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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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 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 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 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!