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Daniela Galarza

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How to Order Like a Pro in Mexico City

Mastering the cantina, mezcaleria, juice stand, and tamal vendor

Food-loving travelers doing this town right will find themselves at various permutations of these types of businesses that are essential to the life of Mexico City: mezcal bars, cantinas, and tamal and juice stands. Armed with a few key tips, any gringo can order correctly and avoid embarrassment. (Want to work your way around a taco stand interaction with ease? That's an entirely separate universe — we've got plenty more on that here.)


The Cantina

What to expect: A traditional, old-school amalgam of bar and restaurant, the cantina at its core is a place to hang out, drink, and snack, especially in the afternoon, and often in the presence of a TV playing American football, MMA fighting, or local soccer matches. Cantinas often offer free dishes (botanas) to their drinkers, and a larger menu to those who want to make a full meal of it. Most cantinas are tame and inviting — brightly lit, not too loud — but the masculine vibes that permeate some of the older downtown spots may intimidate female visitors.

How to order: Cantinas should offer a full bar, though beer is often the drink of choice. "Una cerveza por favor" should do the trick; ask "Tiene comida?" or "Que tiene para comer?" to get a food menu.

How to not be rude: Don’t expect freebies. If they come to you, they come to you.

Botica

Botica, photo by Helen Rosner

The Mezcal bar

What to expect: Mezcalerias come in all variations: small and dark, bright and weird, overly designed and modern, creepy and illicit-feeling. They usually serve only mezcal, along with a small selection of local lagers as beer backs. Some will present a long handwritten list of mezcals with little to no explanation, while others offer hyper-detailed, spiral-bound booklets with tasting notes, origin of the agave, producer details, and more. When in doubt, do one of two things: point to one at random, or ask for guidance. (Cheat sheet: suave means smooth, ahumado means smoky, aromático means aromatic, and herbáceo means herbaceous). Your mezcal will come in a tiny glass, probably alongside some orange slices dipped in red chile salt and, if you’re lucky, some sort of nut or bar snack.

How to order: Ask your server what they recommend: "Cual mezcal recomienda?"

How to not be rude: Do not shoot the mezcal; this spirit is made for sipping.

Tamales Photo by Daniela Galarza

Tamales, photo by Daniela Galarza

The Tamal vendor

What to expect: Vendors selling tamales station themselves on street corners throughout the city most mornings (with the exception of religious and federal holidays); spot one by looking for the big metal pots and steamers. Most vendors will have some tamales wrapped in corn husks and some wrapped in banana leaves (tamales oaxaqueños), and they might have both types with mole, salsa verde, salsa rojo, rajas (poblano peppers), or dulce (sweet). Either take the tamal in its wrapping to eat at home or, if you’re on the go, have it con pan: placed between a roll for the ultimate carb-bomb. Tamal vendors will most likely serve one or more types of atole (a thick, sweet drink made from masa) including champurrado (chocolate atole).

How to order: To find out what variety of tamales are on offer, ask "Qué hay?" and then ask for whichever kind you like. (For example: "Un tamal de salsa verde, por favor.") To get it on a roll, ask for either a "torta de tamal" or a "guajolota" (as it's commonly called) or just say "con pan."

Common mistakes: The tamales filled with mole oaxaqueños are too sweet for some, the rojos (tamales filled with red salsa) too spicy for others. There's only one way to fid out: get a couple and share with a friend. Don’t skip the champurrado.

Juice stand

Juice, photo by Daniela Galarza

The Juice vendor

What to expect: There are two main types of juice vendors in Mexico City. The first is a simple orange-and-grapefruit juice stand. Here you’ll find one person, a pile of citrus, and a couple of manual juice presses. You ask for what you want (grapefruit: toronja, orange: naranja, pineapple: pina) and the size, and your pulp preference.

The second type of juice stand will be bigger, with signage, maybe more than one person manning the table, and a slew of fruits, citrus presses, blenders, and seeds, powders, and spices. These vendors serve made-to-order aguas frescas (fruit juice blended with water and sugar), jugos (juices), and licuados (juices with sugar, ice, water, and evaporated milk blended together). Some offer celery, parsley, granola, and more. Note that they all use bottled water.

How to order: Ask for the kind of drink you want (options are usually listed on a large sign, but if it’s a big juice vendor feel free to customize) and the size (chico, grande, medio litro, etc.). If you're ordering straight juice, specify whether you'd like it with pulp (con pulpa) or without (sin pulpa, or colado, strained).

Common mistakes: The default sugar amount is usually quite high; ask for your drink sin azucar if you want something not too sweet. And do not be intimidated by licuados — they’re heaven.

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