Mexico City Street Food Scenario
Ciudad de México, Mexico’s capital city, is vibrant and ever changing. Its historical sites along with its tall modern skyscrapers are the perfect backdrop for all kinds of stories waiting to be written by its inhabitants.
A mix of people from all walks of life: posh down-town ladies, devoted vegans, penniless vagabonds. Successful businessmen in label suits, taxi drivers, corrupt politicians, market merchants who start work before the sun rises.
Then there are the young hipsters, consecrated nuns, aspiring artists, policemen, clever pickpockets, skilled carpenters and plumbers who are jobless.
Add tourists from all parts of the world, clerks, children who have it all, and children who have to work on the road selling gum.
They all coexist in this crazy, colorful melting pot where the locals proudly called themselves chilangos.
The gastronomical offer in Mexico City is one of the largest you’ll find anywhere in the world, it includes cafes, gastro pubs, local diners, ethnic shops, fine dining, street vendors, bars, fondas, fast food chains, and specialty eateries.
There is always something new to try!
Street food is a major attraction for all visitors because it showcases the diversity of traditional Mexican food and portrays a profound custom engrained in the nation’s culture.
Chilangos live in an endless rush and enjoy a pit stop to recharge batteries. Flavors are rich, deep, and intense. Street vendors cater for everyone from construction worker to the smartest of lawyers in the city.
There is something democratic about munching on a greasy taco standing up on a grimy corner next to the traffic lights.
We are not saying that street food is always found on dodgy junctions but if you are one of those who worry too much about health and safety standards you may have to approach this one with an open mind.
True street food is generally served on the pavement of an avenue, bazaar or marketplace, and most likely delivered from a bike’s basket, a shopping cart, a food truck or a wobbly table set next to the hot comal under a plastic roof, where most of the time there is no access to tap water.
However, there are some places that are properly established and have a seating area and some toilets. In any case, don’t miss the opportunity to try a variety of trademark dishes!
How to Choose Street Food in Mexico City?
Or how to know if a street food stall is any good or you should skip it? One of the problems of being an outsider is finding out where the secret spots are, or, as you pass by, knowing how to identify if the food they’re serving is any good.
Mexico City’s street food scene is mutable and elusive. One day a guy sells the fluffiest tamales on one corner and the next day he´s gone. Sometimes it’s like a game of cat and mouse.
Word-of-mouth is the best type of advertising this guy may have but the nature of his work entitles him the privilege of being evasive and hard to pin down.
When seeking out reputable street vendors always bare these points in mind:
- Ask around. Mexicans are friendly and they will recommend some hidden gems nearby. Sometimes Airbnb owners and hotel concierges can offer some advice.
- Delve into the lively markets, adventure through its noisy passages, and let your senses guide you.
- If you come from a big city or have been to places like London and New York you must have somewhat developed an urban intuition, trust it and use it. Mexico City is very much like them.
- When you get to the recommended place or you come across a food stall, look for a bunch of people gathering around it (or at least a few fellows). Great places are always busy (regardless the time of the day). However, remember that lunch time in Mexico City is usually from 2:00 to 4:00pm; that is true especially for office staff, so those would be the hours that will be the fullest. An empty place at rush hour is highly suspicious.
- Now, remember the “democratic thing” we mentioned above? Try scanning the crowd… Is it representative the diversity of Mexico City’s residents? This will inform you more about the quality of the food and the pricing. A good mix of professions tells you that the food served is truly good and accessible for most of the population. If prices are too cheap (compared to others) it is possible that the quality of the ingredients is poor.
- Now, take a look their utensils, the buckets of water they have to wash them, and the color of the oil they use for frying. An important cue is the way the handle money. Do they wear any gloves? Or is it only one person who takes the bill and another who cooks? Do the veggies look fresh? Does the meat smell nice?
- Lastly, know that when the food is really amazing it generally tends to run out before the day ends. Thus, famous street vendors finish off their goods before the day ends.
Basic Street Food Vocabulary
Now, let’s go over some basic words useful for your culinary urban adventure:
- Changarro is the colloquial name people refer to street stalls but the proper name is puesto de comida.
- Comida callejera is street food.
- Mercado is market and tianguis is usually a more informal, smaller or itinerant market.
- Joven is a common way to get the salesman’s attention; it is also used for ‘waiter’.
- If the lady who is dispatching is young, you may call her señorita, but if she is older you could call her “seño”, which is the short for señora.
How to Ask Around for the Best Food in Mexico City?
To request information or enquire to get suggestions from the locals you may want to practice the following phrases:
- ¿Qué lugares me recomienda para echar unos tacos? -> Which places can you recommend me to enjoy some tacos? In this expression “tacos” is used as a representation of the street food kingdom.
- ¿Vamos a echar unos tacos? -> Shall we go and eat some tacos? -> Shall we get some street food?
- Quisiera probar antojitos mexicanos. -> I would like to try some Mexican street food.
- ¿Conoce algunos buenos changarros por aquí? -> Do you know any good street food vendors around here?
- ¿En dónde se encuentra la taquería más cercana? -> Where is the closest taco place?
- Por favor, ¿me puede recomendar un puesto de tamales? -> Please, can you recommend me a tamales stall?
- ¿Sabe de algún lugar donde vendan birria? -> Do you know a place where they sell birria?
Remember that when addressing a stranger, Mexican customs call for Usted (formal ‘you’) instead of Tú (informal ‘you’); so approach with respect.
Basic Spanish Phrases to Order Street Food
There are two main ways of ordering:
- Me da
- Le encargo
They both mean something like “can you give me” or “I would like”.
- Buenas tardes seño, por favor, ¿me da un elote con chile del que no pica? -> Good afternoon lady, can I have one corn on the cob with the chili powder that is not spicy?
- Joven, le encargo por favor dos tostadas de pata, un taco de suadero y un refresco de naranja. -> Sir, can I please have two tostadas of pork feet, one taco of beef meat, and an orange fizzy drink?
Ultimately, remember your manners, por favor and gracias are the minimum you are expected. Then if you can throw-in some greetings you will be greatly appreciated. Note that Mexicans tend to use a lot of diminutives when making requests as a way of showing respect.
- Buenas tardes, ¿me da dos taquitos, por favor? -> Good afternoon, can you please give me two tacos?
And when you order the bill you can say the classic “La cuenta, por favor”. Nevertheless, if you confidently tell the guy “¿Cuánto le debo joven?”, you will give him a nice surprise. It means ‘How much do I owe you, young man?’ and is a more endearing expression.
Finally, if you enjoyed the antojitos mexicanos you could exclaim:
- ¡El pozole está buenísimo! -> The pozole (or whatever you liked) was awesome!
- ¡Está para chuparse los dedos! -> It’s so good you want to lick your fingers!
Surely, you will get some extra smiles, though don’t forget the tip!
Get to Know the Mexican Delights
Mexican cuisine is vast but when it comes to street food, tacos tend to get most of the attention. However, it’s only fair to give a slot to other treats. Below you can find a short listing of dishes that form part of the wonderful mosaic of antojitos mexicanos, all delicious in their own right! It will allow you to know what you are about to munch in.
(In no particular order)
- Birria: spicy stew that can be made with lamb or goat’s meat accompanied with red onion and oregano.
- Pancita or menudo: is the cow’s belly, sometimes can be offered fried for tacos and sometimes in a soup.
- Pozole: soup made with large white corn grains and pork meat garnished with radish, lettuce, and onion.
- Tacos: a tortilla (generally filled with different types of meat such as bistec, vegetables or beans).
- Tostadas: oven-dried or fried tortillas smeared with refried beans and some type of meat, then drizzled with cream and salsa and topped with crumbled cheese.
- Pata, tostadas de pata: the cow’s trotters or pork’s trotters is pickled with vinegar, salt, and oregano and then served over tostadas smeared with cream and garnished with cabbage, avocado, onion, and pickled chilies.
- Volcán: a taco variant where the tortilla is crunchy and the rest of the ingredients are layered up in the shape of a volcano, usually finished with melted cheese.
- Pastor (tacos al pastor): pastor is a bright-red mildly spicy condiment used to season meats, generally pork; the tacos al pastor are filled with spit-grilled pork and garnished with pineapple, coriander, and onion.
- Quesadilla: a tortilla filled with melted cheese, generally Oaxaca or Manchego. You can find quesadillas with all sorts of fillings.
- Gringa: a wheat tortilla “sandwich” filled with melted cheese and pastor meat.
- Flautas: fried rolled tacos, generally stuffed with shredded chicken or mashed potatoes, served with sour cream, lettuce, salsa, and guacamole.
- Tuétano: bone marrow usually used to make stock but also available in some taquerías as a taco filling.
- Carnitas: small cuts of pork meat fried in their own lard, which results in tasty soft meat, perfect to make a taco with.
- Suadero: fatty beef meat attached to the inside of the skin.
- Sopes: corn tortilla with a raised edge containing different things, like beans and chorizo.
- Barbacoa: lamb meat which has been cooked wrapped in maguey leaves inside a hot ground oven or pit and is generally served in tacos with coriander, onion, and picked chilies.
- Tlacoyos: thick corn dough with oblong shape filled with refried beans, broad beans paste or pork rinds.
- Elotes and esquites: the corn on the cob is smeared with mayo and drizzled with lime juice and sprinkled with cheese crumbs, salt, and chili powder; esquites are a stew prepared with the corn grains and epazote herb, served in a cup with mayo and the rest.
- Cochinita: is pork meat seasoned with a particular condiment made from different types of chilies, cumin, and other ingredients; can be enjoyed in tacos or tortas.
- Tortas: is a type of white bread (shorter but wider than a French baguette) opened in half, smeared with mayonnaise, beans or avocado and filled with a variety of products such as ham, cheese, chorizo, milanesa (breaded steak), sliced tomatoes, pickled chilies, etc.
- Tamales: corn-based dough (mixed with lard or butter) that is wrapped in corn leaves or banana leaves and then steamed. Regular fillings include mole, chicken with tomatillo salsa, pork with tomato salsa, and strawberry (which result in a fuscia pink).
- Tamaleros are peddlers and tend to appear really early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Along with tamales they offer bolillos to make tortas and two other types of corn-based hot drinks: atole and champurrado. Catch them when you can!
- Cueritos: a snack of pork skin strips, cooked and marinated in vinegar with herbs.
Would you like to know more about these dishes? The Larousse Dictionary of Mexican Cuisine has a very comprehensive description of each of them.
If you are vegan don’t miss out on the nopales (cacti), the wide variety of mushrooms like setas, the rajas (stewed poblano chili strips), and cuitlacoche, a type of fungi that grows on young corn cobs, sounds disgusting but it is delicious and highly regarded by many, so much so it is often referred to as the Mexican caviar. In any instance, you will find that there are always enough beans to get by.
There are of course, hot dogs, burgers, ribs, and other American-style dishes that you may be more familiar with, but we highly commend munching on a few of the national staples.
Chilango magazine has an impressive list of the best changarros of the capital city, well organized by area and by time of the day. It includes the full address and even photographs of the treats. Do have a look!
Make the Best of Your Visit to Mexico City
Finally, a couple of tips to enhance your travel experience to Mexico City:
- Prepare yourself in advance by researching the area you are visiting or staying at. Mexico City is huge so you want to spot the street vendors or establishments that are nearby! Also, set some tentative ideas of the regions or attractions you want to visit. You can do this through:
- Travel guides (or their sites) such as Rough Guides and Nomadic Matt.
- Travel magazines like Travel and Leisure.
- Travel forums and travel blogs. There is plenty to read from!
- If you already speak Spanish this doesn’t apply to you, but if you don’t, we highly suggest learning Spanish to make the most of your trip. You can find some free resources here.
- If you are serious about learning Spanish, customize your education by choosing native speakers from Mexico, as they will be able to deliver the accent and other insights of their country. You can find certified teachers at Live Lingua who can deliver a personalized course to meet your needs.
- Pack a mix of clothes, Mexico City has a considerable rainfall and, apart from spring, it gets chilly in the mornings and the afternoons. During winter season you will definitively need a warm coat.
Having a great trip to Mexico City
In order to have the best possible trip to Mexico City, grab our free intro to Spanish, the Spanish Survival Crash Course! We’ll send a selection of PDFs and audio files to your email to have you speaking basic Spanish and ordering street food in Mexico City like a pro.