Mexican food is bursting with flavour, rich in tradition and hugely diverse. Since the Mayans started cultivating corn, Mexican cuisine has evolved to become one of the richest in the world; so rich that UNESCO named it as an intangible cultural heritage of mankind. Choosing 10 must-try foods is not an easy job! Street and market food dominates the scene in the capital, being a city that lives on its streets, with an impact also on upscale restaurants that tend to maintain street food, at least as a base. My suggestion: taste as much as you can!
Tacos al pastor
Predating the arrival of Spanish, el taco is still the king of Mexico’s street food! However don’t miss out on tacos “al pastor” (shepherd style), one of the capital’s signature dishes, despite its origins being anything but Mexican. This historical dish, based on shawarma spit-grilled meat, was brought to Central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the early 20th century. Different from shawarma, tacos al pastor are made with pork, not lamb, and they are served on a corn tortilla. On top of that, the traditional way here is to season it with onion, coriander and a slice of pineapple. Salon Corona, El Huequito, El Califa and El Rey del Suadero are very good “taquerias” (restaurants or stalls that sell tacos). For partygoers, Los Chupacabras and Los Orinico are open until late hours.
Cochinita pibil is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Peninsula, where dishes are sweeter and less spicy. Preparation of traditional cochinita involves marinating the meat in acidic citrus juice, seasoning it with seeds of iconic Yucatán spice, “achiote” (annatto), which imparts a vivid burnt orange colour, and cooking the meat while it’s wrapped in banana leaf. All this contributes to the dish’s uniquely sweet and earthy aroma. Cochinita is usually eaten on a corn tortilla, with “frijoles” (beans), vinegar-marinated onions and some chilli Habanero sauce, for the bravest ones! Head to El Turix or El Cardenal to enjoy some of the best cochinita in the capital.
Chile en nogada
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Honouring the colours of the Mexican flag, chile en nogada is one of Mexico’s most patriotic dishes. Puebla’s chillies are filled with “picadillo” (a mixture of meat, fruits and spices) that represents the green on the flag, the walnut-based cream sauce is the white and pomegranate seeds the red. It is not a coincidence that chile en nogada´s season is in September, the month of Mexico’s Independence. From the end of August to the whole month of September, you can find chile en nogada everywhere, though only a few restaurants serve it all year around. To try it, I recommend Hostería de Santo Domingo, located in the centre. You will not be disappointed!
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“Barbacoa” is a pre-Hispanic form of cooking meat, from which the term barbecue derives. Nowadays it refers to slow-cooked meats over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground covered with maguey leaves. This meat is known for its high fat content, tenderness and delicious strong flavour, and is often accompanied with “consomé” (the meat’s broth), onions and cilantro. It is a typical dish on weekends’ “tianguis” (pop-up markets) for breakfast or brunch. The Sullivan Tianguis and the Barbacoa Edison “fonda” (homey restaurant), offer amazing barbacoa.
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A tamal is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of a corn-based dough and filled up with meat, vegetables and sauces, steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. It could be either savoury or sweet so there is a tamal for every palate! A very nourishing meal, it’s typically consumed for breakfast. Usually sold on the street, you will probably hear somewhere a man on a bike selling “tamales Oxacaqueños” (from Oaxaca), one of the many kinds of tamales. With her experience of over 55 years, I would go for Doña Emi’s tamales in La Roma neighbourhood. Head there early if you want to find any left!
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A very rich and traditional “platillo” (dish) is mole, a sauce with a base of chillies and spices that can have 30-plus ingredients, used usually to accompany meat dishes. There are numerous variations to this recipe depending on the region however the most famous are those from Oaxaca and Puebla (“Poblano”). A pre-Hispanic dish that has evolved through history, it is on every Mexicans´ table during any kind of celebrations. Experts count more than 50 types – it could be green, white, red, or black mole, just to mention a few – so try as many as you can to find your favourite! La Poblanita and Azul Histórico are amazing restaurants to try this great dish.
Associated with any large family gathering, pozole is another historical Mexican dish. Although nowadays there are different variations of this hearty soup, it traditionally contains the base ingredients of pork, garlic and large hominy kernels. It is typically served with numerous garnishes including salsas, onions, avocado, radishes, lettuce and cabbage, and it is usually eaten with tostadas (toasted tortillas), cream and chicharrón (pork scratchings). My recommendation is to try it in one of the branches of Casa de Toño and you will live a truly Mexican experience.
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Mexicans are famous for eating their “pan dulces”, literally translated as "sweet breads," at any time of the day. There is a huge variety to choose from, however, the quintessential Mexican pan dulce is la concha, shaped for its namesake, a seashell. La concha is composed of a sweet, enriched bread roll, and a crumbly cookie dough that acts as its topping, usually flavoured either with vanilla or chocolate. Try it freshly baked from the 90-years old Pasteleria Ideal or at one of the branches of El Cardenal, along with a hot drink.
Despite not being originally from Mexico, churros are definitely associated with the country and Mexicans love them! Typically eaten dipped in hot chocolate or coffee, churros are fried-dough pastries, usually sprinkled with sugar. The city hosts plenty of “churrerias” (shops that sell churros) however one of the most popular among “Chilangos” (as those who live in the capital are called) is Il Moro. Its most historical branch opened in the centre in 1935, the first churreria in Mexico City, after having launched as a stall in the Zocalo (the main square).
Elotes and esquites
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Once worshipped by the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico, corn is still the base of the country’s cuisine and nowadays a common street food. Elote is a corn on the cob, usually grilled or boiled, while esquites are kernels, cooked in chicken broth and epazote (a Mexican herb) and served in a cup. They are both topped with mayo, cheese and chilli powder. Elotes and esquites stands are out only at night (with a few exceptions) though you can easily find some in any locations, just ask around or look out for a queue!
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