One of the best parts of travel in Mexico is the food. It’s cheap, fresh and very diverse from region to region. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always spicy and it bears little resemblance to the “Mexican Food” found in most restaurants outside of Mexico.
Contrary to the guidebook recommendations, I suggest you eat from street vendors every chance you get. If you watch them cook your food you know it’s hot and fresh, two things not guaranteed if your food is prepared in a hidden kitchen. We’ve traveled for months in Mexico and never gotten sick from a street vendor, but have had family members hospitalized from “safe” resort food in Central America.
A few precautions, any time you’re eating outside of the first world:
- Drink only bottled water
- Use only purified water ice in your drinks
- If you can’t bleach, boil or peel it, don’t eat it
- Cook everything thoroughly.
When eating out or from street vendors this means avoid lettuce or tomato, things that might have been washed in local water and not cooked after. Don’t drink the horchata or fruit aguas that are offered in a glass, they’re made with local water. If it’s thoroughly cooked, odds are you’ll be fine.
Now on to the fun part! Mexico’s famous foods!
The iconic food of Oaxaca (wah-haw-kah) mole (moh-lay) defies description. It comes in a rainbow of colors and flavors, from red and yellow to deep black and is a richly layered taste sensation. The recipes are often family secrets and sometimes contain more than 100 ingredients. The black mole is famous for including chocolate with garlic two key ingredients. The sauce is served over meat, or stuffed tortillas, and rice. It is always mopped up with a pile of freshly made flour tortillas, don’t leave a drop on your plate!
You can visit swank restaurants and pay big bucks for a five star version of mole anywhere in the city of Oaxaca, but if you want the most authentic version, wander into the mercado, sit down on a wooden bench and order a plate of each color and eat elbow to elbow with the day laborers in for their lunch break. It won’t cost more than a couple of bucks and the mopping tortillas can be bought, hot out of a basket, from the little ladies wandering between food stalls.
If you wander a bit deeper into the mercado you’ll find stalls selling blocks of the mole paste, you can buy these and take them home, reconstitute them with chicken stock or water and make a passable version for your next dinner party.
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Since we’re in Oaxaca, why not chase that mole with a snack you’ll never forget? Chapulines are fried grasshoppers dusted with chile and lime and they are a delicacy! It is widely said that after you try these, you’ll keep coming back to Oaxaca because your heart will belong to that place. Are they that good?
In a word: No.
But they are a culturally broadening experience and they’re passably okay if you can get past the legs. Speaking of legs: you can buy just the legs by the paper sack full if you’re so inclined.
You won’t have to look far to find Chapulines. Vendors line every street around the mercado and the zocalo. They might even let you taste one for free if you’re reticent to invest a whole five pesos in a bag of your own. Come on; don’t be a baby, try one!
Before you roll your eyes and blow me off for being to cliche, hear me out:
Tacos are the national food of Mexico. Don’t believe me? Ask any random person on the street to name a Mexican food and see how many say “tacos!”
Real Mexican tacos bear little resemblance to the garbage served in American “Mexican” restaurants. They are a diverse food group unto themselves in a rainbow of coloured corn wrappers (blue corn being the author’s favourite) and with an array of optional fillings and toppings.
Stop at a road side stand or a street vendor if you want the most authentic possible experience. Be sure to try several varieties: al pastor, chorizo, lingua, chicharrones, adobo, carnitos, to name a few. Add salsas: tomatillo, green or red. Then pile on the onion and cilantro. Did you know that cilantro helps kill gut bugs? Yep, put on some extra cilantro! If there’s mango or chopped pineapple, pile that on too. You don’t want to miss a thing.
Tacos are often sold in sets of three, so order a few plates for your group and pass them around! They’ll be the cheapest food on the street, and likely the best too.
There is no other shrimp cocktail that holds a candle to the traditional Veracruz style camarones. I stake my reputation on this. However, eating one off the street is a bit like playing Russian roulette with your intestinal tract. Street seafood is sketchy business in a tropical climate. Still, I risk it every time and usually come away unscathed. Consider that fair warning.
What makes Veracruz style shrimp cocktail special: onion, tomato, chopped cilantro in a tomato sauce with a dash of hot sauce and a liberal squeeze of lime. Swoon. I would visit the sea side city just for this; the danzon, the colonial architecture, the aquarium and the gorgeous port walk are just icing on the cake.
You’ll probably buy this from a street vendor and eat it out of a paper cup walking along the waterfront, but you can order it at almost every sit down restaurant as well. Savor every bite, because this flavor will be “Veracruz” to you forever.
Wondering what you’re ordering as you stare at that Spanish menu? Review the basics of Mexican food terminology!