Mexico is one of the best countries in the world for street food, but just like the rest of Mexican food, street foods in Mexico vary according to region. You’ll find different specialties depending on the destination, but a few staples are found throughout the country, and some are worth traveling to try in their place of origin. Here are some street foods you should definitely sample on a trip to Mexico.
When we’re talking about Mexican street food, tacos are the most important item on the list. To be honest, you could wrap most anything in a tortilla and call it a taco, but generally, they’re filled with meat, and adventurous eaters may select some of the more interesting animal parts including brains, eyes, tongue—Mexicans don’t flinch. But vegetarians will also find some taco fillings to tempt them, be it mushroom, potato, beans, or cheese. Tacos al pastor are very popular: they're made with marinated pork cooked on a rotating spit. This cooking method was probably brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, but in Mexico these tacos take on their own flare, with a variety of spicy salsas, guacamole, and fresh onion and cilantro toppings.
A popular treat in the mornings or evenings, and often served at parties, tamales are a type of corn dough dumpling that comes in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. The word tamal (yes, the singular of tamales is tamal, not the oft heard “tamale”) comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word meaning “wrapped.” They usually have a filling which may be mole or salsa with chicken, or sometimes rajas, which is strips of poblano chiles along with some tomato and onion.
There are even sweet tamales, which instead of having a filling, will have sugar, cinnamon, raisins and bits of pineapple mixed in with the dough. Remove the wrapping to eat the tamal inside. At street stands in Mexico City, they are sometimes served on a bolillo bun, as a “torta de tamal” sometimes referred to as a “guajolota”.
A torta is a Mexican kind of sandwich made on a crusty bun called a bolillo. (Don’t call it a sandwich in Mexico, though, because for Mexicans, a sandwich is made with sliced bread). A torta will usually have bean paste on one side of the bun and mayonnaise on the other, then the requested (usually meat) fillings and slices of tomato, avocado and pickled jalapeños.
There are a few variations to the standard torta. On a trip to Puebla, be sure to try a cemita, which is made with a particular type of bread roll (itself called a cemita), and with the addition of a fragrant herb called pápalo. Pambazos, which are generally found in Mexico City, are filled with potato and the spicy sausage called chorizo, dipped in warm red guajillo chile sauce, and fried. Pambazos are made with bread that is also called pambazo and lacks the crusty shell of bolillos. In Guadalajara, one of the most representative dishes is the torta ahogado, which is filled with meat and served drowned in spicy sauce.
Sopes and Gorditas
There is a wide variety of Mexican street foods that are corn-based and made with different fillings and toppings. They are freshly made and cooked on a comal, a big griddle, sometimes wood-fired, sometimes gas powered. A sope is a corn disk that is thicker than a regular tortilla, and usually topped with beans and cheese and possibly other ingredients, and, of course, salsa. In Oaxaca the same thing is referred to as a "memela." Similarly, gorditas are also disks made of corn, but they have an ingredient, like beans, cheese or chicharron (pork rind) added in the center of the masa before it goes on the grill, or it is split open like a pita to add ingredients inside (sometimes both).
The tlacoyo is also very similar—it's made in Mexico City and will usually be made of blue corn. All of these corn treats can be found at street stalls throughout the country but the names and fillings/toppings may vary from place to place.
Tostadas are different from tacos because instead of a soft tortilla with fillings inside, it's a crisp tortilla base that is either fried or baked, and then loaded up with a variety of toppings. You can get them with almost any meat, seafood, or cheese combination, or maybe with just some guacamole. Don’t forget the salsa!
The term quesadilla generally refers to a folded tortilla with melted cheese inside. Quesadillas can be made with either corn or wheat tortillas, and may be either grilled or deep fried. They can be made with a variety of different cheeses, but one of the most popular is Oaxaca cheese, in Oaxaca called quesillo, a mild string cheese that is similar to mozzarella.
Quesadillas can also contain other fillings besides just cheese, sometimes they’ll have mushrooms or squash blossoms, or other vegetables added. You can occasionally find huitlacoche quesadillas, which are made with a corn fungus sometimes called corn truffle in English. Deep fried quesadillas may come topped with guacamole or bean paste, and the salsa is usually put on the outside of the tortilla whereas for quesadillas toasted on the comal, it’s more common to open it up and add salsa before eating.
Many of Mexico’s street foods are corn-based, but usually they’re made out of masa, the nixtamalized corn dough from which tortillas, tamales and other foods are made. Elotes and esquites, on the other hand, are made with plain corn, although usually not the sweet corn you may expect. Elotes are corn cobs covered in mayonnaise, crumbled queso fresco, chile powder and lime juice, served on a wooden stick for easy handling. Esquites have all the same ingredients, but is served as a sort of soup, with the corn kernels cut off the cob and floating in the broth the corn was cooked in (with the addition of some herbs for added flavor), and all the toppings that would usually go on an elote mixed in when served.
Deep fried sweet dough that is sprinkled with sugar—what could be a better sweet treat? Churros were brought from Spain but Mexicans took to them readily, and you probably will too. Just make sure they're fresh: stale churros can be rubbery and disappointing as opposed to the glory that is a fresh churro.