Exploring Mexico City’s Street Food

Santa Barbara’s Tamale King Shares Excerpt from Forthcoming Guide

<b>MUY AUTHENTIC:</b> Santa Barbara’s tamale expert recommends searching out a torta ahogada, or “drowned sandwich.”
Courtesy Photo

During this week of our town’s Mexican-food-soaked Fiesta, we present this report from the founder of Santa Barbara Tamales-To-Go, who is in Mexico City working on the forthcoming book A Visitor’s Guide to Mexico City Street Food.

When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they were amazed to find so many ready-to-eat foods on the streets of Mexico City. They called them antojitos, or “little cravings.” Today, the city’s tradition of street food remains strong, and it’s estimated that 75 percent of the residents eat on the street at least once a week. Here are some of my favorites.

Torta Ahogada: In 1910, when a Guadalajara street vendor accidentally dropped his customer’s torta into a pot of sauce, this “drowned sandwich” was born. Mexico City’s version features chunks of braised pork stuffed inside a crunchy birote roll and then bathed in a savory sauce spiced with chiles de árbol, clove, cinnamon, and cumin. So messy but so wonderful.

The tlacoyo, a midnight-blue, torpedo-shaped patty.
Courtesy Photo

Tlacoyo: As a tamale chef who works with corn masa, I was immediately curious when I saw my first tlacoyo, a midnight-blue, torpedo-shaped patty which translates to “snack” in the Aztec language, Nahuatl. The well-made tlacoyo is crisp on the outside with a creamy interior. Blue corn masa is used most often, and the patty is stuffed with either bean paste or cheese. Though eaten without toppings in most parts of Mexico, Mexico City residents decorate theirs with diced nopales (cactus), crumbly cotija cheese, salsa, cilantro, and raw onions. Almost all tlacoyo stands are one-person operations run by women.

Courtesy Photo

Machete: Relatively new to the city, this street food derives its name from its shape. Picture a 24-inch-long quesadilla draped across two dinner plates. It is made-to-order and stuffed with your choices of alternating meats and cheeses. Like a pizza, a machete is usually shared, although recently at lunchtime I watched three people each devour a whole machete in about 10 minutes.

Cochinita Pibil: The best street tacos in Mexico City originated in the Yucatán Peninsula. They are made with shredded pork, which is traditionally steamed in a rock-lined pit and marinated in achiote and orange juice. In today’s world, street vendors use a slow cooker in place of the pit. The garnishes, however, remain the same: pickled red onions with habanero salsa sure to make your lips tingle. At $1 each, I usually order these tacos by the plateful.

Chilaquiles: In Mexico City, there are more eggs consumed per capita than in any other city in the world. I’m sure this is due in part to the popularity of chilaquiles, a breakfast and brunch dish that dates back to the Aztecs. Originally created as a way of repurposing day-old corn tortillas,chilaquiles are beautiful due to their versatility: using either red or green salsa and scrambled eggs, and often adding pieces of chicken, maybe a topping of crema with rings of white onion. A variety of optional garnishes are also used, such as avocado, queso fresco, and cilantro.

My personal favorite is served at Sanborns House of Tiles. Their carefully layered, lasagna-style chilaquiles inspired me to create my own version, which is included in my cookbook, Preheat to 350 Degrees. Of course, street vendors throughout Mexico City serve their own interpretations, and many are excellent.


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