Mexican cuisine is a foodie favorite around the world. In 2022, Mexican News Daily reported that Mexican food was the seventh-best cuisine worldwide, as found in a survey conducted by TasteAtlas.
From tacos to quesadillas, you’ll find a bit of Mexico’s taste in the international foods aisle at the supermarket, or a small taqueria tucked away in your hometown. The most authentic ingredients and best recipes are found streetside in Mexican street food. Whether you’re trying out a local taqueria or traveling to Mexico, here is the ultimate guide to the most popular authentic Mexican street food – from breakfast to dessert.
For a Quick Breakfast
Depending on the neighborhood you’re visiting, you can find these options available before noon.
Licuados are fruit shakes made with chopped fruit and an evaporated milk base. The typical flavors include banana-chocolate, mamey (an orange fruit similar to avocado in texture), strawberry or chocolate. A lighter version of licuado is an agua fresca, which is the fruit blend minus the milk.
Fresh Fruit Cocktails
Bicycle carts often sell fruit cocktails of strawberries, watermelon and papaya covered in granola, honey and whipped cream. For something more savory, you can order shredded cucumber, carrot or jicama seasoned with chili, salt and lime.
Tamales are delicious anytime, but these are one of the most popular breakfast street foods in Mexico City. The tamal is made from corn masa that is formed around a filling and wrapped, usually in the corn husk, and steamed. Some vendors also serve deep-fried tamal. Atole, a breakfast drink, accompanies the tamale and is made from rice milk and a sweet flavoring, such as chocolate or strawberry.
Tortas de Chilaquiles
Chilaquiles are one of the most traditional Mexican breakfasts – deep-fried, triangular tortillas plunged in a red or green sauce with sour cream, fresh onion and cheese. Enhanced versions include egg, chicken or steak.
Coffee and Pastries
There’s nothing easier than a grab-and-go breakfast, and for Mexicans, this includes coffee and pastries. Vendors on bicycles offer pastries in a big round basket and coffee from a large jug. Try the rebanadas, the moños or the conchas.
From Lunch to Dining at Dusk
From noon to dusk, Mexican ingredients expand to include tacos, tortas and camotes – well into the night, depending on the neighborhood.
Tortillas (commonly masa) form the base of the taco, which is filled with a variety of meat from chicken, cow or pig. The meat can be stewed (guisado), barbecued (barbacoa), roasted on a spit (al pastor), cooked on a griddle (a la plancha) or campechano (a range of chopped meats). You’ll also find tacos de mariscos (seafood) and pescado (fish).
Complementary Mexican ingredients include beans, rice, cheese nopales (cactus paddles) and grilled spring onions, along with salsa (especially avocado-based) and limes.
The most common types of tacos you’ll find include the following:
- A la Plancha: These tacos are also known as “carne asada,” filled with chicken or steak that’s grilled or chopped.
- Carnitas: These tacos include pieces of lean, medium-sized pork meat and can also come from other parts of the pig, such as the head. These pieces are cooked in pork fat slowly, and the color of the meat depends on the seasoning that the taquero adds.
- Guisados: A tortilla holds rice or beans and is topped with a guisado, a pre-made Mexican dish. Common dishes include chicken with green pumpkin seed sauce, chicken with mole or chicharrón in green or red sauce. Every vendor has different specialties.
- De Cabeza: Often eaten for lunch or as a snack, the taquero carves meat to order from a steamed cow’s head.
- Barbacoa: The long-braising cooking method for barbacoa (made from sheep meat) goes back to pre-Colombian times. The best vendors travel from the countryside on the weekends to sell their products. The soft barbacoa taco is seasoned with a “pulpy” salsa known as salsa borracha. The deep-fried barbacoa taco is topped with sour cream and cheese.
- Al Pastor: This taco originates from the Lebanese migration prior to the 1960s and is very similar to gyros. The cooking method involves layering pork on a vertical spit, and the dish is often served with onions, cilantro and a little pineapple.
- Campechano: Chorizo and beef are chopped until blended as a spicy, meaty filling.
- Mixiote: Seasoned with spices and chile, lamb meat is wrapped in parchment and either pit roasted or steamed. Toppings include chopped radish, habanero mix and purple onions.
- Canasta: While you may think of the game “canasta,” tacos de canasta are known as basket tacos. You’ll see a taquero on a bicycle with a basket full of them. Tortillas are filled with beans, potato or chicharron, then seasoned with oil and covered in a plastic bag, so the tacos are softened. Since the shelf life is short, the taquero is focused on making a quick sale.
Just as tacos are versatile in Mexican ingredients, the wide range of tortas is boundless. Making tortas involves cutting a bun in half, usually teleras or bolillos, and stuffing them with whatever ingredients are available. One of the most popular tortas is a torta ahogada – filled with chorizo and potato and a hot tomato sauce, topped with cheese, shredded cabbage and sour cream.
While quesadillas seem similar in concept to a taco, they are quite different. A quesadilla is folded in half and filled with a variety of ingredients, often not cheese, despite the name. The quesadilla is made from a longer tortilla than a taco. Usually, the guisados inside a quesadilla include chicken, beef with red sauce, potato with chorizo or cooked mushrooms. Some vendors also sell deep-fried quesadillas.
Gordita de Chicharrón
Masa dough is filled with chicharrón. It’s flattened into a circle and cooked. Once done, it’s opened then salsa, cilantro and onion are added.
A round, crisp tortilla forms the “plate” of this dish, and a tostada can have any kind of topping. Usually, the ingredients include beans and a guisado. It can also be topped with lettuce and salsa or just sour cream and cheese.
Birria is a spicy, meaty stew made with goat meat. You can order tacos filled with the meat with the broth on the side. You can also order it all in a bowl.
A thick tortilla is shaped into an oval resembling a sandal, which “huarache” means. It’s covered in meat, beans, lettuce and cheese.
Similar to huaraches, sopes are just made into a rounder shape.
Flautas are shaped like flutes or little cigars – they are rolled, deep-fried tacos that are filled with beef, chicken or potato and covered with guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and cheese.
One of the oldest Mexican street food traditions is the camote cart. You’ll hear a long, high-pitched whistle before you see it. Camote carts sell sweet potatoes and plantains cooked on a bed of charcoal – this is where the whistle comes from when the vendor releases the steam. The camotes are served with condensed milk and strawberry jam.
Late Night Snacks
After dusk, when the nightlife in the city is bustling, these are a few of the foods you can sample.
Elotes and Esquites
With just a few exceptions, elote and esquites stands are only seen at night. Elotes are ears of skewered corn that are covered with mayonnaise, chili and cheese. Esquites are just kernels of corn, cooked with chicken broth and epazote – then served in a cup with the same elote toppings.
Churros with chocolate are the other go-to late-night snack. Churros are tube-shaped fried masa dough that comes with a sweet filling. The most popular sauces for churro fillings include strawberry, vanilla, chocolate and dulce de leche.
To sample the most authentic and popular Mexican street food, visit Benito’s for appetizers, lunch or dinner today.