
 And this fried fish, covered in avocado and tomato and mayonnaise:
 And this. The epic seafood cocktail. I tell you, in Mexico City people are not afraid to add acid to their food, to great effect. This was every bit as lusciously good as it looks:
 Our awesome server!
So you see? We ate all that street food, and lived to tell the tale. Nothing to be afraid of. If you ever visit Mexico City, do yourself a favor and don't deprive yourself of one of its greatest joys.

But never fear - that's not all we ate! Stay tuned. Until then ... buen provecho!





43 comments:

  1. All the food looks fab. Lucky, lucky you!
    New tattoo?

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    1. No, old tattoo! But I want a new one ; )

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  2. I read this with sheer jealousy! In Dallas there is no such thing as street food. The only thing close is the hot dog guy and Lowe's Home Improvement store. Pretty sad isn't it. Glad Mexico is so close, so I do not have to always be deprived. Those cinnamon gorditas are giving me a craving too! I look forward to seeing more posts on your dining in Mexico!

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    1. Don't feel bad - most cities aren't as rich with street food as Mexico City! I miss it for sure. Definitely go!!

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  3. Its been way too long since I had some good cabeza and the thought of being able to go out and get it just for the asking has me giddy. Street food is my way of doing Mexico as you can get just about everything worth having on the street there for not much money. My way of staying healthy is to just drink lots of tequila...which helps one choke down the cabeza too now that I think about it. Look, any place that lets you pick out the meat you want and serve it up to you has my vote for a vacation destination.

    Who wouldn't love that?

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    1. No one in their right mind wouldn't love delicious, inexpensive, and plentiful cabeza!! : )

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  4. I love your tattoo! how amazing you look... Mexican food rules!

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  5. I never know about the warnings about street food... have you eaten in a local NYC restaurant lately? Your advice is sound –– if it looks clean and busy you are probably good to go.... and look what you miss if you don't! Great reporting, Trix

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    1. Ha, I have eaten in some very questionable Brooklyn and Baltimore joints in my day! Perhaps this is why I don't pay these warnings any mind.

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  6. What a fabulous experience and your photos just made it pop for readers.

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    1. Thanks so much! Though Poppa Trix must take equal credit for our trip photos!

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  7. Now I have a hankering for some Mexican street food! I try to avoid the hard, yellow impostors in a wide arc, and it was long before I tasted the sweet, small, corn tortilla made right on the spot in Yucatan. I even bought a tortilladora to make my own sweet, small corn tortillas:)
    I agree with you, the best way to experience a country and get a glimpse of the real life is to eat street food, or any food that locals eat.
    Everything that you two had appeals to me - I just wish I could jump over to Mexico right now! Thanks for such a great report:)

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    1. Yup, nothing beats a fresh corn tortilla. I want to go back right now!

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  8. I'm like you! Eat NOW. Deal with tummy LATER! :D

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  9. Look at all that meat!!!! I want that type of cooktop in my kitchen :) Totally reasonable.

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    1. I want one too, and yes ... it is completely reasonable.

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  10. Glad you guys are spreading the DF street food gospel. I agree that it's a total shame the guidebooks tell people to stay away -- that's where the heard of the city is. LOVE Cocuyos, love K-Guamo and I love tlacoyos in general. I also wrote a post on my blog with some tips on how to eat street food safely in Mexico City, in case it's helpful (you already alluded to some of them in your post): http://www.themijachronicles.com/2010/11/the-safest-way-to-eat-on-the-street-in-mexico-city/ Also, those gorditas you had are called "gorditas de nata." Cheers!

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    1. Thanks for the info and thanks for stopping by. I am a big fan of your blog!!!

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  11. Oh all of those goodies sound so good!

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  12. You don;t have to tell me, street food is to die for....
    no how can one get a true taste of a culture without eating with the people and yes, you do have to be careful - I always try to avoid raw veggies - and of the many times to Mexico, have only gotten sick once, and that was from hotel food!
    always love your travel ventures...

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    1. Drick, I believe that! And yep, the street food is not to be missed.

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  13. Street food is one of the main reasons I travel. In all my years and all my destinations I have only had one bad experience. It was in Honduras in 2008, and I lived through it! GREG

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    1. Greg, I am so glad that you did!!! : )

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  14. Eeeek! I don't even know where to begin - such an amazing post, Trix! That tlacoyo and the huitlacoche...my mouth is tingling. I definitely think it would be a shame to visit another country without trying their street food - that's the good stuff...the heart! Beautiful, thank you so much for sharing this.

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    1. Thank you Heather, that's very sweet.

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  15. We are FIRM believers in street food. In Chile, Thailand and China the best meals we ate were from carts! So glad you jumped right in there and feasted like a pro :)

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    1. Looking back, I think my best meals were street food as well.

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  16. I want to travel with you, Trix!!! I have such unadventurous eaters in my house...I know I would get outvoted on any of my suggestions :)

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  17. Wow all that food looks so good. I love food like that but a lot of it doesn't like me anymore. You're braver than I am. I'm a bit skeptical about eating street food but I suppose when you see a crowd around the stands it's a pretty good sign it's safe.

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    1. Vicki, if you had smelled all that goodness you have been brave too! It's irresistible.

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  18. Ooh, wonderful colorful photos. Tells a great story of the street food. I have a hankering for huitlacoche now!
    LL

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    1. Me too! I wonder if I can find some ...

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  19. Sounds like some good advice :) Love the photos, such a great trip! And I am wondering now if I can find some corn fungus...intriguing :)

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    1. YEs, I do wonder if it's too perishable to make the trip?

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  20. I have the biggest smile right now:) You ate papas con chile for me, I feel so special. Trixie this is another really great article. I love that you have now tried so many foods that I never have. Also love that you didn't listen to the ignorant and nonsensical information out there. I'm not just saying this because we are talking about Mexico, I think it applies to anywhere you go in the world. Getting sick from food can happen anywhere, our friend had horrible food poisoning from a fancy restaurant in Paris. And now I'm really craving tacos al pastor and a coctel de camaron :)

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    1. Nancy, I kept thinking about your post with the popcorn and so I HAD to have those papas con chile. Soooo good. : )

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  21. Love your spirit. We share the same feelings. I've rarely had a problem with eating local foods in other countries -- but, definitely with the water! (And,btw, the same problem in the U.S. going from state to state, so I always brought water for my babies with me.) I'd hate to think of all the wonderful foods I would have missed if I didn't eat the local food. Heck, my dog gets the runs when I change brands! Enjoy the world. Come visit when you can.

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  22. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

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  23. Just like Mexican food, Mexican cuisine encompasses various subjects. Among these are Mexican desserts, Mexican restaurants, Mexican drinks, and for specific ingredients and preparations, Mexican food recipes. This section will outline the details involved with Mexican cuisine, a bit about its history and how it has spread across the globe, the various cooking utensils used in its preparation, typical ingredients, and tips for Mexican cooking hopefuls so that they can learn to perfect their craft.

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  24. This is all great food, though I'm perfectly fine not knowing where a lot of it came from let alone what it is.There's lots of mexican restaurants in Tucson, AZ and I'm jut glad that I don't even have to worry about what's in their food. It's okay for me to ask what it is!

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