A Travellers Guide to Mexican Street Food: Part I

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Since pre-Hispanic times, street food has been an integral and beloved part of Mexican culture. Mexico City (CDMX) is currently rated #1 by Taste Atlas for the best regional cuisine. This group of foods is called Antojitos (little cravings), and they are cherished as it is a quick and delicious meal for workers to get them through their busy day. It is a space where people can come together to eat and connect, creating a sense of community and belonging. Antojitos are a symbol of Mexico’s rich heritage and tradition. On offer – a tantalizing array of authentic, bold, and diverse flavors. It’s a feast for the senses, with sizzling meats, spicy sauces, and fresh ingredients that come together to create a symphony of flavor. It’s a way of life passed down through generations since the Aztec empire, and it’s infused with the warmth and hospitality that Mexican people are renowned for.

If you have been to Mexico City, you are familiar with the sight of the Mexican food trucks and carritos (little carts). They are a cultural staple with humble beginnings that have reached many corners of the globe. Born in the streets of Mexico as family establishments offering affordable meals for the local community, it has captured the hearts and palates of food lovers around the world. Mexican street food’s vibrant, colorful, and diverse world offers a beautifully authentic culinary experience. Whether you’re a foodie looking for your next adventure or simply curious about the world of Mexican cuisine, let’s look at just some of the gastronomic superstars of the street food scene.

In this Part I article, we will deal with a few of the iconic street foods that have captured the world’s taste buds.

Tacos Al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor, the fiery and flavorful dish, is a true icon of Mexican street food. The dish is widely believed to have been influenced by Lebanese immigrants who came to Mexico in the early 20th century. These immigrants brought the technique of vertically spit-roasting meat, a cooking method commonly used in Lebanese cuisine to prepare shawarma. The Mexican adaptation uses marinated spiced pork, topped with a large chunk of fresh pineapple, which slowly roasts and bastes the meat with its sweet and acidic juice.

The dish’s name, al pastor, means shepherd style, which refers to how the meat is stacked on a vertical spit and slowly roasted, much like a shepherd would roast meat over an open fire. Imagine the sizzling sound of marinated pork spinning on a spit, infused with the fragrant aroma of chili and spices. The succulent meat is shaved using the cooked outside portions into fresh tortillas with a chunk of the tangy and acidic pineapple providing the perfect balance to the savory meat. The tacos are finished with cilantro and onions, adding a fresh and zesty bite. Delicious!

Tamales

Tamales are a true labor of love. The process of making tamales is a communal effort, with family and friends coming together to prepare the masa dough, and filling before wrapping them in corn husks and steaming them to perfection. The smell of the corn masa in the steaming tamales fills the air, and with every bite, you can feel the warmth of the loving hands that made them.

The heart of the dish is the masa, a smooth and velvety dough made from finely ground corn and lard. The masa is then filled with a variety of delicious ingredients, such as juicy meats, tangy cheeses, fresh vegetables, or fiery chilies, that explode with flavor in each bite. Vendors can be found all over Mexico, and this delicacy is an affordable and filling meal regularly enjoyed by locals. Tamales are a true culinary delight, a cultural emblem of Mexico that has captured people’s hearts and taste buds worldwide.

Elotes

Elotes, or Mexican street corn, is a popular and beloved snack widely enjoyed in Mexico and now beyond its borders. This irresistible treat is made by grilling or boiling fresh corn on the cob, then slathering it in a generous coating of mayonnaise, crumbled queso fresco cheese, chili powder, and lime juice. Elote is a fantastic expression of one of Mexico’s most praised crops. Corn is more than just a food source in Mexico; it is a symbol of life, fertility, and prosperity.

The sweet and juicy corn kernels are complemented by the creamy and tangy mayonnaise, which is balanced perfectly by the sharp and salty queso fresco. The chili powder adds a subtle kick of heat that is tempered by the refreshing squeeze of lime juice, creating a perfect harmony of flavors. Elote is a quintessential Mexican street food that is a must-try for anyone looking to experience the true taste of Mexico.

Tortas

Mexican tortas are widely loved for their hearty and delicious flavor, perfect for an on-the-go filling lunch. A torta is made by grilling or toasting a soft, crusty roll called a bolillo and then stuffing it generously with tender meat, fresh veggies, and a variety of condiments. The beauty of the torta lies in its versatility; some popular variations include the traditional ham and cheese, the spicy chorizo and egg, and juicy pork carnitas. In Guadalajara markets, there is a version called Tortas ahogadas (drowned sandwiches) that are stuffed rolls dipped in salsa and eaten with disposable gloves, and with each bite, you can taste the depth of flavors that come together to create a perfect balance of salty, sweet, and tangy.

Sopes

Sopes are a delectable and versatile street food that can be found throughout Mexico. These small, thick, and round corn masa cakes are made by hand and are typically shaped with a slight indentation in the middle, making them a perfect vessel for a variety of savory toppings. The fried sopes are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, resulting in a flavorful and satisfying meal that is perfect for any time of day.

Barbacoa

This slow-cooked meat dish is traditionally made with beef or lamb that has been marinated in a mixture of spices, chilies, and herbs, then wrapped in banana leaves or agave leaves and placed in a pit dug into the ground. The pit is lined with hot coals and covered with dirt, allowing the meat to slowly cook for several hours until it becomes tender and juicy. The result is tender, juicy meat bursting with flavors and falling apart at the slightest touch. Street vendors commonly serve this nestled in between fresh warm tacos and topped with onion, cilantro, and salsa.

Churros

No list of Mexican street food would be complete without mentioning the world-renowned sweet treat – churros. These irresistible, deep-fried sticks of pastry are made from dough like a French cream puff pastry, which is piped through a star-shaped nozzle to create their signature shape. After they are fried to a golden brown, the churros are traditionally rolled in cinnamon sugar and then served hot with a side of chocolate or vanilla dipping sauce.

Many adore churros for their comforting warmth and crunch that satisfy even the most insatiable sweet tooth. With their crispy exterior and soft, doughy interior, churros provide a unique, satisfying, and indulgent texture.

Mexican street food is a vibrant and flavorful tapestry of culinary traditions that have captured the hearts and stomachs of people around the world. Every dish tells a unique story of Mexican culture and history, from the rich, spicy flavors of tacos al pastor to the sweet, indulgent crunch of churros.

The hustle and bustle of street food markets, the sizzle of meats on the grill, the smell of spices and herbs in the air – these are the sights, sounds, and smells that bring Mexican street food to life and make it an unforgettable experience for all who indulge. Whether enjoyed on the streets of Mexico City or in a local taco truck, the flavors of Mexican street food are a testament to the Mexican people’s enduring legacy and culinary traditions.

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