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A (Mostly Comprehensive) Guide to Mexican Street Food

Mexican street food van

Mexico is home to breathtaking historical treasures, fascinating cultural institutions, and some of the world’s most unique and spellbinding natural highlights. 

Yet, despite all of these incredible attractions, the nation’s food continues to be one of the main reasons people keep flocking back to the Latin American country. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as Mexican cuisine is on the UNESCO list of Immaterial World Cultural Heritage, which goes to show just how seriously they take their mealtimes. 

From the seven moles of Oaxaca to mouthwatering servings of Tacos al Pastor, you’re never more than a short walk from a cheap, excellent meal in Mexico. But it’s the nation’s street food that truly captivates, whether it’s at a bustling stall by a busy roadside, a small collection of chairs in a market,  or a small cart on a quiet street corner.

If you’re heading to Mexico and want to know what to eat when you’re out and about, then read ahead for our (mostly comprehensive) guide to Mexican street food!

Mexican Street Food: a guide

If we wanted to list every delicious dish you can find on the streets in Latin America’s culinary jewel, it would take more bandwidth than this website has. So, if you’ve been to Mexico and recall a life changing dish that we’ve omitted and are outraged about it… you’re probably right. Blame the locals for being so good at cooking!

Mexico’s street food culture is second-to-none, and nearly every dish you would find in a sit-down restaurant can also be eaten from a street stall. This includes hand-held favourites like tacos and tamales, as well as broth-based dishes like birria and pozole. 

Although each region of Mexico has its own unique culinary traditions, there are some similarities throughout the country. With that said, food can generally be grouped into the following seven regions: Norteño (Northern Mexico), Bajacaliforniano, Jaliscense, Poblano (Puebla and CDMX), Oaxaqueño (Oaxaca), Chiapas, Veracruzano (Veracruz), and Yucateco (Yucatán)

Although it might seem like obvious advice, the best way to determine a food cart’s quality is how many locals are lining up to get their fix. This is true whether you’re in high-end neighbourhoods in Mexico City, or working class pueblos in Chiapas. Often the best value street food stalls are right by public transport hubs or stations. This is especially true in Mexico City. 

Most carts will offer a wide variety of toppings, but no matter where you’re eating you’re guaranteed to get the chance to add the following to your dish: white onions, coriander, salsa roja, and salsa verde. In Oaxaca, guacamole is also regularly offered as a condiment. 

Some places will also offer side dishes to fill out your taco, and these might include things like salads, hard-boiled eggs, or fried potatoes. Mexican street food stalls that deal primarily in broth based goodness will also always offer tortillas to enjoy your meal with. In the north, these are likely to be made from wheat, whereas in the rest of the country they will be corn-based. 

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In terms of health and safety, it’s very much what you feel comfortable with. Even if you’re a more intrepid eater, it’s best to let your stomach acclimatise to the country before slathering your taco in a salsa that may have been under the sun all day. If you are particularly squeamish, then it might be best to only stick to street food in touristy sections of big cities. 

Like most tourist activities, food tours can be hit and miss. Ensure you check out reviews, or better yet get a direct recommendation for the best tours from a fellow tourist or an expert – like your Contiki Trip Manager on one of our many Mexico tours.

How to order from a Mexican street food stall

Even if you don’t know your ‘pero’ (but) from your ‘perro’, (dog) it’s simple to get a meal from a Mexican street food stall. Most places have pictures of the food on offer, as well as prices written out. Many have deals for certain meals too, especially when it comes to tacos. 

Payment is taken after you’ve ordered and eaten, which is a good thing as there’s a very real chance you’ll want more food once you’ve devoured your initial serving. Tipping is expected in most sit-down places in Mexico, but not at street food stalls. However, if you really enjoyed the meal, or the vendor was particularly friendly, then feel free to give your roadside host a few extra pesos. 

There may be some food stalls in tourist-heavy cities like Mexico City or Oaxaca that accept credit and debit cards, but as a general rule cash is king. However, as street food is usually quite cheap, sneaking one last taco can easily be justified as getting rid of the last of your change – especially if you’ve been enjoying a few Micheladas (a moreish refreshment that consists of beer, lime juice, and chilli).

The majority of street food stalls have seating, and it’s often a place for people to socialise, especially in the evening. Feel free to join in – if your Spanish isn’t the best, most people will still appreciate the effort.

Mexican street food: the best dishes

Below is an overview of some of the delectable dishes you’ll be able to find in street food stalls across the country. Some are only really found in specific regions, whereas others, like tacos and gorditas, will be available throughout Mexico.

Savoury dishes 

1. Tacos

The undisputed king of Mexican food is the taco. These small, pillowy circles of dough can contain pretty much anything, which is why they’re eaten at all hours of the day. With that said, there are some fillings that will be common throughout the country:

2. Tortas

Some people will refer to tortas as Mexican sandwiches, but they’re so much more than that. Like tacos, there are many different foods that can be used as fillings for a torta, but it’s the spreads and other additions to the dish that make it special. 

Refried beans, crushed avocados, salsa, greens, and pickled vegetables are all slathered on soft white bread to create a mouthwatering sandwich that works as a meal on its own. Prior to being filled, the bread is also grilled on the top and bottom, giving each bite a satisfying crunch.

Common fillings include those similar to tacos, as well as more substantial options like breaded meat fillets. There are great Tortas everywhere, but Taqueria Allende 33 in the centre of Mexico City is always heaving with locals, and for good reason. Although its name implies that it’s primarily a taco spot, everyone goes for the tortas.

3. Tamales

This Mexican staple could go in the sweet section below, but we believe the savoury versions are the most interesting – although we’d never say no to a pineapple one! 

Tamales are made from corn masa that is shaped around a specific filling, then wrapped in a corn husk, banana leaf, or another similar natural wrapper, and steamed. Each region of the country will have their own favourite fillings, but we’ve listed some of the most common ones below:

4. Gorditas

This dish translates to ‘chubby,’ and while the name isn’t exactly body positive, it’s easy to see why this moreish staple has earned that moniker. A corn cake is filled with a mixture of ingredients – usually ground meat and cheese – then deep fried. Similar to arepas, if you’re a fan of the Colombian dish.

5. Quesadillas

Cheese is the focus of these global favourites. A tortilla (usually corn, but wheat in the north) is filled with cheese (meats are often included too). This is then wrapped and put on a griddle to melt the inside into a gooey, delicious mix.

6. Elotes / Esquites

These two Mexican street food staples go hand-in-hand, and where you can find one you’ll almost certainly always find the other. 

Elotes consist of grilled or steamed corn-on-the-cobs that have been slathered in mayonnaise, cream cheese, chilli powder, powdered cheese, and lime juice. If it sounds messy, that’s because it is – but the clean up is worth the delicious taste.

Esquites are made from the same components, but the corn is taken off the cob and put into a small cup, then mixed in with the other ingredients. 

7. Burritos

A favourite of Tex-Mex cuisine and probably the street food most associated with Mexico outside of the country. Funnily enough, burritos aren’t actually that common in the central and southern areas of the nation, with tacos always being preferred. However, you can still get them in a lot of places. Again, fillings vary, but tend to be a combination of beans, meats, cheese, and fried rice.

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8. Molotes

These corn-based, deep-fried slices of heaven might remind you of a Cornish Pasty, but the flavours are much more intense. Chorizo and cheese is the traditional filling, but you can get everything from seafood to potatoes.

Antojitos Acapulco in Puebla (not Acapulco) are known for their incredible Molotes.

9. Chilaquiles

Some Mexican street food dishes aren’t particularly easy to eat on the go, which is why the stalls often have seating. Chilaquiles are one such meal, and this iconic breakfast treat has to be tried while you’re in the country. The basic dish consists of deep fried corn tortilla chips, topped with red or green salsa, beans, some kind of shredded meat, and an egg. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, Chilaquiles Divorciados allows you to have both salsas on your dish, so you can get the best of both worlds. 

10. Birria

This dish could technically fall under the taco category, but we think it deserves its own entry. Birria is a spicy meat stew in which the main star of the dish is cooked until it melts in your mouth. This can be eaten as a hearty soup, but is best enjoyed alongside a stack of tacos in which you can wrap chunks of meat before dipping in the deep ruby sauce.

11. Chalupas

Chalupas are like tacos but made out of fried masa dough, giving them a crispier and lighter texture. The fillings depend on the region, but the basic similarities between the dish make it a winner no matter what state you’re in. They’re named for their oblong shape, which is reminiscent of a type of boat.

12. Sope

These adorable Mexican street food favourites are similar to chalupas, although more round and generally a little flatter. In Oaxaca, they’re known as Memelas.

Memelas Doña Vale in Oaxaca City gained international recognition for her take on the dish thanks to being featured in Netflix’s Street Food: South America. Although the queues are crazy, her food is phenomenal. 

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13. Chanclas

Similar to the Guadalajaran dish Tortas Ahogadas, Chanclas are a meat-filled torta that’s been drenched in a tomato or chilli-based sauce. Although they’re technically a sandwich, they have more of a lasagne vibe about them, so definitely require a plate and cutlery. 

Because of this, Chanclas (the Spanish word for ‘flip-flop,’ as the shape of the footwear resembles the bread used in the dish) are a bit rare to find as street food, but there are some excellent spots in Puebla that are worth hunting for. 

14. Tlayudas

Some people jokingly refer to Tlayudas as Mexican pizza, but that doesn’t do these crispy, cheesy discs of deliciousness justice. 

A Oaxacan classic that can be hard to get anywhere else, they consist of a thin, crispy corn tortilla that’s topped with all sorts of goodies, including refried beans, cabbage, meats, and Oaxacan cheese (which has a texture similar to mozzarella). They are a street food must-have if you’re visiting the Central Mexican state.

15. Pozole / Menudo

These two hearty stews are very similar, and both can be made either red, green, or white. They both use a similar spicing, and contain hominy as the main carbohydrate. Both, of course, also always come with warm tacos.

The main difference between the dishes is that Menudo is exclusively made using tripe, whereas Pozole utilises pork or chicken instead. If you dislike heat, then you’d probably prefer Pozole, although both dishes are quite spicy. 

Sweet dishes

1. Raspados

The sun shines brightly across much of Mexico, which makes this delicious Mexican street food treat a must-try if you’re feeling the heat. Raspados are cones of flavoured, shaved ice, which you can customise to your desire as most vendors will add the flavourings at the point of sale. 

2. Camotes

Camotes are one of the country’s oldest and most traditional street foods, and are usually easy to recognise thanks to the high-pitched whistle the carts that serve them produce. 

Camotes are roasted sweet potatoes (‘camote’ is the Spanish word for the vegetable) served alongside jam, condensed milk, and cinnamon. Most vendors will also serve roasted plantains.

3. Marquesitas

Oaxaca’s take on the crepe. Toppings vary and you can even get savoury versions of this dish, but nothing beats the classic banana and nutella.

4. Paletas

These frozen treats consist of fruit mixed with either fruit juice or milk. With an ice-cream like texture, they’re refreshing, delicious, and probably the healthiest item on this list.

5. Churros

Deep fried, sugar coated dough is always a winner, which is why churros enjoy global popularity. You will find stalls selling these literally everywhere.

Snacks

1. Chicharron

Effectively pork scratchings, but usually with a squirt of chilli and lime added for extra flavour. 

2. Papas

Freshly made potato crisps that are usually bathed in a salsa and lime mixture for a flavourful punch.

3. Duritos

These small, pin-wheel shaped wheat snacks are deep fried, then mixed in with – you guessed it – chilli and lime (it’s an excellent combination, to be fair).

4. Mangonada

The perfect treat for a hot day. Fresh mango puree is layered inside a cup alongside mango chamoy and some fresh juice from the fruit. Vendors will then sprinkle on some chilli lime salt (Tajin). 

These drinks are recognisable from the special straw they’re drunk through, known as a Banderilla Tamarindo. These are large yellow straws covered in a sweet and spicy tamarind paste, then rolled in chilli powder. 

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