I’ve lived in Mexico for the past 14 months and tasted almost all of the street food in Puerto Vallarta (I’ve also taken two street food tours with Vallarta Eats — I paid for those, not comped — and they are well worth it). There’s a lot of cross-pollination in Puerto Vallarta, I suspect because there are so many seasonal workers that come from other parts of Mexico to work the tourism high season, but it was nothing like I experienced in Mexico City. We’d been eating our way across Mexico from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara to Guanajuato and all the places in between, but in DF we found the best of all worlds. It reminds me of New York in a way, the constant influx of new arrivals changes the culinary landscape until the locals will accept nothing less than the best representations from each region.
Of course, it all starts with the tortilla. Unlike the US, most people don’t buy their tortillas at the store. They get them fresh from the tortilleria, a tortilla factory that is usually a very small one-room shop, with a single tortilla machine with 1-2 workers overseeing the creation of tortilla dough (corn flour and water, maybe a little slacked lime as a preservative) and the tortilla press (a large machine that creates and roasts the tortillas on an assembly line):
She worked so fast gathering the fresh tortillas her hands blurred on the first few shots I took:
If you’ve always loved flour tortillas then you’ve probably never had fresh corn tortillas hot off the press. They age quickly, within 48 hours they are hard as a rock and terrible, but warm, fresh and with a little salt, they are heaven.
Some of the stands make their own tortillas, but the majority buy them from the tortilleria each morning, much like you’d go to a bakery for fresh bread in the morning.
From there you have tacos. If you wander around the city, you can get almost anything. The only thing that really makes it a taco is that tortilla, the rest of the ingredients can range from any kind of meat: chicken, beef, chorizo, deep-fried fish or shrimp — to any kind of vegetable from peppers, onions, blue corn, cactus, mushrooms, lettuce or cabbage.
Each one is prepared as you wait:
Then topped with whatever kind of salsa you want, from really spicy salsa, to corn and cactus salsa, to onions, to fresh cilantro, to avocado sauce (thick guacamole is rarely seen but a thinner avocado sauce is common) to crema (thick cream is more common than the sour cream you’d find in the US), to fresh crumbly cheese, and more. Salsas tend to vary based on the peppers used, there are smokey chipotle salsas (or other smoked/dried peppers), tame pico de gallo (salsa mexicana), insanely hot habanero-based salsas and for the very mild, you can just put some frijoles on top (no heat at all). If you’re rusty on your Spanish you can just ask, “picante?” if you’re wondering if it’s spicy.
I’ve written about street food and tacos here before, but this was a totally new to me dish. The tlacoyo, a stuffed, oval-shaped taco that’s then topped with whatever you want. I chose nopales (the cactus paddles that are popular here) with cheese. It’s warm, fresh and so comforting. The cactus has a mild flavor, a kind of green bean taste without any bitterness.
Also new to me were the tacos de canasta (literally, basket tacos). These are the exception in that they are pre-made, but then put into a cooler to keep warm during the day. I got a pibil cochinita (slow roasted pork with achiote) and I can see the appeal. It makes for a warm, soft taco, as comforting as a grilled cheese sandwich, and they come out extremely fast. All of these things cost about $1 or less per taco…
Tamales are big too, as are fruit stands. For the first time since leaving Thailand I was confronted with frequent juice stands, where they blend up juice combinations like “mango mango” on the spot. You can also get whole fruit sliced up and topped with chile powder (see below), lime and salt. I really loved the pineapple this way, the spice, salt and sweet/sour taste of the pineapple is amazing together. I still can’t eat papayas, I’m working on it though. Everyone gives me the sideways look when I say I don’t like them, but to me they taste a little like feet (“not my feet” one person told me, I took their word for it).
I spent just two days in Mexico City which was a massive oversight on my part. It’s a joke to even try to cover it all, I barely dipped a toe into possibilities but everything I had was so consistently high quality, I was really impressed. The one interesting thing is their take on the quesadilla, which differs from the rest of Mexico. It doesn’t have to have cheese, or at least I’m told. In a way, I am kind of glad I didn’t spend more time in DF, because now I have a fantastic excuse to return (“I must solve this quesadilla dilemma! When is a taco a quesadilla! The people must know!”)
They have burritos too, but in the US the big Chipotle California style burritos have become so popular you might be surprised to see it doesn’t automatically come with rice and beans. Below is zucchini flower being prepared for my burrito:
There’s onions and peppers in there too, but then they cover it with cheese, let it melt a little, then fold it into a flour tortilla shell (only time I saw flour tortillas, but I suppose you can get them elsewhere too):
It was topped with a salsa and I got to pick from about a dozen ranging in heat.
One of my favorite dishes — and I have to admit this is good across Mexico, not just in the city — is the carnita. It’s pork meat cooked in pork fat. It’s so bad, but oh so good. Here’s the chamorro carnita I got, covered in some onions, cilantro, salsa verde and a little lime:
I learned on this trip that there are different cuts of meat that you can order for your carnita (I had just been ordering “carnita” which is sort of like ordering your steak by saying, “cow” — they’ll bring you something but it’s really up to them).
- Bofe – lung
- Buche – stomach
- Chamorro – calf or leg (I was told this, couldn’t verify but it’s my favorite one)
- Pierna de cerdo – leg
- Criadilla – testicles
- Cuerito – skin (not the same as chicharron which is more crispy)
- Moño o trenza – braided intestines before frying
- Machitos – intestines
- Nenepil – uterus mixed with stomach
- Maciza – meat with skin or bones
- Costilla – ribs
- Oreja – ear
- Tripa – intestines
- Trompa – pig snout
- Cachete – high fat meat
- Viril – penis
When we ordered carnitas by the kilo, they just give you a bag of it to take home with some salsa and tortillas. Since I didn’t specify we just got a little bit of everything, the ribs, the fatty meat, the regular meat, some intestines and skin (maybe there was some ear in there, I didn’t notice) . When they say they cook the entire pig, they really do cook all the bits. Nothing goes to waste.
The other fantastic dish is the tacos al pastor. You can find these throughout Mexico as well, but it’s best to look for a place that’s really cooking them, not just reheating or worse serving warmed pastor. They typically top it with pineapple and between the marinade for the meat and the slow, smoky cooking style, you have this super flavorful taco for about 50 cents.
Does this look familiar? It’s taken from the Lebanese, the shawarma, but the spices in the marinade are totally different (and it’s pork not lamb). When they make your al pastor, they quickly shave a couple of pieces off the slowly rotating spit. Yum. This stand was outside a huge restaurant that was dead instead, but they were doing rapid service with their tacos.
I didn’t even get to the soups! I know there is so much I missed. I loved getting to eat at Pujol, which takes local ingredients and turns them into this high end food-art, but I didn’t regret a single bite of street food in DF either. It’s nice to experience both sides, but for my money, that tlacoyo with nopales and queso was the best dish of the trip.