A bubbling cauldron of everything good in life.
It’s the street food capital of the world, and it hangs out its shingles for everyone. For those on a budget, for those with millions. Walk Mexico City and you see the stalls everywhere. Food stands hawking tacos and tortas. Breakfast and lunch and dinner and dessert. Guys on tricycles with speakers on the front blaring advertisements for tamales. Vendors on corners selling cups of freshly cut mango and papaya, with a dash of chili salt on top if you’re feeling that. You can find something to eat everywhere. And if you can’t find it, give it a minute and it’ll find you.
There are few cities in the world where you will see more people eating on the street. As the writer David Lida explains in his marvelous panorama of the city First Stop in the New World, street stands in Mexico City share two distinct advantages. The first is the weather, which is consistently temperate, enough so that eating on the street is a good idea almost any time of year. The second, more important reason, is that the government hardly taxes food stands. Essentially, every vendor gives the city a small percentage of their profits. This allows for an interesting experiment in democracy, with people intermingling from street corner to street corner without sequestering themselves into corner booths or tables, isolated from one another.
The other thing that makes it work, of course, is the quality of the food.
For most Norte Americanos, the food most associated with Mexico is the taco. And while it would be a mistake to call the taco Mexico’s national dish, it is probably the go-to convenience food for every state in the nation. Mexico City, being the central switchboard for the country, holds countless restaurants and food stands that cater to all of the nation’s regional cuisines. This means that you can find every kind of taco under the sun, stuffed with every imaginable combination of stuff. Everyone contributes. And Mexico City, for its part, contributes perhaps the greatest version of them all: Tacos al Pastor.
In the 1920’s, Lebanese immigrants made their way to Mexico City, and brought with them the shawarma spit. Enterprising Mexican vendors took the basic design (meat on a vertical spit with a flame toasting the side) and replaced the lamb with pork. Cured, and marinated with chili, citrus and spices, the trompo, as it’s called, rotates on the spit, turning the meat a distinctive orange hue. When you walk up and order, an expert takes a knife to the meat with one hand and slices downward, shearing off strips of meat that fall into the tortilla waiting in their other hand. Cilantro and relish are added, and often a slice of pineapple, which is usually roasting on the spit just above the pork.
Behold, El Huequito’s Taco al Pastor. Quite possibly the best taco in the world.
Like po boys in New Orleans, hot dogs in Chicago and pizza in New York, every neighborhood in the city claims they have the best of the best Tacos al Pastor in the city. Following the advice of David Lida, I went to El Huequito. This joint’s been serving the famous dish (and a variety of other things) since 1959, and their al Pastor is legendary. They have a sit down restaurant on the inside, but you can just as easily stand on the street and chow down right by the freshly cooked meat. You also get to witness the curious honor system of the taco stands. You walk inside to pay, tell them how many you had, and they charge you. Nobody questions it, and nobody seems to lie about it, either. The street food exchange is, it appears, sacred territory, free from con artists.
El Huequito brushes their Tacos al Pastor with an orange salsa. Perhaps it’s the salsa, perhaps it’s the way the meat is cured. But when you bite into one of these, everything bad in your life vanishes. I’ve eaten my share of tacos, both in Mexico and the States, and I have never tasted one so good. It is as perfect a bite of food as I’ve ever had.
To move onto another stand is not so much about improving upon El Huequito it is about variety. Quite simply, if you can go anywhere to eat, you should. Eventually, you’ll find a few stalls you return to repeatedly.
Fortunately, El Huequito sits right next to the model of taco variety: Los Cocuyos.
Extending out onto the sidewalk with a small metal bar and a few stools, Los Cocuyos, prides themselves on, and distinguishes themselves with, their varied menu, which includes earlobes, throat, head, tripe, tongue, and eyes.
Eye meat for the taco. Don’t knock it til you tried it.
I tried everything. Even the eye, which it should be noted is NOT the eyeball, but rather the meat that surrounds the eyeball. It was pretty good. Everything was good. But the surprising winner was the tripe, which pops with a charred smoky flavor that you would never associate with stomach. The folks at Los Cocuyos will also toss in some nopales—stewed and diced cactus leaves—which make for a nice side.
These two stands, three doors apart, make up a microscopic section of the savory street options in town. Once, coming out of a bullfight, I ate tortas that I was assured were made from cabeza de lobo—wolf’s head. I had no way to confirm this. I simply took the man’s word for it.
But if you’re feeling like a sweet option, you can get everything from fresh cut fruit to ice cream. My personal favorite, however, is the churro.
Churro stand. A beacon of hope.
I fell in love with these sugary torpedoes while visiting Spain, where people often have them with chocolate dipping sauce for breakfast, proving that Spain is one seriously civilized country. The churro is basically a tube of fried dough, smothered in sugar and cinnamon and often dipped in some kind of sauce. On the streets outside the main plaza of the Coyoacan neighborhood, La Estacion serves these things up with a couple dozen options of sweet sauces to cover them.
My friend Chris and I happened upon this place after we may or may not have been drinking rum in a nearby cantina. I can’t tell you the hour, but I can tell you that a churro sounded like the perfect cap to the evening. Chris ordered his with a sauce made from Bailey’s Irish Cream, and I ordered mine with Nutella.
We got them to go, took our first bites, then turned and walked back to the stand to get seconds.
Perhaps these were the best churros on the planet. They sure tasted that way to me, even the next day when I was far more sober. But whether they are, objectively, the greatest churros ever, isn’t the point. The point is that just by walking and sampling what’s available on the street, you can find some of the best food in Mexico City. In that kind of environment, it’s advisable to never be in a hurry. Wander, graze, try a bit of everything. In the city with the greatest street food on the planet, it’s easy to have a great meal. Even if all you’re doing is going for a walk.
Los Cucuyos is located at Calle Bolivar 54 in the Centro.
El Huequito is a couple doors down at Calle Bolivar 58.