Mexico is famous for its street food and eating on the street is a way of life in Mexico City. Street food is widely available, quick and inexpensive. The industry as a whole is largely unregulated, but there are believed to be more than 500,000 street food vendors operating in the capital on any given day. There are street food stalls, carts and trucks on nearly every corner, clustered around metro stations, surrounding markets and extending for blocks along city streets. There are three street food stalls directly in front of my apartment building, several more just around the corner and several dozen in and around the market across the street.
In Mexico City there is a huge variety of antojitos, or quick snack foods that can be enjoyed at the street food stalls at any time of day or night. Probably one of the best known and most popular street foods in the capital are tacos al pastor – marinated pork tacos – but they are just one of many types of tacos that are available on the street. Other favorites include tortas (traditional Mexican sandwiches), tostadas, quesadillas, guaraches, sopes, gorditas, tamales, tlacoyos, elotes and more. There are stands serving up jugos and aguas frescas (fresh fruit juices and waters) and you’ll even find hamburger and hot dog stands. Some foods are more popular and can only be found at certain times of the day – tamales and fresh juices in the morning or elotes in the evenings – but eating on the street is easily an all-day affair.
Meat is often found in many favorite Mexican street foods including several varieties of tacos and tortas. Deep fried snacks are also popular, quick to prepare and easy to eat on the go, though maybe not the healthiest of options. For new visitors arriving in Mexico City, it may seen that maintaining a healthy, vegetarian diet while eating on the street is a near impossible task, but it doesn’t have to be. After all, sampling the street food is a popular tourist activity and a great way for visitors to experience more of the local culture. Don’t miss it!
The other day I headed out to do some street food sampling of my own. As I walked along the avenue leading away from the recently revamped Plaza de la República, street food vendors lining the sidewalks called out their specialties. I settled on a stall operated by a friendly señor who was individually preparing meals for each of his customers. I’ve found that sometimes the easiest and most effective approach is simply asking what is available without meat. In this case he offered me vegetarian tacos which he prepared using a variety of fresh nopal (cactus), potato, egg and cheese, and a fresh green salad which he insisted – without my even asking – had been cleaned and disinfected properly.
Street food aficionados would probably insist that I’m missing out on some of the city’s tastiest street fare, though I disagree. I’m happy to enjoy the eating on the street experience in Mexico City without having to abandon my commitment to maintaining a healthy, meat-free diet. And my specially prepared meal was perfect – simple, healthy and delicious all for the equivalent of just a couple dollars. In fact, rarely will you pay more than a few dollars for a meal at a street food stall and the quality of the food is often very good, some of the stalls have been passed down from generation to generation and family owned and operated for decades.
Even without having something specially prepared, you’ll still find a lot of meat-free foods to choose from. Quesadillas – especially those made with flor de calabaza, or squash blossoms -are popular veggie street snacks and another of my favorites. Also look for elotes or esquites (Mexican grilled corn on or off the cob served with mayonnaise, mild-flavored Mexican white cheese, lime juice, cayenne pepper or chile powder and salt), tlacoyos (oval-shaped masa patties stuffed with refried beans and cheese and topped with various veggies, salsas and more cheese) and a variety of fresh fruits, sweets and sweet breads. Yet another great option, tacos de guisados are fresh tortillas filled with hearty, slow-cooked fillings. They can be found all over the city and there are often plenty of tasty vegetarian varieties.
After finishing my meal I continued wandering the streets of the Centro Historico. Passing by a construction site I came across this women preparing tlacoyos on a comal, or smooth, flat griddle used for preparing tortillas. Not unlike many street food vendors, she was catering to a specific clientele, in this case the construction workers gathered at the nearby site, by offering up quick, cheap and filling snacks. Her street food stand is a great example of how little initial overhead is necessary to get up and running as a street food vendor in Mexico City, especially since the vendor permit laws that exist are rarely enforced and most street vendors operate outside of the formal system. Many pay a small fee to rent their space, avoid paying taxes and use city services such as water and electricity for free.
The same lack of enforcement exists for health regulation requirements, though for the most part street food vendors are aware that their livelihood depends on providing a quality product and most stalls are perfectly acceptable, even for new visitors to the city. If you’re unsure head for one of the busier stalls and take a quick look around, or better yet, take a street food tour. Even vegetarians will find lots of options.