It's said around three-quarters of Mexico City’s residents, or chilangos, eat on the street at least once a week — which is not surprising in a country that has been home to purveyors of antojitos (little cravings) since pre-Hispanic times. This potent connection to the past lies in the aromatic smells that drift from the street vendors’ carts and in the dense and varied flavours of the food itself.
At the Zócalo, the main square of Centro Histórico, situated on the ruins of what was once the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, it’s not hard to imagine the ancient occupants tucking into tamales — cigars of corn dough stuffed with chicken or vegetables and laced with salsa, wrapped in a banana leaf.
Today crowds flock to the square to gaze at Mexico City’s finest colonial architecture from the days of Spanish rule, but it’s easy to spot local tamale vendors in the cobblestone streets, tending to their steaming metal vats. Take it all in with another traditional speciality — a black coffee mixed with cinnamon and cane sugar in an earthenware clay pot, known as a café de olla, or an atole, a breakfast drink thickened with cornflour.
For a lift, try a licuados, a tasty Latin American beverage usually made from milk, fresh fruit and ice. These treats are sold through distinctive carts piled high with fruits and containers of drinks that you will see on just about every corner of the city, and often also offer aguas frescas, refreshing concoctions of water, fruits, herbs, flowers and sugar. When choosing a fresh juice, make sure to include nopales, a prickly pear cactus, whose juice is sometimes said to help line the digestive tract and cure hangovers — a welcome remedy in a city where overindulgence is way too easy.
ON THE MARKET
Just a short trip from the Zócalo is the bohemian district of Coyoacán, a meeting place of appetites that was the first capital of New Spain in the 16th century. In the shadow of the magnificent San Juan Bautista Cathedral, the Mercado de Coyoacán marketplace is the perfect setting to down lunchtime tacos.
You’ll find an abundance of taco vendors in Coyoacán; locals suggest identifying the best ones based on what salsa is on offer. A good taco stand should be serving a minimum of four types — red chile de árbol, tomatillo-based salsa verde, mild pico de gallo and a pineapple or mango-based sauce. Freshness, colour and variety are usually a good sign the cooks know what they are doing, and some stands may offer up to a dozen different salsas. Tacos al pastor are a true Mexico City speciality, a kebab-like taco with meat cooked on a vertical spit. If you’re feeling brave, ask for some of the bolder fillings, such as eyes, brains, tongues and tripe, or try suadero, a fatty cut of beef that’s taken from the rear legs, near the belly.
The quickest route to satisfaction for herbivores is the tlacoyo, round pockets of blue corn dough filled with beans and fresh Oaxaca cheese, topped with grilled nopales, or quelites, a generic term used for any number of wild greens.
If your wanders lead you to encounter chilangos eating with a fork from a packet of corn chips, take a closer look. They’re probably eating Dorilocos, the outrageous after-school snack loved by the young and young at heart. Speciality stands take a bag of nacho cheese Doritos and top them with cueritos (salted pork rinds), jicama, salad, nuts, lime juice, hot salsa, chamoy (pickled fruit sauce) and gummy bears. Yes, gummy bears. Thought to have originated in Tijuana, Dorilocos isn’t, shockingly, a dish handed down from ancient civilisations, but is well worth trying for the novelty — or the Instagram photo.
STRAIGHT TO THE SAUCE
For something more grown-up, take the metro journey north from Coyoacán to La Condesa, the trendy suburb that caters to all thirsts. Not as renowned for street food as other areas, it’s still the place to go for a sit-down coffee or aperitif, and just to marvel at the Art Deco architecture and tree-lined streets.
A hot day calls for a michelada, a cocktail made with beer, lime and hot sauce, but if you’re looking to kick-start a night out, this is the best place to find mezcal at specialist bars known as mezcalerias. To appreciate the complexity of this agave liquor, bartenders say the drink should be “kissed, not shot”. The same could be said for dinner, where moles are a must. These are a variety of thick, rich sauces, each featuring a potent combination of herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, vegetables, chillies and, in some cases, chocolate.
You’ll find them in abundance at Mercado La Merced — one of the country’s largest markets, selling everything from fruit to witchcraft spells — where stands offer guisados (stews) as a tortilla with some rice or beans topped with the mole of the day. Look out for the chilli-and-chocolate-based mole rojo, or mole poblano, which is probably the most famous variety outside Mexico.
Words by Elle Hardy
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