Unfettered by complex rules and regulations, Mexico’s street food scene is an integral part of the culinary culture and flourishes in every corner of the country. Whether it’s a busy metropolis or a tiny pueblo, a mélange of carts and tables, benches and umbrellas will inevitably offer curbside dining and snacking morning, noon and night.
It can take some sleuthing to find the best ones, though, and the tried-and-true method is to look for crowds of locals and exceptional longevity; it’s not unusual for a successful taco stand to set up on the same corner through multiple generations, for 10, 20, 45 years. That’s what you’re looking for.
It would be impossible to write about everything you can eat on the street, so consider this my list of basic favorites. Each of the various regions of Mexico will have specialties not found elsewhere, and I encourage you to go forth with courage and curiosity and see what you can find.
The long toot of the rolling steam oven — like a little train whistle — announces the Thursday evening arrival of my local camotero, selling perfectly baked camotes (sweet potatoes) and platanos (plantains). Locals eat them as a sweet treat, drowned in lechera (sweetened condensed milk), but I prefer to bring them home unadorned, where I slather ’em with real butter and a pinch of salt. Sometimes I make Thai curries or black bean chili and then add the roasted sweet potatoes to the finished dish. It’s such a wonderful convenience, and it’s easy to get spoiled.
Said to originate in the tiny mountain town of Concordia (but who knows), these are an icy treat in many countries around the world. While elsewhere “shave ice,” or snow cones, are simply shaved ice drizzled with sweet, colorful fruit syrup, here in Mexico they go one step further and add lechera for an even more decadent treat. Tip: ask locals who has the best ones, made with real fruit syrup as opposed to just colored flavored sugar syrup.
Somehow, potatoes grilled in an open fire taste better — and when they’re smothered with salsa Mexicana, guacamole, butter and crema, it’s kind of heaven on a plate. Use a fork if you must, but I prefer to scoop up the steaming hot mush with tortillas doradas (crispy dry-fried corn tortillas) for a truly sensual and oh-so-delicious experience.
How lucky we are to live in a place where coconuts are so plentiful and where cold, fresh coconut water is not exotic or expensive! For under US $2, I can enjoy an ice-cold coco frío, a coconut freshly whacked open by the machete-wielding vendor at the beach near my house. When I’ve drunk all the sweet, refreshing coconut water, he’ll cut out the meat with a special tool and return it to me piled in the half-shell.
Locals like to add hot sauce, chamoy sauce and other condiments; I prefer it plain with a little fresh lime juice. Also worth mentioning is cocohorchata: horchata made with fresh coconut water. Yum!
From ruby-red jamaica to coral-colored melón to milky-white horchata, nothing says Mexico like an oversized, ice-filled cup of agua fresca. These sweet, usually fruit-based drinks are perfect for quenching your thirst any time of year but especially appreciated in the hot and humid summer months when sufficient hydration is essential. Sometimes you’ll find them with herbs (mint, basil, lavender) added or chia seeds, making the drink kind of like bubble tea. While it’s easy to stick with a favorite (mine might be pineapple), trying other flavors is fun and rewarding.
There’s nothing as decadently delicious as a churro calientito, still warm from deep-frying, sticky with cinnamon sugar and steamy-hot inside. Consider yourself warned: They’re kind of irresistible. (Why these aren’t on more menus for dessert, I don’t understand.) Whether piped in long fluted tubes or swirled in spiraled circles, churros are Mexico’s version of sweet fried dough, a “different kind of donut” that’s always eaten fresh, never packaged. Sometimes they’re stuffed (relleno) with chocolate or Nutella that turns into a scrumptious, gooey mess when cooked; the classic churros are simply rolled in cinnamon sugar.
Definitely Mexico’s most iconic street food, tacos — in all their forms — are what most of us are looking for out there in the street. From carne asada and quesobirria to barbacoa and al pastor to camarón capeado and carnitas, you can find a different delicious experience every time. Fillings, salsas and toppings are specific to the particular vendor and region; tortillas will be corn (yellow, white or blue) or flour, again depending on where in Mexico you are.
To be sure, you can also order tacos in more formal sit-down eating establishments, but the experience won’t be the same. (Nor will the cost!) You can make them at home, but really, why even try? It’s almost impossible to create the various marinades and array of salsas, what to speak of making all those corn tortillas from scratch. And who among us has the skill of the taquero in charge of the grill?
When you’re in Mexico, what are your favorite street foods? How did you discover them?
Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Instagram at @thejanetblaser.