So steeped in tradition is Mexican food that in 2010 it became one of only two types of cuisine, alongside French, to be awarded UNESCO’s ‘intangible’ status. Having little to do with the Tex-Mex heresy that abides in much of North America and Europe, the country’s numberless dishes are diverse, varying drastically from region to region, with flavours peculiar to Mexico. And yet many of the visitors flocking here every year are missing out on one of its key ingredients: street food.
Apart from the fact that some street dishes can’t be found in the sophisticated restaurants proliferating in Mexico City, watching meats and tortillas being grilled before your eyes is a way of immersing yourself in the local experience, for rarely a day goes by whena chilango – as the capital’s 25 million inhabitants are called – doesn’t stop for a gordita or at least a taco at their favourite stall.
Visitor wariness stems in part from the infamous Venganza de Moctezuma, a myth perpetuated by scaremongering chilangos. Moctezuma was the Aztec king when the Spaniard Hernán Cortés and the conquistadores landed in 1519, and his vengeance (runs the joke) persists to this day as a curse wreaking havoc on foreign stomachs. It can, of course, take a few days for your tummy to adjust in Mexico, but there are a few tips that can help.
Some stands are closed with only little cubbyholes to order through; avoid these. Better that you can see the food being cooked on a clean grill with fresh meat. Pick stands that seem perpetually busy; chilangos are susceptible to dodgy food, too, and won’t keep returning to places that upset their stomachs. Finally, if you’re used to spicy food, don’t shy away from the many different chilli sauces; you don’t need much and a wee kick helps to kill bacteria.
So where to start? The most ubiquitous and iconic street food has to be tacos. Fragrant corn tortillas little bigger than coasters are served with various meats, often garnished with chopped onion, coriander, sauce, and a few drops of fresh lime; you pinch each end together and devour as the juices drip down your fingers.
On Calle Merida near the corner with San Luis Potosi in the up-and-coming Roma Norte district, Don Luis serves up some of the city’s tastiest tacos, tirelessly cooking on a flat metal grill in front of number 209. His chuletas are delicious – juicy pork diced and grilled in front of you.
Aside from taco stands, there are countless taquerías throughout the heaving city. Situated in trendy La Condesa, El Greco is perhaps the finest; a little walk from the winding paths and many trees of Parque México, their al pastor – rotating meat spits of pork, seen in kebab houses across Europe – tastes impossibly fresh. “Not quite the same as a street taco, though, is it?” Don Luis beams at me as I tuck into one of his wonderful costillas (rib-meat); he’s right of course.
Ask chilangos about genetically modified food and they’ll rant for hours about international corporations’ attempts to grow maize on Mexican land, and what impact the invasion of big food corporations could have on their beloved dishes. This is the home of maize, first cultivated in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times; it’s been the lifeblood of Mexicans for untold aeons, and the variety is bewildering. The almost luminous yellow corn seen in Europe is merely one species in Mexico.
One example of the diversity is the thick, almost brittle bread used for tlacoyo.
It’s blue, the colour of this particular maize crop, oval-shaped and heated on a grill and topped with frijoles (black beans), onions, either cubed potatoes or nopales (strips of cactus) and sprinkled with crumbly panela cheese.
One of my favourite stands is on the south side of Avenida Álvaro Obregón at the corner with Jalapa. You see the same blue maize used sometimes for quesadillas - large folded tortillas filled with cheese and huitlacoche, a fungal delicacy that grows on maize.
Another example of corn’s versatility here is the tamale. Cornmeal dough mixed with frijole or chicken, it’s steamed in the corn-leaf wrapping, and served inside it. Recipes vary in different regions; in Chiapas they eat tamale de chipilín, with edible green-leaf wrapping, while in Yucatán tamale de dulce is brightly coloured with splashes of pink and red thanks to its raspberry-and-raisin filling.
Torta de tamal is the favourite in Mexico, the tamale served in a crusty roll. Warm and fairly dry, it’s typically eaten early in the morning, and washed down with chocolate atole – a hot maize drink. As the sun rises, you’ll see swarms of commuters queuing up at stalls like the one on the corner of Guanajuato and Jalapa, looking for a nourishing start to the day. “The best tamale,” chef Esmarelda tells me while serving a long line of suits, “should have a touch of corn’s sweetness, and be a little moist.” Unsurprisingly, hers fit just that description.
Tacos may be the most iconic Mexican food abroad, but gorditas are just as treasured by chilangos, if not more. A very thick, doughy tortilla that is deep-fried, the gordita is slit down the middle and opened like a pitta bread, served with a filling of your choice. They’re utterly decadent but worth sinning for,especially stuffed with carnitas, which is shredded pork left in a broth; all the grisly gubbins are included, not least chicharrón – pork skin, lightly fried into a bloody paste, and spread over the bread like butter. Karnitas de Medellin serves my favourite, and the enthralling Medellin market lies opposite.
There’s many a torteria in Mexico City, one of the favourite dishes being torta de Milanesa, which isn’t found much outside the capital. Milanesa here means breaded beef, cut into small pieces and placed in chunky bread with salad, tomatoes, jalapenos and peppers. Torteria Los Güeros on the corner between Cordoba and San Luis Potosi serves an excellent range of tortas.
An introduction to street food wouldn’t be complete without pambazo. These slightly sweet buns are soaked in red salsa, filled with chorizo, potatoes, lettuce, cream and sauce, and are absolutely delicious.
There are many other dishes besides these, of course, all best washed down with fresh smoothies blended at the juice stalls lining the streets. And as for the ghost of Moctezuma? Pay him your respects and with a little luck he’ll leave your tummy in peace.
Our pick of Mexico City's best eateries:
El Faraón taquería Oaxaca 92
Tel +55 55142214
La Casa de Toño
Plaza Manuel Tolsá
Tel +55 5510 3281
San Angel Inn
Diego Rivera 50
Álvaro Obregón 130
Tel +55 55740266
Pozoleria El Tixtla
Tel +55 55642859
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