Mexico's history can be read many ways but, to us, it’s most legible in food.
The capital, Mexico City, is the country's largest and arguably the most diverse city in everything from the people to the culture to the food.
But it’s the city’s culinary diversity -- on par with our hometown of Los Angeles -- that excites us. We're talking diversity in types of cuisine, in the regionality of the Mexican food you find, and in the style of food, which can have everything from street food vendors to world-class fine dining on the same block.
We love traveling around Mexico in the name of eating good food, but Mexico City has a unique quality. Eating your way through the city gives you a cross-section of Mexican food because you can find food from pretty much every corner of the country. In fact, Mexico City’s street food scene is so celebrated that it is even recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Iconic Foods To Eat When You Travel To Mexico City
When we arrange travel planning services for our concierge clients who are traveling to Mexico City, the most common question we get asked is what are the most popular foods in Mexico. We don't like to play favorites but you can go wrong starting with the classics.
So here is a traditional Mexican food list that covers our favorite classic foods to eat when you travel to Mexico City:
As we've said before Mexican breakfast foods top our Mexico food list so we're all about having that first meal of the day.
To breakfast like a local, start your day with a pastry and coffee. The most common breakfast pastries are sweet pastries known as pan dulces. There are various types and shapes and they have some pretty cute names like conchas (shells), bigotes (mustaches), orejas (ears), and besos (kisses). If you're in downtown Mexico City, head to Pastelería Ideal for floors and floors of Mexican pastries.
Tamal Y Atole
For a super classic breakfast, get a tamal and some atole as it's believed that atole -- a masa-based drink -- dates back to Prehispanic times. When you walk around Mexico City in the morning (especially in the markets) you'll see many vendors selling tamales and atole. Just heads up that it's a big dose of carbs so you may get full before you can finish it!
If you like salsa and tortilla chips, then you've probably had chilaquiles -- a classic Mexican breakfast dish of totopos (tortilla chips) tossed with salsa. Across Mexico, you'll see all sorts of chilaquiles on restaurant menus, but unique to Mexico City is the torta de chilaquil. As in a French roll stuffed with chilaquiles (pictured above) and topped with all the fixings and, yes, it's as awesome as it sounds!
Even if you're not a snacker in your normal day-to-day, make an exception when you travel to Mexico City because there are delicious sweet and savory snacks you'll come across.
Yes, churros are originally from Spain but you can find the sweet cylindrical pastry throughout Mexico. The fried sweet dough is tossed in sugar or cinnamon sugar and then served with sauces that can range from chocolate to dulce de leche. The best churros are fried to order so steer clear of spots that serve room temperature churros!
Elotes and Esquites
If you live in an area with great Mexican food or you've seen Nacho Libre, then you're likely familiar with the garnished corncobs known as elotes. Well, esquites as their off-the-cob sibling. Kernels are removed and boiled or roasted with epazote (a local herb), then served with your choice of salt, lime, mayonnaise, chile powder, or con todo (the works). Our advice: always get it con todo!
Insects play a role in Mexican cooking that goes back to Prehispanic times. While it’s most common in more traditional dishes and as a street snack, you’ll also see modern restaurants add a variety of insects to dishes as a garnish. Our favorite types are escamoles, chicatanas, and chapulines.
Escamoles are ant larvae, also harvested from maguey plants, which have been a delicacy in Mexico City since the age of the Aztecs. Chicatanas are a rather large flying ant that is harvest in the southern part of the country immediately following rains. They’re often ground up into a dust and use to rim cocktail glasses or served whole in some dishes. Chapulines are grasshoppers that are usually toasted and salted and can be found in everything from nut mixes sold on the streets to quesadillas in mezcalerias.
Mexico City’s variation on the traditional torta (sandwich) is the pambazo – and the bread is what makes all the difference. Pre-soaked in a medium spicy guajillo chili sauce before being dried adds a fiery kick to every mouthful. However, the filling is just as impressive – chorizo, potatoes, crema, and queso fresco combine to make a seriously filling sandwich.
Actually a spinoff of tlacoyos (see below), huaraches originated in Mexico City almost 100 years ago thanks to Señora Gomez Media. She was making tlacoyos but then ended up personalizing it to make it a longer, more oblong shape which people nicknamed huarache (or sandal because it’s said to resemble a shoe). The biggest change beyond the shape was that the huarache is made with refried pinto beans being stuffed in the middle.
We know, you're thinking, I know what a quesadilla is -- I've had 1,000 at the Mexican restaurant in my hometown. Well, when you order a quesadilla anywhere else in Mexico, it will be the kind you've had countless times stateside. However, in Mexico City what they call a quesadilla is any taco that gets cooked on the flat top griddle and many don't even have cheese! So be sure to specify that you want the queso in your quesadilla; otherwise, you’ll likely end up cheese-free and disappointed.
Tacos Al Pastor
Al pastor translates to “like the shepherd,” in reference to the Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Mexico in the early 20th century. They brought shawarma with them and it evolved into tacos árabes (a dish in Puebla where spit-roasted, seasoned lamb is served on a pita) and even further into al pastor. These tacos are made by marinating meat (historically lamb but often pork now) with Mexican-meets-Middle Eastern flavors like charred onions, garlic, achiote paste, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. After the pork butt is marinated overnight, it's layered onto a trompo (vertical spit) and cooked for hours until the meat is tender, flame-licked, and caramelized.
How to know where to go for the best al pastor? First of all, a legit al pastor joint only does al pastor and does it excellently. Also, most locals say that the larger the trompo the better the spot (the rationale being the amount of meat they cook is an indicator of demand at a given taco stand). Oh and know that al pastor is major a nighttime taco since the trompo turns and cooks for hours before it's ready (also because it’s a phenomenal cap to a night out on the town)!
Tacos De Canasta
An ingenious batch-cooking idea that seems to have originated in Mexico City, tacos de canasta literally means “basket tacos.” Literally translated tacos de canasta are “basket tacos", meaning these Mexican tacos are arranged and piled into a basket for taqueros to sell on the go. The basket is covered with cloth and plastic so the tacos keep warm and moist. These tacos come with a variety of fillings including beans, potato, and chicharron (pork skin).
One of our all-time favorite street foods in all of Mexico City is tlacoyos. These almond-shaped discs of blue corn masa stuffed and then cooked on a comal, a large, open-air griddle. Said to have been created by the original Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of Toluca, a town that lies about 40 miles west of Mexico City, the snack has barely changed since Aztec times — and it’s not hard to understand why.
Filled to order with your choice of chicharron (braised pork belly), requesón (a fresh Mexican cheese like ricotta), or haba (mashed fava beans), the hot, crispy cakes are then topped with either nopales (grilled strips of cactus paddles) or quelites (cooked wild spinach), topped with grated cheese, and drizzled with either hot red or mild green salsa.
First of all, any spirit distilled from the agave plant is considered a mezcal. In other words, the term mezcal is the mother term under which other spirits like tequila, bacanora, and raicilla reside. Because the agave plants are cooked underground to create mescal, the spirit has a smoky flavor. The spirit can be made from a variety of agave plants – some cultivated and some wild – but its sudden popularity has created a sustainability issue as many people have pulled up wild plants. We suggest trying a few wild varieties once to know what they’re like but to order the cultivated strains – espadín being the most common – to help keep the spirit sustainable!
Before mezcal or tequila, there was pulque - the first fermented agave beverage. Murals that date as far back as 200 AD in Cholula, Mexico show villagers drinking pulque. Made from the sap of the heart of the agave, this is not distilled (like mezcal or tequila), but fermented so it’s low in alcohol and frothy almost like kombucha or beer. Pulque has enjoyed a comeback in recent years, as local hipsters have turned to it as an alternative to beer.
How about you? What are your favorite foods to eat when you visit Mexico City? Let us know in the comments below!
Connect With Salt & Wind Travel
- Explore The Salt & Wind Travel Services
- Join Our Virtual Cooking Club
- Shop Our Store For Cooking And Travel Inspo
- Have Us Craft You A Custom Travel Itinerary
- Get Our Digital Travel Guides For Food Lovers
- Sign Up For Our Newsletter
More Mexico City On Salt & Wind