A Lesson on Mexican Street Food: How It’s Really Done in Mexico

A Lesson on Mexican Street Food

Mexican food is not what you think.

In the same way that America has butchered their interpretation of traditional Chinese food, so too have they debauched the art of Mexican cuisine.

Many North Americans love Mexican food but, unfortunately, the Mexican food we've come to know and love isn't actually Mexican food at all! In many cases, the only thing even remotely similar between the North American version and the Mexican version is the name of the dish.

That’s it.

Tacos

Mexican Street Food

Mexican street food. Photo credit: Flickr / mharvey.nyc

So, let’s talk tacos. In North America, tacos are made with ground beef and served in hard or soft shells at places like Taco Bell or that Tex Mex joint around the corner. The ground beef is usually buried by lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, and sometimes guacamole.

It’s the perfect late night after-the-bar food, and not even close to traditional Mexican tacos.

The Tortillas

Making burritos!

Making burritos!

In Mexico tacos are served in corn tortillas, never flour. The dough is called masa and those corn tortillas can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the corn that gets used. Some people use masa harina (a dry masa) and some vendors in Mexico prefer to use fresh corn masa for their tortillas as the texture and flavor is slightly different.

While some of them will make tortillas fresh as you wait using a wooden tortilla press, most buy their tortillas from a tortilleria which makes fresh tortillas by machine.

It's also worth noting that tortillas come in two different sizes. When buying tacos from a street vendor most places will use a 3” tortilla. Very few places will use the larger 6” tortillas, but they are found from time to time.

Types of Tacos

Are you sitting down? You might want to before continuing with this Mexican taco lesson.

Ready? Mexicans do not use ground beef in their tacos. Instead, they use other delicious meats and fish!

Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor

Tacos al Pastor. Photo credit: Flickr / josewolff

A Lebanese inspired taco, tacos al pastor is made with pork that is placed on a spit. The spit is layered with meat, then fat, then meat and so on. The meat is generally marinated in a mixture of dried chilies, spices, and pineapple.

Tacos de Camarón

Tacos de Camaron

Two tacos de camaron. Photo credit: Flickr / wcedward

Shrimp tacos are more popular along the coast and are utterly delicious if done the right way. Many vendors will do them deep fried or sautéed.

Tacos de Canasta

A delicious taco de canasta!

A delicious taco de canasta!

Basket tacos are closed tacos that are prepared at the vendor’s home and kept hot in baskets. They are filled with delicious meats like cochina pibil or pollo en mole verde (chicken with green mole), or vegetarian options like frijol-papa (bean and potato).

Tacos de Carnitas

Tacos Carnitas

Tacos carnitas. Photo credit: Flickr / Sirsnapsalot

Crispy deep fried pork. The entire pig is deep fried and you can usually ask for specific parts, or just eat what they give you. It’s like foodie roulette. Usually served with freshly chopped cilantro and onion.

Tacos de Pollo

Tacos de pollo

Yummy taco de pollo. Photo credit: Flickr / Adam Kuban

Chicken is a very popular taco in Mexico. Chicken is popular period. The best ones are usually pollo asado, which is BBQ chicken.

Tacos de Chorizo

Taco de lengua and a taco de chorizo

Beef tongue taco (taco de lengua) on the left and a taco de chorizo on the right! Photo credit: Flickr / bluelephant

Popular in states like Michocan, chorizo tacos are made with regular or green chorizo and generally spicy so use caution when adding salsa!

Now, while the meat or fish in a taco is important, in Mexico one never eats a taco as is. Vendors always have a variety of salsas, as well as lime (limon) on hand. Squeeze lime on your taco, add some spicy salsa, and enjoy!

Burritos

An authentic burrito!

An authentic burrito!

A burrito is another Mexican street food that is nothing like the North American version. In North America burritos are huge in size and generally come stuffed with rice, beans, a meat of some sort, lettuce, salsa, cheese, and god knows what else.

You will never find rice in a burrito in Mexico. Like, ever.

Burritos in Mexico are a delightful foodie experience. You can go for standard ones like pollo (chicken) or you can go for gold and order a Flor de Calabaza, or zucchini flowers.

Unlike tacos, burritos are generally made with maize-flour tortillas instead of corn. Many vendors will also offer a variety of sauces, so be sure to experiment. In Mexico City you may even find bacon hot sauce! Amazing.

Tamales

Tamales

Photo credit: Flickr / nathangibbs

Tamales are one of the cheapest street eats in Mexico. Made with masa harina or fresh corn masa, tamales are generally stuffed with things like chicken, or cheese, then wrapped in corn or banana leaves and steamed.

Tamales are popular with Mexicans, but not always popular with travelers as they tend to be a little bland (unless you get one with mole or a spicy sauce), and the texture is similar to that of grits, which is certainly not for everyone.

While it might be tempting to buy tamales from the trunk of a car (yes, I have done this), don’t do it. Always look for a stand where the tamales are kept hot in a tall pot.

Tortas

Tortas

Tortas de carnitas. Photo credit: Flickr / gtrwndr87

Tortas are sandwiches. This is a popular travel food for when locals are taking the bus, or looking for a quick lunch. Torta buns are similar to kaiser rolls in North America, but oval in shape. Similar to tacos, tortas come in a variety of meats, and tend to be a little on the spicy side.

Fruit Cups

Fruit cups are a popular street food in many countries around the world, including Mexico. Fruit stands can be found in most cities. You can buy mixed fruit cups with things like pineapple, papaya, watermelon, etc. The essential part of the whole experience, though, is to ask for chili powder, lime juice, and salt!

Then you can wash it all down with a shot of tequila!


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Pam MacNaughtan

Traveler, writer, and photographer, Pamela travels the world in search of unique cultural experiences, and local eats. When not writing for her blog, Savoir Faire Abroad, Pamela can be found wandering the streets of Québec City, or planning her next adventure.

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9 Responses to A Lesson on Mexican Street Food: How It’s Really Done in Mexico

  1. gregvaughn February 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Makes my mouth water just reading the descriptions. Luckily it’s getting easier to find authentic Mexican food in the USA thanks to the proliferation of food trucks and carts in larger cities and areas where there are large populations of Latinos.

  2. Jess February 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

    You can find real Mexican food in a lot of places in the US, as long as you know where to look. Still, a lot of people are perfectly happy with the standard Taco Bell and Tex-Mex. They don’t know what they’re missing!

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

      Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy a good Tex Mex, but real, authentic Mexican food just can’t be beat!

  3. John Gorge February 18, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

    I am surprised that there are lot of Mexican Foods that seems to be delicious. I will include this in my bucket lists and see the difference. I am just thinking… Can it be compared to foods here at Brisbane Australia?

    • Jeremy Foster February 20, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      I’d say not! I spent some time in Brisbane and only came across typical tex-mex, though there may be some boutique Mexican places worth discovering. New mission?

      • Em February 27, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

        Absolutely right. We have the same “tex mex” style foods here, nothing like Mexican food at all.

  4. Corinne Vail February 20, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    Oh wow! I really need some tacos amigo! Your photos are gorgeous!

  5. Adrienne @ AdrienneAway September 14, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    This post made me hungry! 🙂

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