Almost of all of Mexico's most popular street foods — tacos, tamales, tortas, tlayudas and more — all happen to start with the letter "t." The catchy alliteration has lead locals to refer to all of these quick, cheap, and often traditional foods as Vitamina T. Writer Bill Esparza says the phrase captures the essential nature of these dishes in daily life. "They might serve as a meal, or a snack in between meals. It's a shot of fat and comfort."
Regular intake of La Vitamina T is the key part of every healthy and rewarding visit to Mexico City. A large number of dishes can be folded into the phrase, but for the purposes of this guide, the essential six are: tacos, tortas, tostadas, tlayudas, tlacoyos and tamales. Here's a guide to identifying and administering your daily recommended dose.
Maybe you have never heard of the taco, or perhaps the taco is the entire reason for your visit to Mexico. A quick refresher, regardless: a taco consists of a tortilla filled with stewed, grilled, fried or otherwise prepared meats and/or vegetables.
A few things to note about tacos in Mexico City: the tortillas will usually be made with corn, not flour. Toppings consist of cilantro and onions, as well as an array of salsas which are the true stars of the show. The meat can be chopped up or stewed, or cut off a trompo in the case of something cooked al pastor. Mariscos (seafood) tacos are definitely worth seeking out in Mexico City as well. Other styles to keep an eye out for include tacos dorados, which are deep-fried, and tacos de canasta, served from baskets or other containers where they've been kept warm.
The taco is infinite in its variations and delights, and taco stands abound. You should eat at as many enticing ones as you can stand. For more on how to taco, here's a full guide to reading the taco stand.
A tlayuda is a dinner-plate sized corn tortilla baked on a comal (large, flat pan or cooking surface) and covered in lard, refried beans, queso fresco and meats like cecina, steak, or chorizo. Traditionalists might prefer the toppings stop there, but vegetables like cabbage, tomatoes, avocados, and radishes might also be added in Mexico City. Originally from Oaxaca, the tlayuda is sometimes described as pizza-like. The cheese is salty and light, and not nearly as thick as a pizza's might be. Unlike many of the other varieties of Vitamina T, the tlayuda is a fairly sizable dish and could easily be shared.
Thick, torpedo-shaped masa cakes, tlacoyos are stuffed with a variety of fillings, including pinto beans, fava beans, mushrooms, and cheese. Vendors will top them with nopales, cheese and salsa in Mexico City. The masa will be thicker than that of a corn tortilla and most commonly made with blue corn masa, but can also be golden-hued.
Tlacoyos are one of Mexico's oldest foodstuffs and also one of the most portable and easy to eat on the go, especially if you don't load them up with toppings. They're also not worth saving for later. Get them hot from the comal and eat immediately.
A torta is a sandwich served on a large, oval-shaped crusty white roll. That is its only truly defining characteristic, besides a general focus on excess that can range from mildly decadent to truly absurd. Tortas can be served cold, or heated up on a press. The fillings range wildly and tend toward the meaty: ham, eggs, milanesa meat, cubano-style fillings, or the carb-on-carb delight of the tamale torta. Their toppings include things like avocado, tomato, chili peppers, and onion. Tortas can be a quick lunch or a late-night booze-soaker and are perhaps the most potent form of Vitamina T in terms of sheer fillingness.
A rectangular masa cake stuffed with anything from cheese and vegetables to meat, wrapped in a corn husk and (usually) steamed. There are also sweet tamales; strawberry ones might be bright pink. The shapes of tamales vary regionally in Mexico, and certain styles can also be grilled. The larger tamales oaxaqueños are wrapped in green banana leaves. Often served for breakfast, tamales are one of the cheapest and quickest options to pick up on the street. If you're looking for tamales, keep an eye out for huge oval metal pots, where they'll be kept warm by vendors. Some are even installed on the backs of bicycles.
A tostada is a flat, fried corn tortilla that can be heaped with a huge variety of meat, seafood, and vegetable-based toppings. Think refried beans, seafood, ceviche, pork, chicken mole, and much more. The best tostadas teeter with extra toppings like tomato, avocado, lettuce, onion and queso fresco, too.
A tostada stand will often offer the various topping options in massive bowls surrounding the whole operation. It's a great place to just point at something that looks tasty and try something new.