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Every Single Thing You Need to Know About Mexican Street Food

From breakfast tamales to late-night elotes, here's everything you need to know to have a delicious life on the street

The Distrito Federal is a city that lives on its streets — it's widely said that well over 75 percent of the population eats on the street at least once a week. And why not? Here, vendors sell everything from snacks and beverages to massive sandwiches and full platters of food. Whether you're buying your food from stalls, small trucks, under umbrellas, on carts, off bicycles, or out of makeshift windows set into the sides of buildings, no trip to Mexico City is complete without at least one meal — and hopefully more than one — with street food at its center. Not sure where to begin? Here's a guide to all of the main options available on Mexico City's streets.


Depending upon the neighborhood, these options are available from 7 a.m. (or earlier) until noon.

Juices: On street corners all over DF, you'll see simple supermarket carts or small stands set up, where vendors sell fresh juices, most commonly orange and grapefruit, at prices ranging from 10 to 15 pesos a cup. Some juice stands even offer carrot juice; for a few extra pesos, you can get a "combinado" of orange with a splash of carrot.

Licuados: You'll recognize these stands by the big glass jars on display, filled with all kinds of chopped fruit. Licuados are fruit shakes made with an evaporated milk base; the most common flavors are the banana-chocolate, strawberry, mamey (an orange fruit with a texture similar to avocado) or chocolate. If you want something lighter, ask for an agua fresca: the same blends of fruit, but without the milk.

Fruit: Small bicycle carts sell fruit cocktails of papaya, watermelon, and strawberries covered with whipped cream, honey, and granola. If you want a more savory breakfast, they also also sell generous portions of shredded cucumber, jicama, or carrot seasoned with lime, salt, chili and, in the best cases, chamoy — a sour-salty-sweet fruit sauce.

Juice stand
Tamales Photo by Daniela Galarza
Fried tamales La Merced

Clockwise from top left: Fruit, juice stand, fried tamales, and steamed tamales by Daniela Galarza and Helen Rosner

Tamales: Tamales are one of the most popular street foods in Mexico City, especially for breakfast. A huge steel bucket full of steaming tamales and two pots with atole — a sweet breakfast drink of strawberry, chocolate, or rice thickened with starch — are the basics of the tamal stand. (Try the champurrado, usually a water-based version of chocolate atole that, traditionally, was thickened with masa.) The tamal — made from corn masa that's been formed around a filling, wrapped (usually in a corn husk), and steamed, is one of the most emblematic foods of Mexico — and pretty much every state in the country has its own version depending on the local ingredients and traditions.

  • Oaxaqueño: Recognize this tamal by the banana leaf wrapper and the consistency of the masa, which is heavier and slightly sweeter than a corn-husk tamal.
  • Corn tamal: The dough is a mixture of corn flour and fresh corn grains wrapped in a fresh corn leaf. The traditional way of eating them is with a dash of sour cream and cheese.
  • Dry corn leaf: This style is very popular in Mexico City. You can find them sweet — strawberry or pineapple — and spicy, with green salsa; chili pepper with tomato sauce; or mole as the main flavors.
  • Deep fried tamal: Usually this tamal is a day old — the vendors deep-fry the previous day's leftovers to make it hot, crispy, and delicious and offer it inside a bread roll as a breakfast sandwich.
  • Guajolota or tamal torta: This is an iconic street food of DF, and a true chilango power breakfast. The vendor opens a bun — or bolillo — right on the spot, and stuffs it with a tamal of your choice.

Tortas de Chilaquiles: Chilaquiles are a very traditional type of breakfast: triangular, deep fried tortillas swimming in a red or green spicy sauce and topped with sour cream, cheese, and some fresh onion. The enhanced version of chilaquiles comes with grilled steak, egg, or chicken. Put this combo inside a bollilo to make a torta de chilaquiles.

Coffee and pastries: Mexicans love, love pastries, which can be found everywhere. It is common to find a vendor riding a bicycle and selling coffee from a jug and a variety of pastries carefully placed on a big round basket. The conchas, the rebanadas, or the moños (shaped like a bow) are the must-try options.

Lunch and snacks

Available from about noon until dusk and (especially in the case of tacos, tortas, and camotes) into the night.

Chips: Very common in plazas and parks. This is a small cart with a variety of chips — salty and flavored with chili powder. Every vendor offers salsa, lime, and salt on the side. Some chip stalls only sell packaged chips. If you want something totally over the top, order Dorilocos.

Chicharrónes: Sold from carts with clear acrylic sides so you can see the sheets of ultra-crispy fried pork skin, this is a favorite after school or weekend snack for children — and adults with a nostalgic heart. Some chicharrón vendors sell versions not made from pork at all, but from flour or corn. Be sure to ask, so you know what you're getting. Either way, they're best doused in hot sauce. These carts also sometimes sell potato chips, and other fried snacks.


Dorilocos by Ruben Musca and a chicharron cart by Daniela Galarza

Raspados: The Mexico version of snow cones, raspados (the word means "shaved") are cups of shaved-ice covered with all kinds of flavored syrups. Tamarind, lime, mango, strawberry, grapefruit, chamoy, and rompope — Mexican eggnog — are typical choices, and most vendors will make a spicy version that includes beautiful amounts of chamoy, chile powder, and lime.

Tacos: A tortilla (usually corn) forms the base of all tacos, which can be filled with anything: every part of the pig, cow, and chicken, stewed (as in a guisado), barbecued (for barbacoa), roasted on a vertical spit (al pastor), cooked atop a griddle (a la plancha), or campechano (a melange of chopped meats). Tacos de mariscos (seafood) and pescado (fish) can also be found on the streets of Mexico City. Beans, cheese, rice, nopales (cactus paddles), and grilled spring onions are common additions. Salsas are always on offer; Every stand will have one red and one green salsa. The really good stands will also stock an avocado-based salsa, one made from roasted chiles — plus a mixture of chopped onions and habañeros, French fries or sautéed potatoes, and a large bowl of halved Mexican limes. Here are some of the most common:

Taco plancha

All the tacos. [Photos: Ruben Musca, Daniela Galarza, Helen Rosner]

  • A la plancha: Also known as "carne asada," this taco is filled with steak or chicken that's been grilled and then chopped and placed on a tortilla. The best options to top a taco a la plancha are guacamole or red salsa.
  • Carnitas: If you love pork, this is your taco. Carnitas are made from medium sized portions of lean pork meat, as well as other parts of the pig, including the head, that are slowly cooked in pork fat—very similar to a duck confit. There are different types of carnitas, and the color of the meat will depend on the ingredients that the taquero adds to season the pork fat. The red raw salsa and the guacamole salsa are best for this one.
  • Guisados: A tortilla holds a portion of rice or beans topped with a guisado — a pre-made traditional Mexican dish like chicken with mole, chicharrón in green or red sauce, chicken with green pumpkin seed sauce, or pork with spicy sauce. Every stand will have their specialities, and every day they'll offer a different variety.
  • De cabeza: Yes, it's cow head. This type of taco is very common as a nighttime snack, but they're not hard to find for lunch, either. The taquero will carve meat to order from a steamed cow's skull — very dramatic.
  • Barbacoa: Probably one of the most iconic foods of the Estado de México, barbacoa is made from sheep, and the long-braising cooking method dates to pre-Colombian times. Saturday and Sundays are the best days to get barbacoa, because people from the nearby countryside come in to the city to sell their homemade product. There are two types of barbacoa taco: soft, which is seasoned with a pulpe-based salsa called salsa borracha, and deep fried, which is topped with sour cream and cheese.
  • Al pastor: This taco is the quintessential chilango taco, an object of extraordinary obsession. The cooking method — layers of pork on a vertical spit — is very similar to gyros, belying the taco's Arab origins. Every taquero has his own special recipe, and they are very protective of their craft. It's served with onions and cilantro, and often a little bit of pineapple.
  • Campechano: Beef and chorizo are carefully chopped until they blend together into a meaty filling with a spicy kick.
  • Mixiote: Lamb meat is seasoned with chile and spices, wrapped up in parchment, and then slowly steamed or pit roasted, with succulent results. The traditional toppings are a purple onion and habanero mix, and chopped radish.
  • Canasta: If you spot a bicycle carrying a small basket with a plastic bag inside, you've found tacos de canasta (basket tacos). Tortillas are filled with potato, beans, or chicharron, the tacos are carefully arranged in the basket until it is full. To finish them, the taquero pours hot seasoned oil over the tacos, covers them with the plastic bag, and lets them sit until the tacos are meltingly soft. They don't have a long shelf life, so try to buy them soon after the taquero has started for the day.

Tortas: As well as with the taco, the variety of the tortas is endless. Cut a bun in half — in Mexico the most common breads are bolillos or teleras — and put whatever you want inside and you have a torta. A popular kind is a torta ahogada, a version from Jalisco that's filled with potato and chorizo swimming in a light and very hot tomato sauce, and topped with shredded cabbage, sour cream, and cheese.


A torta by Helen Rosner; a quesadilla by Daniela Galarza

Quesadillas: For a foreigner quesadillas can be confusing, since they share the same principle as a taco: a tortilla folded in half and filled with whatever you want — and despite the name, it's not always cheese. You'll recognize quesadillas by their longer tortillas. The usual guisados that fill a quesadilla are cooked mushrooms, chicken, or beef with red sauce, and potato with chorizo. And sometimes — but not always — cheese. They also have a few variations:

  • Deep fried quesadillas: Fresh yellow corn dough is worked by hand on the spot, filled with the guisado and then deep fried. The fillings are usually the same as a standard quesadilla.
  • Gordita de chicharrón: Corn dough is filled with chicharrón and then shaped into a circle. Once it's cooked, the vendor splits it open and adds salsa, cilantro and onion.

Tostadas: The base of this dish is a crisp, thin, round corn tortilla — like a little plate. A tostada can be topped with anything: beans and a guisado with shredded lettuce and salsa, fresh marinated seafood, or just sour cream with a little cheese.

Octopus Tostada from El K-Guamo Photo by Helen Rosner

A seafood tostada at K-Guamo, by Helen Rosner

Birria: Similar to barbacoa but made with goat instead of lamb, birria is a meaty, spicy stew. At every birria stand you can choose to order tacos filled with just the meat, with the broth on the side, or order the broth and the meat all together at once in a bowl.

Huaraches: A thick tortilla shaped into an oval (huarache means "sandal," and they do look a little like the sole of a shoe), huaraches are usually covered with beans, meat, lettuce, and cheese. At some stands, they mix the corn dough with beans before it's cooked, so it ends up with a savory bean filling.

Sopes: The same principle as huaraches, but in a round shape instead of oblong.


A finished Tlacoyo by Daniela Galarza; Tlacoyos in action by Helen Rosner

Tlacoyo: The best of these oval treats are made with blue corn dough. The traditional fillings are chicharrón, requeson (fresh cheese), beans, or a paste made of broad beans. The fillings are added before cooking, and once it's all done, the tlacoyos are served with nopales, salsa, and cheese on top.

Flautas: These rolled, deep fried tacos look like little cigars (or flutes, which they're named after). They're filled with potato, beef, or chicken, and then covered with guacamole, shredded lettuce, sour cream, and cheese.

Camotes: If you're walking the streets and suddenly hear a long, loud, high-pitched whistle, you're probably very close to a camote cart. One of the oldest Mexican street food traditions, a camote cart sells plantains and sweet potato — served with strawberry jam and condensed milk — cooked on a bed of charcoal, inside an oven built into the cart. The characteristic whistle happens when the vendor releases steam from the oven through the cart's little pipe.

Hamburgesa stand by Daniela Galarza

Hamburguesa stall by Daniela Galarza

Hamburgers: A popular option for lunch and nighttime. One chilango version of the hamburger is the Hawaiian, which includes a slice of pineapple cooked on the grill. At almost every hamburger stand, the vendors also sell corn dogs, which locals eat with ketchup and salsa.

Late Night

Elotes and esquites: These stands are out only at night (with a few exceptions), and sell Mexico's famous elotes: ears of corn skewered on a stick, then covered with mayonnaise, cheese, and chili. For esquites, the vendors remove the kernels from the cob and cook them with chicken broth and epazote (a Mexican herb that smells a little like gasoline). The corn is served in a cup, topped with the same thing that goes on the elotes: mayo, cheese, and chile powder.

Churros: Churros and chocolate are a classic late-night snack. For the street version of the churro, keep an eye out for carts that have a special system to fill the churro with different sauces: dulce de leche, chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry.

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