Mexicans have a vibrant snack culture rooted in the essential flavors of the chucheria: lime, salt, caramel, chamoy, tamarind, and chile. For Chicanos like me, the snacks that were part of our family gatherings and trips to Mexico have always been easy to find in neighborhood abarrotes, liquor stores, and supermarkets, keeping us connected to Mexican flavors and culture. The only privation we have these days is when one of our beloved brands goes mainstream and becomes easier to find in Ralph’s than at our mercaditos — I’m talking to you, Topo Chico.
During the pandemic especially, I’ve relied on my nearby Oaxacan tienditas and regional Mexican supermarkets to stock up on my favorite spicy, sour, and salty treats. Below is a brief taste tour through the Mexican snacks that should fill your pantry to add more spice to your snack time. Note that where I am in Los Angeles, Mexican snacks are ever-present, pero no hay pedo (but no worries): If you don’t live near a Mexican enclave, you can find any of these online.
This is the gold standard of Mexican snack cakes, consisting of an irresistible filling of strawberry jelly and cream atop an airy cake with notes of coconut, covered in chocolate and topped with chocolate sprinkles. Marinela, a division of world’s largest baking company, Grupo Bimbo, created Gansitos in 1957, and the treat counts generations of fans in Mexico and Mexican-American communities. If you want to eat these without getting trolled by your Mexican friends, be sure to put them in the fridge, because Gansitos congelados (cooled) are even better.
When you pick up a 50-piece container of these tamarind- or chamoy-flavored chile-dipped straws, no one knows if you’re having a kid’s birthday party or selling micheladas in your backyard in East LA. You can easily snack on the spicy fruit pulp that surrounds the plastic straw, or place the treat into your Chicanofied michelada like a Mexican-American bartender.
Do you know anyone who hasn’t tried Takis? These highly popular rolled chips come in a variety of spicy flavors and can be found at any convenience store, but if you want to go to Takis heaven, head to a Mexican supermarket like California-based chains Northgate Gonzalez or Vallarta. There, you’ll find the better-known Fuego, Original, and Nitro Takis flavors, as well as more than a dozen others, including Titan, Crunchy Fajita, and cucumber, lime, and habanero-flavored Zombie.
Many Mexicans might not know the story of Japanese immigrant Yoshigei Nakatani, who came up with the now-ubiquitous cracker nuts (peanuts in a crunchy, wheat-flour dough shell with sweet endnotes). But any convenience store, market, or truck stop is likely to have Mexico’s favorite nut, which is also an ingredient in tostilocos, a Mexican street snack usually prepared inside a slit-open bag of Tostitos along with cueritos (pickled pork rinds), chamoy, sliced cucumbers, lime juice, jícama, and hot sauce. Like many Mexican snacks, you can also serve cacahuates Japones in a bowl with a squeeze of lime and generous streaks of hot sauce, or you can buy them coated in chile or chile and lime.
Sometimes an international favorite may seem like an odd choice to an outsider, like Duvalín, a dual-flavored, sticky pudding that comes with a tiny spoon used to dig into combinations like hazelnut and vanilla, hazelnut and strawberry, and strawberry and vanilla. Like Americans who grew up with Jell-O pudding, Mexicans learned to love their more petite-portioned Duvalin for its “bi sabor” (two flavors) tagline, and now the brand has added packages with three and even four different pudding flavors.
Mexicans don’t want regional ramen made from shoyu, miso, shio, or tonkotsu base flavors — we want Maruchan instant ramen with lots of Tapatio and a squirt of lime. The Toyo Suisan company entered the Mexican market in the ’80s, coinciding with the arrival of microwave ovens, the preferred cooking device of instant ramen fans. Today you’ll find Maruchan sold at fondas, street stands, and comidas economicas south of the border; in the U.S., it’s in birriamen at Mexican food trucks and street stands and is the preferred brand for Mexican seafood trucks making seafood ramen. Mexicans eat so much Maruchan that hot sauce company Tapatío has entered the instant ramen market to capitalize on the growing trend among millennial Mexicans and Mexican Americans who are mixing their ramen with traditional Mexican dishes.
Pelon Pelo Rico
These are like Push Pops filled with tamarind paste. They come in a variety of flavors, including original tamarind, watermelon, and sour lime, and with just enough citrus and spice to make this candy the gateway to micheladas. To get your fix and put some hair on Pelon, the candy’s bald mascot, just hold on to the plastic wings and press down.
When there’s no Mexican fruit stand nearby, Vero Mango is the next best thing: a mango-flavored lollipop, adorably shaped like a tiny mango covered in chile powder. A candy that reflects Mexican street culture and features one of the most requested fruits should be on your shopping list at the abarrotes. Like a cup of prepared mango with lime, chile, and Tajín, it’s the perfect Sunday afternoon treat.
There are many Marias-style cookies, the round, embossed tea biscuits sweetened with brown sugar and first produced in England, but Mexicans prefer Gamesa, which has been around for almost 100 years. There’s no tea time in Mexico, so Marias are dunked in coffee or Mexican hot chocolate, and used in making desserts, including flan. Marias is even a favorite ice cream flavor in Mexican ice cream shops.
Lucas Muecas Chamoy
If you want to teach your kids to expand their palates to include chile, try chamoy, a dehydrated fruit salsa that’s sweet, spicy, and sour, used on fresh fruit, ice cream, snacks, micheladas, and the Mexican seafood dishes of northern Sinaloa. Here, it’s in the form of a lollipop with an accompanying chile powder dip. Consider it training wheels for the flavors of Mexico.
Sabritones, airy chicharrones de harina (wheat cracklings) with lime and salt, are possibly the biggest name in Mexico’s puffed-wheat snack genre. The Sabritas brand, now owned by Frito-Lay, has been around since the 1940s in Mexico, where the company once delivered chips and other snacks on bicycles, slowly winning over the hearts and stomachs of generations of Mexicans.
These wagon wheels are one of the most popular puffed wheat snacks sold at street snack carts, raspados carts, and even at cantinas, or centros botaneros. There is a recipe that one must follow to honor this bar bite classic: fill a bowl with duritos then add a squirt of lime and an even coating of salsa Valentina. If it’s good enough for likely half the cantinas in Mexico, it’s good enough for your Netflix party.