By David Simmonds
“You don’t eat at the street stands, do you, genius?” I get this annoying question all the time. I tell them “hell yes, it’s good and it’s cheap.” In many years of traveling Mexico I have been taken ill from bad food a few times, but I can’t think of one time that I could trace the problem back to eating street food. And in recent years I rarely get sick…ever. And it’s not because I have become “used” to it, somehow convincing rogue bacteria that they are powerless attempting to invade my long-battered immune system. Sanitation and proper food preparation have improved immensely in Mexico, and if you use a little common sense and chant a daily prayer to the porcelain god you can fine-dine at the street stands, just like the locals do. I like the street stands in part because you can see the person cooking your food and what they are cooking. It has to be fresh and look safe for consumption. Having been a waiter and bartender just after college graduation I know what goes on in a closed kitchen, and…never mind.
The first thing you should look for when choosing your street food is to discover who is doing all of the business. If a street stand operator is dishing tainted food he’ll be out of business in a week, so go where the locals go. They know who has safe food and just as importantly, who has really good food. You can fill up on three sizzling meat-filled tacos (try to find the stand that is cooking with mesquite wood for the best flavor) for about $3.00. There is usually a small tienda nearby to grab a soda, beer or bottle of water. Generally, you’ll order what you want and they’ll hand over your plate in a minute or so. Load up the tacos with the bowls of salsa, guacamole, onions, cilantro, and whatever else is offered. Find a place on the street or lean against the counter to enjoy your meal, or some stands offer a couple of portable tables and chairs. Then, get this, you pay the person at the cash register AFTER you have finished eating. Try that at Bubba’s Burger Shack takeout back home.
Most stands specialize in one or two signature dishes, usually serving variations of beef, chicken, and near the coast, fish. Some stands serve just fresh fruit or elote – roasted corn on the cob slathered in a mayo-type sauce with lime and cayenne pepper. Another stand might just serve carnitas, sold in bulk with salsa, cilantro and fresh tortillas, and down the street it might be churros, the long, deep-fried donut-like waist exploders. The list is endless, as are the flavors.
But my personal favorite, the one dish I would order on the way to the gas chamber, is birria, or goat stew. Most commonly found in the state of Jalisco, it is served in a bowl with a side dish of cilantro, onions, chiles and tortillas. I usually have to be dining solo when I’m searching for birria – apparently goat meat doesn’t agree with everyone, even after I explain that we aren’t actually eating someone’s pet. Oh well, birria and a beer is as good as it gets for me.
So on your next Mexico trip take a walk on the wild side (apologies to Lou Reed).You can find open stands all day, but many don’t open until the evening, staying in business late into the night. A couple of street tacos right after a night of cantina-hopping will lessen the hangover symptoms immensely the next morning…or so I have been told.
Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.