This is a pambazo. You can’t really tell from the photo, but imagine a sandwich piled with grilled chorizo (Mexican sausage), potatoes, cheese, onions, lettuce, sour cream, and your choice or red of green salsa – all topped on warm sandwich bread. Sounds delicious? It is. I had never heard of pambazos before two weeks ago. I was hungry, though, and in a bit of a hurry, so I bought one from a neighborhood street vendor, as it took just moments to prepare…and upon taking my first bite I immediately ordered a second.
After experiencing that tasty goodness, I decided to finally crank out this post. I love Mexican food (who doesn’t?!), and have been intending to blog about comida Mexicana for months, but the cuisine is so varied, that as a subject to be written about, I barely knew where to begin. I have decided to save my observations about the customs related to food (restaurant hours, tipping practices, etc.) for a separate post, and for now will concentrate solely on the different types of food – a few of the many varieties from a few of the many categories. Here goes!
You won’t find anything in Mexico that resembles Taco Bell tacos, but of course tacos exist here, of course, and are leagues better than anything north of the border. The term “taco” is used loosely, as tacos can be served on the typical flour tortilla (usually two small tortillas as opposed to one large tortilla, actually), inside a banana leaf (cochinita pibil), or as a guisado. Guisados (stews) are great. With a guisado, there is no traditional taco shell but, rather, the meat, chicken, fish, or veggies are served over a thick “caldo,” or stew base, hence the name. A taco de guisado usually includes beans and rice, plus a basket of tortillas on the side – not so different from the U.S. after all! A hungry person can easily take down three platefuls.
I would be remiss if I didn’t describe my two favorite varieties of tacos. Tacos al pastor (see photo, above) are made with thin slices of marinated pork, onions, and cilantro. If you’re lucky, they’ll throw a slice of pineapple on top for a great sweet-salty flavor. Have you ever been to Mexico and noticed what looks like a gyros spit? That holds the marinated pork in question. Tacos campechanos are a mix of grilled chorizo and beef, onions and cilantro. Some places grill the onions, which really brings out the flavor. The best tacos campechanos that I’ve tasted were served at a very busy street taquería in which the cook added papas a la francesa (French fries) to the tacos! Not frozen McDonald’s fries either – fried potatoes, sliced, diced, and transferred to the taco directly from the cooking oil!
Somewhat surprisingly, corn shell “hard” tacos are not very common. For that matter, neither are burritos, except as breakfast items, when they are often stuffed with ham, beans, and tomatoes.
Tamales typically are cylindrical, rice-based treats in which the base is mashed, mixed with chicken (usually), topped with red or green sauce, and wrapped inside a corn casing. They are usually small, and as such are often more common as a light breakfast or late night snack than as a main meal. Square-shaped tamales oaxaqueños one-up the standard corn tamal by wrapping the goods inside a banana leaf rather than a corn husk. Sublime. In either case, you don’t eat the wrapping. A few weeks ago I noticed street food vendors selling mega-Oaxaca tamales; they would unwrap the banana leaf, then dump the square-shaped tamal onto a bolillo (large roll, similar to French bread). I would guess this to be substantially more filling, though I have yet to try it firsthand.
A common fixture here in Mexico City is the tamale bicycle vendor. Usually a young male, he pedals from neighborhood to neighborhood with a large basket on the front of his bike. Inside are tamales oaxaqueños, reasonably priced, warm and fresh. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does more business late at night than during waking hours. Many times I’m awake at midnight and I hear his familiar, pre-recorded announcement: “Ricos…tamales…oaxaqueños…calientitos.” Just about the best use of 14 pesos imaginable.
By the way, “tamales” is the food item in plural. “Tamal“ is the singular. I mention this because I kept saying it wrong, for months.
Ever hunger for a quick bite? Ever walk down the street and you get a craving for a salty snack, yet not a full meal? If so, you’ll love Mexico.
Popcorn, Japanese-style peanuts, mango-on-a-stick, and jicama-on-a-stick are omnipresent savory goodies. Not only are they are cheap, but you’ll seldom have to wander far to find them – the entrance to any metro station will do, as will the periphery of any city park. I prefer these items with just salt, but most Mexicans douse them in hot sauce, chili powder, or both.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll know I’m not shy when it comes to declaring my love for chapulines. Fried grasshoppers by any other name, they are the perfect high-fiber snack…legs and all!
Mexican cuisine is varied and complex, with different ingredients, cooking styles, and spiciness levels depending if you’re visiting Northern Mexico, Oaxaca,Baja California, Puebla, or the Maya Riviera. The capital has a bit of everything. Mole hails from two of the aforementioned regions, and is one of my favorite dishes.
Mole is a flavorful sauce that is served over pollo (chicken) or pavo (turkey). Chili peppers are always part of the recipe, as are sesame seeds. If you like it spicy you might enjoy mole verde – green in color and appropriately spicy. Mole verde is great, but for my money, mole poblano and mole oaxaca are better. Have you ever had chicken topped with spicy chocolate sauce? A real taste sensation! Mole poblano (from Puebla) is light brown in color, while mole oaxaca (see photo, below) is usually black in color. I think I prefer the latter.
Now we’re talking! Street food is available seemingly everywhere down here. Metro station entrances/exits, bus depots, city parks, office building courtyards…everywhere. My friends back home cringe whenever I rave about how good this stuff is, and the requisite “Montezuma’s Revenge” joke usually follows. I used to correct them that his name was Moctezuma, with a “C” instead of an “N,” but I don’t bother anymore.
The key is to seek out street food stands that are crowded. These places tend to have the best food, and the highest standards of sanitation. I personally migrate to stands that are set back from the road, or that have a thick curtain to block the foodstuffs from getting contaminated by gas fumes, dirt, and the usual vehicular leave-behinds.
A few favorites: the aforementioned tacos al pastor and tacos campechanos, flautas (Spanish for “flutes” – literally flute-shaped, fried tortillas stuffed with meat or chicken), and sopes (thick round flour tortillas topped with beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes). A sweet favorite is the oblea, often sold by vendors at busy intersections. Obleas are paper-thin wafers made with wheat flour, artificial colors, caramelized goat’s milk, and pumpkin seeds.
Of course, with street food – as with all other categories of Mexican food – that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Mexico recently trumped the U.S. in the category of “Most Obese Country,” and with all the street food, fatty tortillas, and carb-filled rice guarniciones, it is no surprise. In the beverage category, however, Mexico is at least moderately healthier than Gringolandia to the north. And here’s why.
Mexico is one of the biggest per capita consumers of fruits and vegetables on the planet. Bananas grow well in the tropics, oranges in Baja California, and limes and avocadoes in the central midlands. It is more common to have agua de fruta (fruit water) with your meal than it is Coke, Pepsi, etc. Fruit water is both healthy and delicious. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower) is common at fixed-price restaurants, and sometimes this will be substituted by agua de melon (cantaloupe water), agua de tamarindo, agua de limón, etc.
A common, refreshing drink served by vendors pushing mobile carts is Squirt – spiked with salt, chili powder, and lime. I don’t know what it’s called (I usually just ask for “un eSquirt, porfa”), but the alcoholic version is called a paloma, and includes tequila. Delicious in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties.
Mexicans have a notorious sweet tooth, and if desserts here are not as elaborate as those in, say, France, they are every bit as delicious.
I will limit this to just two simple, timeless classics: flan and arroz con leche. Flan is custard pie. Milk, cream, sugar, an egg, and that’s it. Upscale Mexican restaurants in the U.S. often serve flan garnished with fruit or glazed on top (like crème brûlée), but in my opinion it’s best south of the border, served in pudding-sized cups with a plastic spoon and no other adornments, for just 10 pesos. Sublime. Arroz con leche is better known in the U.S. as rice pudding. There, you might find it served warm, topped with cinnamon and vanilla ice cream. Here, as with flan, it’s usually served cold, without additional toppings, and is delectable. Serve it to me with a cup of Oaxaca chocolate, and I’m a happy gringo.
Okay, I admit: from time to time, I get a craving for the food I grew up with: grandma’s pork chops, mom’s deviled eggs, or even Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. But I never fret, because down Mexico Way there is just so, so much more to savor. ¡Yo tengo hambre!