Maybe pack some stretchy pants?
Few cities even come close to rivaling the accessibility and affordability of Mexico City’s street food scene. Round, well, just about any corner in the Mexican capital and you’ll be met with a cornucopia of eating options, whether you love inventive (and delicious) vegan tacos or mayo-schmeared elotes (corn). Because, yes, corn—in all its delicious forms—is unavoidable, spicy salsas are optional (but highly recommended), and raving about it all to your friends back home is inevitable. Here are 15 classic dishes and drinks to try while you’re in Mexico City.
How could a dish whose name translates literally to “little fatty” not be absolutely delightful? Spoiler: it couldn’t. A great, slightly greasy Mexico City gordita is truly a thing of (messy, messy) beauty. Made from a disc of corn dough, which is fried up, sliced open and stuffed full of chicharrón, potato or nopales (cactus), gorditas are a staple of the country’s culinary—and literal—capital. Just remember that not all gorditas were created equal and definitions differ across the country.
Not dissimilar to a gordita, tlacoyos are more commonly found made of blue masa (dough) and are shaped like an oval—or, sometimes, a full-blown triangle—rather than an overstuffed circle. However, they’re just as delicious and easier to eat on the go, making them the perfect Mexico City snack. Choose from bean, cheese or chicharrón-spiked masa and watch as the vendor tops your tlacoyo with fresh cheese and nopales. Drizzle lovingly with the spiciest salsa you can handle before devouring.
Tacos al Pastor
Puebla—a neighboring city which lies a metaphorical stone’s throw away from the capital—may be home to the original tacos al pastor, but Mexico City doesn’t do a half bad job of serving them up either. Soft tortillas are piled high with sliced, marinated pork (traditionally cooked on a peeled pineapple-topped spit), to which you can add the classic taco accoutrements of diced onion, cilantro and sauce. Sure, pineapple should never be found on pizza (duh!), but exceptions can and should be made for a taco al pastor.
Quesadillas (Cheese Optional)
Nowhere else in the country, except maybe a couple of Mexico City satellite destinations like Toluca, are quesadillas served without cheese as standard. A cheeseless quesadilla sure sounds like an oxymoron to many—hence why it’s such a source of nationwide amusement, confusion and spirited debate—but in Mexico City it’s par for the course. Either way, just remember to ask for cheese if you want it, or you might find your quesadilla sans its supposedly-staple fistful of stringy quesillo (Oaxacan cheese). Don’t skip town without trying a chicken tinga and cheese version.
INSIDER TIPHungry? Go all out and try a machete in Mexico City, aka a massive, unwieldy machete-sized quesadilla.
Torta de Tamal
Few things—except, perhaps, the aforementioned cheeseless quesadilla—are as unique to Mexico City’s street eating culture as the torta de tamal. Also known as a guajolota (which, confusingly, also means “turkey”), these more-than-filling “snacks” are usually served as a breakfast food. But what are they? Basically, a tamal sandwich. That’s right, in Mexico City, there’s no better way to start your day than with a steamed parcel of corn dough, stuffed inside its own bread bed. Like an obscene carb-on-carb Russian nesting doll.
INSIDER TIPYou can skip the bread and just eat the tamal, but where’s the fun in that?
Enchiladas suizas (Swiss enchiladas) are not actually from Switzerland. Surprise, right? No, they were first dreamt up in a Mexico City Sanborns, those department stores-cum-cafes that you’ll see dotted across the city. The name might be deceptive then, but the dish—which takes a standard (usually) chicken enchilada and douses it in a pale green, creamy sauce—is straightforwardly simple and simply delicious.
INSIDER TIPFor the full enchiladas suizas experience, try them at their birthplace—Sanborns Café. The famous “House of Tiles” branch in the historic center or the 24-hour Sanborns Café opposite the Bellas Artes building are both excellent options.
Tacos de Canasta
Tacos de canasta, aka basket tacos, don’t have a name that immediately screams “eat me.” And yet, these slightly sweaty, almost unbelievably affordable snacks are surprisingly scrumptious. Look for the sellers positioned next to—as the name suggests—giant wicker baskets and try my personal favorite, a potato taco de canasta. However, and given that even half a dozen of these relatively tiny tacos could constitute “just a light snack,” feel free to order one of every flavor and see what strikes your fancy.
Vegan Street Food
WHERE: Los Loosers
If you can eat it on the street in Mexico City, chances are someone has come up with a vegan version. From tacos al pastor at Por Siempre Vegana to “meaty” burgers over at Pan D’Monium, there are vegan options aplenty, if you know where to look. So, where should you look? Mainly the central neighborhoods, like Roma and Condesa, although you might find other options further afield too.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to head straight to the source, and tuck into a sit-down vegan meal, pay a visit to Los Loosers. This Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant is considered the granddaddy of vegan dining in the city.
Pulque (a fermented drink typical of central Mexico) is nothing if not divisive, given that the texture can range anywhere from vaguely slimy to sort of fizzy. However, don’t be deterred from giving this beverage a try, especially at one of Mexico City’s many pulquerías. First-timers might want to order a curado (fruit, nut, or vegetable-flavored version) before moving onto the unsullied, natural stuff.
Churros may be most closely associated with Spain, but there’s also one Mexico City neighborhood with a well-known affinity for deep-fried dough—Coyoacán. In this artsy, yet relatively affluent area of the capital, churros are as prolific as Frida Kahlo fans. If you center your search around Jardín Hidalgo, you’re sure to stumble across a vendor in no time, or, alternatively, head straight to Churrería La Parroquía and don’t look back.
INSIDER TIPIf you’d rather savor a churro or four in a more central location, try out El Moro, which has operated in the Centro Histórico since 1935.
Where the western state of Jalisco has the torta ahogada for all its hangover-busting needs, Mexico City has the super tender barbacoa. This slow-roasted (or steamed), Central Mexican-via-the-Caribbean specialty typically made with mutton or goat, is typically served in tacos or as part of a hearty stew and is a favorite weekend breakfast food.
From barbacoa to barbecue … Korean barbecue. Like most massive megalopolises around the world, Mexico City is multicultural, although it’s no New York. Even so, if you know where to look, you can easily find awesome Japanese and Jewish cuisine in the capital, but we think Mexico City’s Korean barbecue (typically found in the Zona Rosa) is most worth highlighting.
If you’ve been to Oaxaca, you might know that tiny grasshoppers, served with a healthy sprinkling of salt, lime, and chili (the Mexican trifecta of seasonings) are sold street-side by the bag full. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, you’ll have to venture into the Mercado de San Juan to try out some edible insects. There, you’ll find a plethora of bugs to try, whether you fancy a tarantula, scorpion or just a plain ol’ maguey worm.
INSIDER TIPWhile the Mercado de San Juan is the best-known spot for edible insects, you’ll also find plenty of restaurants dishing up escamoles (ant larvae), chinicuiles (maguey worms) and chicatanas (flying ants).
Sure, you can find pan dulce (the nebulous term for a wide range of Mexican sweet breads and pastries) across the country. You can pick up a sugar-coated concha in practically any supermarket and crumbly polvorones are ubiquitous, not to mention best enjoyed with a cup of coffee. Which is exactly why there’s all the more reason to try an artisanal version while in Mexico City. If you’re in Roma, you can’t go wrong at Panadería Rosetta, while Pastelería Ideal is a stalwart of the capital.
We round out our guide to the food and drink of Mexico City with arguably one of the most Mexico City dishes of all—the pambazo. It’s tough to find a truly good version of this Mexico City torta, given that the bread has to be just the right amount of marinated in guajillo chili sauce before being lovingly browned on the griddle and filled with diced potato, chorizo, lettuce, cheese and crema, but when you do, you’re in for a treat.