UPDATED: This article was originally published in December 2015.
It’s no secreto that Mexico has one of the best street food cultures in the world.
Mexican street foods are fast, cheap, fresh and packed with flavour, you could easily spend weeks eating your way around the country and never get to try it all. Plus, why sit down at a restaurant when you could be wandering, sightseeing and meeting locals while you feast?
Brought to you from the smoky markets, carts and cantinas of Mexico, here are our favourite street-side snacks. Best served with a cold cerveza or shot of mezcal. And salsa. On everything.
You can’t talk about the best Mexican street food and not talk about tacos. They’re too everywhere. And too delicious.
In not-so-breaking news, authentic Mexican tacos are nothing like what you get at Taco Bell. No lettuce. No sour cream. And, wait for it… no cheese. That’s right. It’s all about freshness and simplicity.
Taco tortillas are always made of corn, although they vary in colour (blue taco, anyone?). Classic varieties include al pastor (the perfect hybrid of a Lebanese-style shawarma with spit-roasted pork and barbecued pineapple), carne asada (flank steak) and camarón (fried or grilled shrimp). Chicken and chorizo are also popular, and fish tacos are *kisses fingertips* deeeeee-licious. Tacos de canasta are pre-prepared and sold out of baskets from the backs of bicycles. If you’re vegetarian, fear not – you’ll find frijoles (refried beans), egg, potato, mushroom, zucchini flower and even cactus options at most taquerías. Once you’re clutching your taco(s) of choice, load up on the free condiments – diced onion, coriander (cilantro), salsas – and get munching.
Want to know what a taco crawl around Mexico City looks like? Watch this!
This classic Mexican street food translates to ‘little fat one’ (in an affectionate kinda way). Similar to the Venezuelan/Colombian ‘arepa’, gorditas are fried corn cakes stuffed with cheese, meat, beans, potato and/or egg, then served with spicy salsa (obviously). Grind it, fry it, stuff it, eat it. Repeat.
If you’re walking along a Mexican street and hear “Eh! Tamaletamaletamaleeeee!”, heed the call. You won’t regret it.
Tamales are masa (corn dough) stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings, then wrapped in banana leaf or cornhusk and steamed. The most common stuffings include meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables and chilli. They are particularly popular during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities.
In pre-Columbian times, tamales were an important staple for Aztec armies and hunters on the move. And while you may not be an Aztec warrior, these little parcels of goodness are the itinerant traveller’s best friend, perfect for a long bus ride or day hike.
Quesadillas are essentially Mexico’s answer to the toasted cheese sandwich. And ay chico, are they scrumptious. Corn tortillas are sprinkled with white Oaxaca cheese, folded and then cooked on a flat plate. Served with fresh guacamole, onions and salsa, quesadillas are the perfect late-night snack. Or lunchtime snack. Or all-the-time snack.
If you haven’t already gathered, almost every Mexican food is derived from corn. But sometimes you just want to sink your teeth into the original. Enter elote, which is basically corn-on-the-cob, but a whole elote more Mexican (and tasty). Sold on almost every street corner, corn is jammed onto a stick, boiled or grilled over hot coals and then smothered in butter, salt, chilli powder, lime, cheese, mayonnaise and/or crema (sour cream).
If you don’t like getting messy, head to southern or central Mexico, where you’ll find ‘esquites’; same idea, except the corn kernels have been shaved off the cob for you.
Feeling homesick? A comforting bowl of pozole will fix you right up. This hearty, soupy stew is packed with pork and hominy (processed maize kernels), then spiked with chilli, lime and salsa. Cabbage, radish, onion and tostadas (toasted tortillas) are other common accompaniments. Traditionally, the stew was eaten during special Aztec ceremonies, with, some believe, chunks of human sacrifices. Okay, so that part’s not so comforting. But trust us – the pork version is muy delicioso.
7. Fruta con chile y limon
Mexico rocks at all things chilli. So when a street vendor offers you a cup of fresh fruit sprinkled with chilli powder, salt and lime, hand over your pesos. Simultaneously sweet, sour and spicy, this ingenious combo fires up all the taste buds. You’ll regularly see carts selling mango, watermelon, pineapple, papaya and coconut, but you can also find more exotic options, like cactus or jicama (a nutty tuber vegetable). Sold all over the country, this is perfect on-the-go chow, and a welcome break from the heavier, meatier street snacks.
Listen up, ice cream fiends. Forget Italy: Mexico’s where it’s at. Especially because of its paletas – popsicles made using fresh fruit, sometimes blended with milk or cream. These colourful delights can be found at corner stores all over the country, most of which are named ‘La Michoacana’ after the first paleteria of the same name, which opened in the 1940s. The flavour choices are endless – from lime, watermelon and coconut, to tamarind, chilli/cucumber and soursop. Some are even covered with chocolate and nuts. Totally worth the brain freeze.
Hungry? Thirsty? Devour all of the above and more on Intrepid’s 9-day Real Food Adventure around Mexico.