Luis and I just relocated to Seattle after spending five years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After realizing that the total travel time between cities including flights and layovers would be about 31 hours, we decided to break up the trip with a stop in Mexico City (known locally as Distrito Federal or D.F.). Good decision; it's one of the most interesting places that we've ever visited. We booked a hostel near Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City and home to the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor and the National Palace. The price of a room at the hostel included breakfast and dinner, but after sampling the meal on the first night, which consisted of a buffet of bland tuna casserole, store-bought white bread and iceberg lettuce salad (the hostel manager told us that many of their guests, especially the Europeans, can't tolerate the spiciness of real Mexican food), we decided to head out to the streets. Very, very good decision.
A freshly made 70 cent suadero taco from the corner taqueria (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Anyone who's read this blog before knows that I am a street food addict. I almost never visit restaurants when traveling unless there are swarms of locals already inside or there is a long line outside, because I usually either get sick or am disappointed by restaurant food. With street food, it is always fresh, almost always delicious, prepared with fresh ingredients right in front of you (I've never gotten sick eating street food) and it's cheap, so even if you're disappointed, you're out a dollar at the most. To get a real taste of authentic local cuisine, your best bet in any country is almost always outdoor cooking stands and Mexico is no exception. Incidentally, the food in Mexico City bears almost no resemblance to "Mexican" food as most non-Mexicans know it. I have yet to see (outside of the tourist resorts) sour cream, fried ice-cream or Supreme Nachos anywhere within Mexico's borders.
Sim waiting at a busy taqueria in D.F. with a wide variety of fillings and toppings (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The street foods most popular with both locals and tourists are quesadillas, chalupas, huaraches, sopes, gordas (a type of sandwich) and of course, tacos. Tacos are usually made with two small soft corn tortillas, one inside the other, then filled with suadero (beef brisket), brains, pork, tripe, chicken, carne asada (marinated, grilled beef), huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on ears of corn and originally known as corn smut...you can understand the name change from a marketing perspective) or nopal (prickly pear cactus leaves) and topped with cebollas (onions) or cebolittas (scallions), fresh green or red chili sauce, cilantro and/or a fresh cheese like queso blanco or Oaxaca. The delicious Tacos de Cabeza (Head Tacos) are made with any combination of chopped sesos (brains), lengua (tongue), cachete (cheeks), trompa (lips) or ojos (eyeballs). Don't be put off by the sound of eating a tortilla filled with chopped lips, eyeballs and brains. Just take a deep breath and take the plunge; I swear they are delicious and afterwards you will be wondering how you ever got by without eyeball-flavor treats before.
Pork on the spit, ready to be sliced off and served to hungry taco junkies (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Tacos al Pastor (Shepard's Tacos), easily the most popular, are made by carving seasoned, marinated meat, usually pork, off a spit similar to how gyros or shawarmas are made, then topped with a slice of fresh pineapple, cilantro, onions and sometimes fresh lime juice. The pineapple usually sits atop the meat on the spit, since the dripping juices contain an enzyme that helps to tenderize the meat and also adds flavor. In coastal areas of Mexico, tacos filled with fresh grilled or marinated seafood are common, and usually include shrimp, local fish or crab or a combination thereof and are served with chili sauce, lime juice and onions. One caveat: since coastal areas are usually the locales for resorts and hotels, the tacos are generally geared more toward tourists' tastes than local traditional recipes and often include additions such as citrus-flavored mayonnaise or sour cream and guacamole, but they're still delicious.
Vegan nightmare: a variety of meats used to fill tacos (photo by Luis Bastardo)