Where tacos sudados are sold from bike baskets, large steamers of tamales are peddled from tricycle carts and intoxicating smells waft from simmering stovetop pots in tiny fondas, one could live a lifetime and never know all there is to eat in the Distrito Federal, Mexico. While the sprawling metropolis is home to revered chefs like Enrique Olvera and Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, there are delicious culinary curiosities waiting to be discovered around every corner. The street food scene is so vibrant that, try as you may, you’ll never eat it all. But here’s a short list to get you started.
1. Tacos al pastor
Mexico City has become known for this seasoned, spit-roasted pork that was brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants and is now served into the wee hours across the city. Watch chefs masterfully shave meat and pineapple into tiny corn tortillas, then add your own onions, cilantro and salsas. El Vilsito, an auto-repair shop by day and taquería by night, and El Borrego Viudo are two lively late-night spots serving excellent al pastor.
You think you know chicharrónes until you visit Mexico, where chicharrónes look like they’re on steroids. Vendors weight out slabs of the savory, addictive and impossibly inflated pork rinds, then tie off accompanying nopales—prickly pear cactus paddles—and salsa in little baggies if you wish.
3. Frutas en tacha
Walking through the tianguis (street markets) of the DF, vendors pass out samples of fresh fruits like mamey and papaya. Keep an eye out for the decadently delicious frutas en tacha—fruits like figs, pumpkin and sweet potatoes preserved in piloncillo syrup, a dark brown Mexican cane sugar.
Tlacoyos are oval-shaped masa cakes traditionally stuffed with cheese and beans and then your choice of chicharrón, nopales or flor de cabeza (squash blossom). Your best bet is to grab tlacoyos from the older ladies who set up shop in tianguis, shaping them by hand and griddling them to order.
This Oaxacan antojito (snack) consists of a large, thin, baked tortilla topped with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, salsa and toppings like shredded meat, nopales, chorizo and avocado. You’ll typically find tlayuda vendors on sidewalks at night or at parks and bus stations during the day.
Barbacoa is typically made using lamb that has been wrapped in pencas de maguey (agave leaves), placed over wood and slow-roasted in underground pits. The finished product is served with corn tortillas, onions, cilantro, lime and salsa. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than the Hidalgo-style barbacoa served at El Hidalguense in Colonia Roma on weekends.
7. Cochinita pibil
We can thank the Mayans for inventing cochinita pibil, the succulent result of slow-roasting a whole suckling pig. While the meat is traditionally roasted in banana leaves in the Yucatán, it is more often roasted in agave leaves in the Distrito Federal, then served with corn tortillas and pickled red onion.
8. Pescado a la talla
Originating in Michoacán, pescado a la talla is whole fish that has been butterflied and grilled, then slathered with creamy mayonnaise and spicy pico de gallo and served in corn tortillas, topped with crunchy slaw. Brave the masses of Centro Histórico’s market district for the huge barracuda at Tacos El Patán—you will not regret it.
You’ve more than likely heard of dressed corncobs known as elotes; think of esquites as their off-the-cob sibling. Kernels are removed and either boiled or roasted with epazote, then served with your choice of salt, lime, mayonnaise, chile powder or con todo (the works).
If you’re in DF and eat chinicuiles but don’t Instagram it, did it really happen? These red caterpillars infest maguey plants (the type of agave used to make mezcal), so consider this snack an environmental duty of sorts. When fried, they have the consistency of crunchy French fries with the aftertaste of…well, maguey. Wash it down with some mezcal, and you’ll be fine.
Once you’ve tried chinicuiles, what’s stopping you from trying escamoles? These ant larvae, also harvested from maguey plants, have been a delicacy in Mexico City since the age of the Aztecs. Often cooked in butter, they have a creamy consistency and a mild taste—some call it Mexican caviar.
You can’t leave Mexico City without trying grasshoppers. Chapulines are usually toasted and salted and can be found in everything from nut mixes sold on the streets to quesadillas in mezcalerias, like Bósforo, to toppings on guacamole in high-end restaurants like Azul Histórico. Think of them as crunchy pepitas with an extra dose of protein!