Everyone comes to Mexico for the food. But Mexican street food still strikes fear into the hearts of many.That’s a shame, because you really can enjoy most of it without fearing the any consequences, like adverse effects or food poisoning.
The truth is, most of the truly nefarious effects of Mexican street foods (with a couple of important exceptions) will affect Mexican people exactly as they’ll affect visitors from other countries.
The couple of important exceptions are:
Most cases of food poisoning in Mexico City come from salsas that sit too long at room temperature – bacteria grow in them – and nearly everyone who eats them gets sick.
If lots of people are eating the salsa you’re being served – it’s likely safe. Which is to say – rule one for Mexican street food is eat what lots of other people are eating – and ask for no cheese or cream if it’s being served that way.
Beyond that, let’s look at a few of the most common Mexican Street Foods – in Mexico City, if nowhere else.
In Mexico City streets – essentially – you’re talking about Tacos al Pastor (pictured above) or Tacos de Guisado, or Tacos de Parilla. Whoever is hosting you in Mexico will be delighted to introduce you to any variety.
1 – Chilangos know full-well that Pastor tacos came with Lebanese immigrants who flooded into Mexico – and Mexico City – especially early in the 20th century. It’s not clear that Lebanese people know that much of their cuisine is heavily influenced by Greek cuisine ever since Alexander the Great! But – these Greek-derived tacos – made from pork cooked on a vertical spit are ubiquitous and hard to go wrong with. Plus, you can order just a couple – they’re sometimes very small – and sample the ones you want.
2 – Tacos de Guisado – mean essentially – anything from a variety of prepared dishes (guisados) that can be stuffed into a tortilla. These can include beans and little porkchops (chuletas) to chicharrón (pork rind) in salsa verde to pulled beef (carne deshebrada) or even eggs. Many of these combinations can be wonderful. The only important note here is that – just like with the salsas sitting out mentioned above – you want to get tacos de guisado from a popular place where a lot of people are eating them.
3 – The third category, Grilled Tacos – (tacos de parilla) – are probably going to be sold under the general rubric of tacos de bistek – the primary thing being grilled. Then you may also get tacos de pollo, chuletas, chorizo and longaniza – from the same grill. Generally – bistek tacos and the like are served with pretty large servings of accompanying garnishes – beans, onions, nopales, and salsas. Follow the same rule for salsas already mentioned – and don’t eat the ones from the lonely, forlorn taco stands. The more fellow taco-eaters, the more likely the salsas are fresh and safe.
Nearly all Mexicans have an emotional attachment to tamales. They’re easy to serve to kids and so Mexican kids grow up loving them – and even aching for them. That said – most visitors from other countries are a little let down by the odd things sold from the trikes in the street and pictured above. Tamal is quite simply a corn meal – very similar to Italian polenta – and served with pork, chicken or a number of sweet or salty other accompaniments. Like polenta, it’s something of an acquired taste, and one that’s perhaps even a little boring for first timers. But Italians too will speak of the reassurance, comfort and emotional sustenance they receive from their warm – or better, re-heated – corn porridge.
A far better introduction for international visitors are good tamales oaqueños, more commonly sold wrapped in green banana leaves. Most of the trikes bearing the recorded voice announcing “¡TAMALES! ¡OAQUEÑOS!” will sell you both tamales in banana leaves and the less expensive and more common variety wrapped in corn husks. If you’re new to tamales, you’ll likely be more impressed with those sold in a tianguis or a seasonal street fair or festival – the kind with temporary stands and seating – rather than right off the tricycle. These tend to be slightly better cooked – perhaps a little greasier, but they also may be served with a little more accompanying flair and perhaps a few salsas to choose one best for the tamale you’ve chosen.
All Mexico City residents have their favorite tortería. Unfortunately, they are never close to it. So whenever you buy a torta, your Chilango friends will tell you that “these aren’t the really good tortas.” They probably won’t describe that ideal torta but they can assure you that it is – somewhere else. Like the tamales of childhood, during university or some similar stage of early adulthood, most Mexicans eat a lot of tortas. Now they get an emotional attachment – but with a cynical edge. They can never go back to those really good tortas – but for now, these will do.
A Mexico City version of Bart Simpson’s famous “hoagies, grinders and subs — all in the same trip,” tortas are sold everywhere on the street. Mexico City residents are unsure of their pedigree (are they even Mexican?) but will eat them nonetheless. And the variety of tortas is almost as great as the variety of paintings of tortas that you can see in the street. Perhaps no artist ever wanted to paint one more than once?
Most commonly you’ll find tortas of ham, chorizo, pork leg, chicken and the Mexico City “milanesa” which is breaded beef, no marinara much less mozzarella, as it is in the rest of the world. Then you can also have the Cubana – which is all of the above plus hot dogs. Don’t try to figure that one out. Just eat.
Nearly all of these go good with mayonnaise, some good slices of avocado, tomato, onion – and they’ll like ask you your choice of “picante?” which is either “rajas” – slices of jalapeno, or a chipotle sauce.
4. Quesadillas, Gorditas, Sopes and Huaraches
All these foods are cooked on the comal. This is the pre-hispanic cooking surface you’ll see heating foods all over Mexico City and elsewhere. Many of them have an inverted center – either upwards or downwards for holding oil either in the center or away from the center.
Importantly – buy these foods at a place that appears to be selling them quickly. Just like the salsas sitting out – fried foods sitting out at room temperature – or street temperature – can quickly turn to bacterial time bombs that will make your stomach very unhappy.
Secondly – All of these foods are commonly served with dried cheese, crema or both. Avoid them, unless you’ve been in Mexico or Latin America for a good long time.
The only exception to the dried cheese will be the folded-over quesadilla – simply a once-folded tortilla with whatever you choose inside and surface-fried on one side and then the other. Even the cheese here – Oaxaca Cheese, should be safe as it’s a “cold cheese.” You could also have mushrooms, ground pork (picadillo), pumpkin flower or even huitlacoche.
Deep fried quesadillas – are a little more special – and that’s why they’re finished with the nicer things. Cilantro and onion are fine, but it’s best to ask for no crema or queso if you’re new in the country.
Gorditas, sopes and huaraches will all be served – and finished in a similar way – and so long as you know more or less what you’re asking for, you should be able to enjoy all of them with little or no trouble. You can predict this – in large measure – by the other people enjoying them too.
2016 was a banner year, not just for good eats and good coffee, but for seeing some of our old favorites really come into their own. Hopefully not lost in all of the rave reviews were these ten top-notch new restaurants – perhaps the best New Restaurants of the past year. As we see it, these are the ones who are just getting going.
Photo above: Mia Domenicca
A Mediterranean corner in Colonia Roma, Mia Domenicca always feels like cooking for friends. Priding themselves on a kitchen that turns out truly memorable dishes, the place is casual and friendly, but the menu should leave no doubt that you’ve got some pretty sophisticated friends.
Taking the concept of “comfort food” to some considerable extreme, La Roma is not just good for the soul. With considerable attitude, it’s not really a biker kind of place (though it looks like it). Specializing in burgers, plenty of their sandwiches will meet the expectations of higher-browed clientele, and deeply satisfying, some of their heavier dishes will beg to be revisited.
Chef Jair Téllez’s next evolutionary step after winning acclaim for Merotoro and Laja (in the Valley of Guadalupe), Amaya’s menu is still more sophisticated. A fusion of Spanish and Mexican cuisine, the wine (raro or not) is also carefully selected for outstanding results.
The new place at the Four Seasons, Zenaya is seafood to write home about. Starting with traditional recipes from Nayarit, Chef Tonatiuh Cuevas traveled to the coast to soak up the seasoning of the beach. Quality and freshness have been well noted by some of the city’s most vocal citics.
Mexico City’s most beloved Japanese chef brings a much-needed update to the concept of Mexican-Japanese food. With an extremely traditional menu, you get the hyper-simple technique and the full blown Hiroshi treatment for every dish. This is not one to miss.
A pure vegetable-based cuisine for everyone, every dish is created with organic and artisanal ingredients. Soups, salads, and hamburgers all attest to the fact that vegan can be not just edible, but even really good, and without mammoth portions.
Innovative, high-quality dishes, in an unpretentious environment, Lucas focuses on seasonal everything, and so everything is fresh. With a nice mix of cocktails, for Roma Norte this is a decidedly sophisticated corner of the night.
Bastardo, like the child of none-too-respectable parents, is nothing if not creative. Chef Jorge Avedaño latest venture brings always unusual ingredients to the table and the results are something like a mix of down-home and high society. Among the best new restaurants, this is not one to underestimate.
Granada’s not just a bunch of overpriced condos for girls from Toluca. The second Granada entry in this year’s list, is a fusion of Mediterranean, Asian, American and Spanish food all from Valencian chef Ricard Camarena. Eclectic is a ood first word to describe it, but the flavors and technique somehow all make sense here – if nowhere else.
For daily delights inspired by a traditional bakery, you shouldn’t have to climb Mount Everest. But that’s where you’ll find this new and rather exclusive bakery and coffee shop with a pretty good menu tacked on to keep it innovative. Contemporary Mexican food comes in ample servings to make it one of the best new restaurants of the past year. And the terrace, for lunch is one reward for venturing out to Lomas.
Mole, the word comes from the Nahuatl, molli, is always among the most emblematic of Mexican dishes. There are multiple varieties of moles, each prepared with different chiles and spices. This mixture is then thickened with corn, vegetables and sometimes with a meat stock. And then it’s set to stew.
The interesting thing about mole is that over the decades it’s continued to evolve. More and more chefs and restaurants strive to include a mole on their menus, with original dishes inspired by nothing but that original dark sauce. Dishes today range from the most traditional to the most modern and extravagent. And they always bear something of the original identity in their complex characters and flavors.
Among the most popular is “mole poblano.” But as there are so many versions of moles in the city, the best moles in Mexico City are often far and away from those concocted originally in Puebla, or Oaxaca or Guerrero. From the pot, they come red, black or sometimes green, but for all the best moles in Mexico City start with the list below.
One of the city’s true classics, Azul is at home in an impressive old building and prides itself on a rather high Mexican gastronomy. The house mole is rather on the traditional side, but for the adventurous, there’s also a sweet version served with duck.
With very fair prices, La Poblanita’s portions are very generous, and the mole enchiladas, are not to be forgotten. Overall, a traditional and rather “poblano” style menu should fill up even the most finicky of guests.
A favorite since the 1940s, Los Panchos has been recommended by world-renowned chef, Enrique Olvera. One of the city’s most varied menus, the house mole is one of the star dishes, and always comes out not just sweet, but exotic, multi-layered and complicated.
Always esoteric, El Cardenal has been one of the best Centro restaurants for as long as anyone can remember. Most famous for the breakfasts, at lunchtime all the niceties go away and the real guns come out. A chicken breast stuffed goat cheese ought to get you going but the red mole is easily among the best moles in Mexico City.
Easily one of the most recognized eateries in the city, Pujol usually makes lists of the best in all Latin America. Cuisine is distinctly Mexican while the atmosphere is sophisticated and minimalist. Among the most popular of dishes is the “mole madre/mole nuevo,” made through a fusion of ancestral and modern techniques.
Priding itself on traditional and contemporary Poblano recipes, many of the moles are from carefully secreted recipes, each with a unique flavor. Order the chilaquiles with mole or the guava mole, both of which are exceptional.
El Familiar – Milpa Alta
San Pedro Actopan may be practically the world capital of mole and the majority of inhabitants dedicate themselves in one or another to the production of the sauce. El Familiar offers one particular mole with walnuts (mole de nuez), which goes spectacularly with almost anything. But the three-mole enchiladas offer an amazing sampler for those unwilling to commit.