Because there’s more to Mexico than just tacos.
Everyone foodie traveler worth their salt knows that Mexico’s street food scene is one of the world’s best and most affordable (and even officially recognized as such by UNESCO!). Even so, most visitors fail to expand their culinary horizons beyond the tried and tested, triple threat combination of Mexico’s staple Vitamin T dishes: tacos, tortas, and tamales.
However, if you’re prepared to travel to some tinier towns and dine on some lesser-spotted dishes while in Mexico, you’ll reap the culinary rewards. With that in mind, here are just 16 of the best and most underappreciated regional Mexican street foods that are more than worth the detour.
Sure, you’ve eaten tacos before, but have you ever eaten poisoned tacos? While the literal translation for Zacatecas’ favorite regional dish might not sound all that enticing, the reality of these supersized, bean, potato, and spice-stuffed tortillas is far better. Principally found in the eponymous capital of the state of Zacatecas, the original, fried tacos envenenados were supposedly invented by a local vendor in the 50s, whose invention spread across the city, diversifying as it went. Now you can find tacos envenenados with all manner of fillings, in numerous spots throughout Zacatecas.
There is no hangover so awful that it can’t be cured with the jalisciense specialty, the super spicy torta ahogada. Literally meaning ‘drowned sandwich’, this is another regional dish with a less than appetizing English translation, but don’t be deceived. The torta ahogada is actually a rich combination of spicy tomato and chile de árbol sauce doused over a slightly salty birote bread typical to the region, which is stuffed with fried pork (carnitas) and topped with freshly sliced white onion and radishes.
INSIDER TIPWhile every stand in Guadalajara, Jalisco claims to have the best torta ahogada, including those around the Estadio Jalisco, you should give those at Tortas Ahogadas Osvaldo a try.
Oaxaca is generally considered the culinary capital of Mexico, yet many visitors only dabble in tamales and mole when visiting. However, tlayudas, aka Mexican pizzas, are not to be skipped. Large, crispy tortillas make up the base of the tlayuda, which is then spread lightly with pork lard and either beans or mole sauce before being piled high with shredded lettuce, tomato, sliced avocado, and the meat of your choice. The trademark cheese of the region, stringy Oaxacan quesillo, is also generously added atop the tlayudas. Eat open faced like a pizza or folded like a calzone.
If you’re a snail fanatic, a trip to Catemaco in Veracruz surely has to make your bucket list, because while the town is best known for witchcraft, there is also a hyper-local and little-known ingredient to be found there, which goes by the name of tegogolo. Tegogolos are snails which live in the freshwater lake of Catemaco and are plucked from the rocks by local fishermen, before being boiled, de-shelled, thoroughly washed, and used in seafood cocktails. They can also be served fried in a spicy garlic sauce.
INSIDER TIPThis is one regional dish you won’t find reproduced across the country, as tegogolos are exclusive to the Catemaco lake and surrounding area.
While some may associate cecina with an air-dried smoked meat originating in Spain, as with most Mexican takes on Spanish favorites, the cecina found in Mexico is a little different. Made from either beef or pork, it’s thinly sliced, hammered flat, and seasoned before being quickly grilled. While you can get this in a few places around Mexico, including the state of San Luis Potosí, it’s said that the best (if not the original) cecina is to be found in the town of Yecapixtla, Morelos.
INSIDER TIPEat your cecina atop some typical enchiladas potosinas in San Luis Potosí, or accompanied by Mexican crema and cheese in Morelos.
Like a sope on steroids, the Yucatán’s panuchos are delightfully greasy corn tortillas that are stuffed with a slather of refried beans before being fried and topped with a combination of shredded lettuce, turkey or chicken (and sometimes cochinita pibil, a seasoned pork specialty), as well as tomato and slices of pickled red onion. Habanero chili salsas are regularly supplied as an optional extra, but tread lightly when dolloping it on your panucho unless you want numb lips for a few hours afterward.
Marquesitas are the one Yucatecan dessert you don’t want to miss if you find yourself on the Mexican peninsula. They’re the only sweet entry to make this regional Mexican street food guide, and with good reason. Typically sold by street vendors, marquesitas traditionally bring together two specific ingredients: grated Edam cheese and melted Nutella spread, tightly encased within the confines of a rolled, crispy crepe shell and topped with more hazelnut-chocolate goodness and cheese for good measure. While these are mainly found in Yucatán state and along the Riviera Maya, you’ll also spot them as far south as Chiapas too. Sure, you could order without the cheese, or even with jam or cajeta as the filling instead, but the traditional and best are chocolate and cheese.
The ideal on-the-go street side snack, memelas are a variation on the classic Mexican antojito, although some will argue that these slightly fatter tortilla-like discs are actually just sopes in disguise. Unlike sopes and panuchos though, memelas feature fewer ingredients and far less grease. In fact, the “basic” memela toppings include beans and the salsa of your choosing, with sprinkled cheese often rounding off this staple Oaxacan dish.
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WHERE: Mexico City
While some will say the epitome of Mexico City’s street food scene is the carb-on-carb guajolota, also known as the torta de tamal or the tamale sandwich, others suggest that the distinctive red-breaded pambazo is the only carb fix you need. The bread (which makes a good pambazo stand out in a sea of plain old tortas) comes from being bathed in a generous helping of guajillo chili sauce, while the filling is usually a simple yet flavorsome combination of potato and chorizo. Pambazos are lightly fried, then topped with shredded lettuce, cheese, and Mexican crema.
If you’re a fan of bizarre sandwiches, then a guacamaya from Guanajuato can’t be missed, especially given that it’s perfect for snacking in between meals. Principally found in Mexico’s leather capital of León, guacamayas can also be spotted in the more popular tourist destination of Guanajuato city and are recognisable for their typically petite outer bread roll, filled with a hunk of chicharrón (fried pork skin), as well as chunks of pickled pork rind, spicy salsa, and the ubiquitous lime and salt.
Although many consider burritos to be the epitome of Tex-Mex dining, northern Mexico is also known for its enormous iterations of these tightly rolled treats, namely in the form of burritos percherones. In fact, so huge are these meaty, flour-tortilla wrapped meals that they often omit the rather misleading diminutive -ito entirely, instead, going by the name burros percherones. A popular post-night-out snack in Hermosillo, Sonora, they can essentially be stuffed with any combination of meats, salad vegetables, and chili, as well as cheese and Mexican crema.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to go big or go home on a burrito percherón in Hermosillo, hunt down the vendors who sell bacon-wrapped versions.
A Pueblan specialty, named for the very sesame seed-topped bread from which they’re made, cemitas are at their best in the capital city, Puebla. The original cemitas poblanas are of mammoth proportions and can include any combination of the following: breaded chicken, beef or pork, fistfuls of stringy queso de hebra or quesillo (cheese), plus avocado, strips of jalapeño or chipotle, sliced onion, and a dash of unifying olive oil to finish, all of which will promptly tumble in an unwieldy fashion out of the sides of the cemita bread.
INSIDER TIPOrder your cemita with pápalo, a flavorsome herb that tastes like a bizarre arugula/cilantro crossover and gives a distinctive kick to the classic cemita.
Unique for their petite, triangular shape, corundas are popular in the state of Michoacán and are similar to standard tamales in every way, bar the fact that they sometimes come filling-free. Even so, they’re worth hunting down for the novelty factor of their form alone and should be eaten with red salsa and Mexican crema for a truly authentic experience.
Aguachile can come in many forms and is said to be typical of the three states that make up the northernmost chunk of Mexico’s Pacific coast, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit. However, given that the mixture of water and chili which makes the aguachile marinade originated in Sinaloa, we’ve decided to award it the honor of laying claim to this seafood dish. Described as a spice-infused take on ceviche, aguachile usually features a watery but deceptively spicy sauce, doused over prawns, fresh onion, chili, and cucumber, accompanied by lime juice, cilantro, and salt.
The tamale to end all tamales, enormous zacahuiles are essentially large-scale steamed dumplings made to serve up to 70 people. Common not in a specific town or city, but rather a geographical region known as the Huasteca, zacahuiles are often made of a coarser dough than your typical tamale, filled with pork or turkey and cooked in a wood-burning oven before being enjoyed in slices for breakfast or as part of a larger celebration.
WHERE: Nuevo León
While there’s debate over the true origins of cabrito (goat), with some experts claiming it actually started life in San Luis Potosí, and others claiming it found popularity thanks to Jewish immigrants in Monterrey, the fact remains that to most people, this dish is the pride of Nuevo León, Mexico’s culinary wasteland. Most traditionally served al pastor, or spit-roasted, cabrito can also be oven-roasted or served as part of a stew.