“Where are the burritos at?” I asked. Mexican dishes turned out to look and taste completely different from those Mexican fast-food places I had tried in the United States and Spain. I’ve been living here for 9 months and have now become familiar with the many ways Mexicans use the same ingredients to create different things. What I find habitual in the cuisine are corn tortillas (though they have other kinds like nopal tortilla – which is cactus! and white flour tortilla), frijoles (black beans, mostly in a puree or saucy form), cream, cheese, some type of meat, and a display of spicy sauces with cut up limes on the side. Habanero is the strongest spice; I have even met Mexicans who do not eat it.
In order to truly inform you of some of the popular street dishes here in Mexico City, I have taken on the gruesome task of going to both non-touristy and touristy spots to eat multiple meals, photograph them, and write a little review. Oh, the sacrifice.
Before we begin, you should know I am lactose intolerant. Which means I often don’t get to have these dishes with cream and cheese on top. Lactose free products are easily found at the supermarket, but when going out to eat I often skip on these popular toppings – which usually makes a huge difference in taste. I guess that without the cream, I have nothing to help me neutralize the spiciness! Bring it.
First of all, Mexican food looks horrible. Most of the time, I cannot get an Instagram worthy pic. I know how that makes me look. But hey, beautiful pictures complement the writing aspect of my travel blog. It is difficult to show you in a photo how delicious some of these dishes are. They often have a green or brown saucy look that makes it seem like I took a photo of vomit or poop. I battle with this reality frequently. BUT…the flavor…The flavor is always explosive, new, and intriguing. That’s what matters. Chilaquiles exemplify that. They are corn chips made soft by the sour and spicy green sauce they are soaked in. Topped with cream, onions and cheese, you can have them plain or mixed with protein products like chicken, pork, eggs or beans. A common comfort food, chilaquiles are found everywhere in Mexico City. I have bought them from Chinese restaurants more than once, and a magazine kiosk near our home has a handwritten CHILAQUILES AQUI sign.
I like to think of them as the Mexican sandwich. They have become a favorite for their low price, convenience, and the fact that there is a great gorditas hole-in-wall place near our first home in the city. This is where Bradley and I would go for a quick dinner on busy weekdays while we lived in Mixcoac neighborhood. Gorditas are round, fried corn flour stuffed with potatoes and beans. They look similar to the Venezuelan and Colombian arepas. We like to get them with chicken inside (which is unusual for gorditas), onions, cilantro, spicy sauce, and lime juice. All that stuffing makes them a super filling lunch.
These are on my top 3 list with tacos and tamales. Chicken (any meat really – even tuna) wrapped in corn tortillas, soft, hot, and smothered in sauce. My favorite kind is chicken enchiladas con mole. Mole is a chocolate, nuts and chile based sauce that has become one of my favorite aspects of Mexican cuisine. It was a taste that grew on me slowly but surely, and now I get enchiladas con mole whenever they are on the menu. They are filling, satisfying and incredibly exotic for someone that is not already accustomed to Mexican flavors. Mole is truly what I mean when I speak of that “explosion of flavors in my mouth”.
So you probably have had tacos before. But when I first came to Mexico, it felt like it was the first time I was eating tacos. First of all, forget the hard shell. That’s just not real. Second, they are tiny in comparison to international tacos. The tortilla is made of corn which is a totally different ball game from the usual white flour tortillas sold in the U.S. Bleh. They usually just come with the meat. There is none of this lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, guacamole, sour cream nonsense we have been taught. Tortillas and meat. Then your table will have an array of spicy sauces (they all taste different) and limes to squeeze on top. Occasionally you will find really chopped up onion pieces or nopal cut in strips to add flavor and texture, but nothing too crazy. The simplest of Mexican foods (in my opinion), yet an ever-satisfying classic.
I tried some outstanding vegan tacos in the “Vegana Por Siempre” taco stand in the hip Roma neighborhood. Amazing how satisfying and flavorful those were. I am not turning vegan (yet), but I do avoid eating meat as much as I can. These tacos are made with soy, wheat and mushrooms. They season them in a way that you can choose from all the meat flavors possible: pork, chorizo, cecina, tacos al pastor (explained below)…It is mind-blowing! I am currently learning how I can live a more earth-friendly lifestyle. Toying with a vegan and vegetarian diet has been a personal exploration for the past year or so, and I am impressed by the flavorful creations of Mexican Vegan cuisine.
5) TACOS AL PASTOR
Rooted in Lebanese cuisine, these tacos are the most popular kind in the city! Pork cooked like kebab, adorned with tiny chopped up veggies and a piece of pineapple on top…they are the equivalent of “kebab” in Europe (meaning “drunk food”). Many times, they sell two for one, and I have made a whole fulfilling lunch out of eight tacos al pastor while on my way from point A to point B in this busy capital.
These were my favorite when I first visited Mexico City. Now that I live here, I think “eh.” They are okay. Some kind of meat (always chicken for me) rolled up in a corn tortilla, fried, and topped with things like avocadoes, tomatoes, onions, cheese, cream, spicy sauce. You can choose your toppings.
My Saturday morning guilty pleasure!!! I went to Aruba for 10 days in December and aside from my boyfriend, Bradley, I missed tamales the most! Again, when we lived in Mixcoac, we had a tamale stand in the corner of our street and no matter how much I say I am going to eat out less, cook breakfast or whatever, I love getting green tamales (the same green sauce used on chilaquiles), tamales con mole AND a sweet, sweet red tamal. The green sauce and mole tamales are filled with chicken. The sweet tamale is probably the worst for you because they are made red with coloring and sweetened with sugar (I think it is brown sugar), anise seeds, and raisins. Maybe not the unhealthiest of all junk foods, but still, not on the diet to weight-loss.
A tamal is pretty much corn dough (corn is so good here!) steamed in a corn husk. Some tamales are steamed in a banana leaf. They are called tamales oaxaqueños. I don’t like these because they have a doughier texture, less meat filling and less flavor (in my humble opinion, I will not eat these again). The tamales steamed in a corn husk are sturdier, and the dough has a stronger smell and taste of corn. It was so great to have my tamale stand right by my fresh orange juice stand. With Saturday mornings like this, who needs eggs and toast? – Now that we moved from Mixcoac to Coyoacán, there are new places to discover and become regulars in. For now, we named our plant “Memo” – after our super nice, Mixcoac, fresh-orange-juice seller that was only 10 steps away from our tamales stand.
The sub of Mexican food. Any American would call tortas a regular sandwich. But for Mexicans, the bread is what makes it special. I asked my co-workers why bolillo bread is so unique to them, but there wasn’t a clear answer. To me, it is similar to baguettes. Tortas are filled with some kind of meat, mashed up avocado, bean spread, onions and perhaps pickled jalapeños and carrots (spicy alert on the pickled stuff).
9) GRINGAS & QUESADILLAS , QUESADILLAS & GRINGAS
These are my least favorite and I cannot tell much difference between the two, other than the tortilla type and shape. All the gringas I have seen are made with the flour tortilla and they are served in a round shape. And all the quesadillas I have ever been served have been on corn tortilla shaped like a half circle. I enjoy the quesadillas de flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). Maybe one of the reasons I don’t like these dishes is that they are often stuffed with cheese, which I cannot eat. But they are a popular choice nonetheless! I had delicious quesadillas at the Bazaar del Sábado in the San Angel neighborhood. There is a restaurant inside the popular artisan market that is only open on Saturdays. A beautiful excuse to go shopping on a sunny Saturday morning. Bradley will eat gringas from time to time, but they don’t hit the spot quite like the gorditas. As for me? Just bring the tamales home.
10) SOPES & HUARACHES, HUARACHES & SOPES
These are two other dishes that I cannot see much difference in. They are fried, flat corn dough (like flatbread) with meat on top, lettuce, onions, cheese and cream. I could not pin point what sets them apart, and they aren’t exactly my go-to either, though I will select them from time to time. You can also have huaraches without anything on top, if you want to make your day less exciting.
Mexican food has been incredibly surprising. You may be wondering about the one thing everyone loves about Mexico: avocadoes. They are ripe and abundant, but not typically part of these street foods. You may find an avocado based spicy sauce in the taco stand or a depressing bit of avocado in your tortas. However, when going to nicer restaurants, the famous guacamole is on the menu and it is always a fresh, rich and creamy dream. Avocadoes are so accessible at the supermarket, that we typically mash them up in bowl at home and serve them with spicy chips while hanging out with friends.
Living in Mexico City has been a culinary experience more than anything else! The Asian restaurants are also on fire.
Bradley and I love to mix up our date nights between Mexican and Asian food. It is all so satisfying and exciting. At the same time, Mexican food can be heavy. A little too much of something good can have its adverse consequences. So if you visit, do not be afraid to take it easy. At the end of the day, I love coming home to make a salt and oil free meal, full of veggies, fiber and lime juice. My breakfast can be as plain as a cup of Greek yogurt and fruit. The streets of Mexico City are filled with fruit vendors. Fresh and sweet mango, tasty coconut, soft papaya, watery watermelon and crunchy jicamas (a very typical, fiber filled fruit with little taste. Often topped with a sweet and sour powder or lime juice and salt). There are ways to enjoy the flavors of Mexico while keeping digestion light!
What is your experience of Mexican cuisine?
¡Buen provecho amigos!