Eating street food in Mexico . . . does the idea conjure up the very essence of adventurous traveling, or does it send you rushing for the Pepto-Bismol?
If you're like many Americans, the thought is about as appealing as visiting a country undergoing a military takeover. After all, doesn't everybody know that you shouldn't even drink the water in Mexico?
And ordering in a restaurant, even if you're fluent in Spanish, can be adventure enough without trying to deal with street vendors.
And just what are all these strange things they're selling--chunks of glossy brown stuff that look more like wood than food . . . lime-green pellets in paper cones . . . crinkly sheets that could be deep-fried loofah . . . jewel-colored liquids swirling around blocks of ice in big glass jugs?
But it is entirely possible to eat safely--and more interestingly than you would ever imagine--on the streets in Mexico, and for a fraction of what you'd pay in a restaurant. It takes only a little common sense to enjoy alfresco dining on the run . . . without getting the runs.
In most Mexican cities, the streets are like a 24-hour diner--with a menu that goes far beyond BLTs and chocolate malts. Even breakfast is provided. I've seen businessmen clustered around metal shopping carts in Mexico City eating cereal, milk and sliced bananas out of plastic cups.
I'd sort of dabbled in street food here before, drinking orange juice from a market stand, buying a cup of pulque (the fermented sap of the maguey plant) from a street seller, but had never tried to put together a real meal. (My companions on that trip, by the way, were horrified at my rashness. They all got sick. I didn't.)
So on my most recent trip, when I entered the stately colonial city of Morelia in Michoacan late one night and saw a taco maker still working at his stand by the light of a tiny lamp, I figured this was the perfect place to do it.
Street food in Morelia can be as simple as a homemade tamale sold out of a cloth-covered basket by a little old lady, or as elaborate as a full meal from what is virtually a movable restaurant, complete with tables seating up to a dozen.
I'd already made up my mind that I'd choose the menu for my curbside meal by using plain common sense. If the stand and the vendor looked clean (as they almost all did--astonishingly clean) and the food was appealing, I'd try it. If the food smelled bad or seemed of questionable freshness, like tacos that could have been fried hours before or ceviche left to sit in the sun--I wouldn't.
By midmorning, all the vendors around the main square, the cathedral and the artisans' market seemed to have been at work for hours, scrubbing out their carts, chopping and arranging their wares.
A beautiful array of peeled fruits on ice at a small stand near the cathedral looked like a perfect beginning. " Un surtido ," I announced, hoping that I had asked for an assortment. (As my Spanish is quite limited, I had written down some words and phrases to help me indicate what I wanted.)
Quickly the vendor pulled out big chunks of papaya, cucumber, pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelon and jicama, chopping each roughly into bite-size pieces. He tossed them into a paper cup, deftly extending its height with more paper until it held the whole formidable amount.
I took a deep breath and added, " Con todo with everything." He sprinkled on chili powder and salt and then squeezed a whole freshly cut lime over the mound, adding a pointed wooden stick for spearing. It cost just over $1, and I found that the lime juice and chili powder set off the luscious ripeness of the fruit surprisingly well.
Next, I decided on a quesadilla at a bustling mini-restaurant I'd seen earlier near the artisan's market.
This was no steam-table-on-wheels operation. The small food stand was complete with tables (rickety) and chairs (ditto). While half a dozen patrons sat joking, eating and watching, the proprietress grabbed a handful of raw tortilla dough for each quesadilla, rolled it between her hands, flattened it in an ancient-looking wooden press, sprinkled it with one of several fillings and swiftly browned the folded result on a comal (griddle) at least a yard across, chatting non-stop.
Mine, filled with the excellent Oaxaca cheese, cost about 35 cents and was superb; two or three would have made an excellent lunch by all themselves.
After many repetitions of "Muchas gracias" (one diner had jumped up and insisted I take his seat to eat my quesadilla) and "Adios," I headed across the square and almost at once saw a seller of elote (corn), carefully slicing off the steaming kernels and piling them into plastic cups. The cups were then topped with grated cheese.
I asked for some lime juice ( "con limon" ) and the vendor added a generous sprinkle of salt. (Cream was also offered, and the ubiquitous chili sauce, but I decided to keep it simple.) The result cost about 80 cents, and I marveled--eating it with a plastic spoon as I strolled along--that I didn't miss the butter at all.
I washed it down with a strawberry-flavored agua fresca , a wonderful drink made by adding fresh fruit juice and sugar to water. A calculated risk, perhaps, but at 50 cents, a bargain. And either they used purified water or my body had by that time accustomed itself to the local bacteria.
Next I tried a taco of charcoal-grilled pork from a tiny wagon on the other side of the square. The vendor pulled the pork off the grill, chopped it quickly, piled it into taco shells and handed them to the customers, who added whatever they wished from neat dishes of chopped onion, salsa, fresh coriander and sliced radishes. As with most pork dishes in Mexico, it was remarkably tender and full of flavor (and only about 40 cents).
Next on my impromptu menu--coconut. You can buy a whole one, but I asked for a slice (un pedazo) of the fruit, peeled, which cost about 10 cents. A thin coating of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime juice set off the coconut's bland sweetness surprisingly well.
While strolling, I had passed several tiny folding tables displaying glossy brown chunks of what looked like teak. Curiosity was getting to me. "Que es?" I began, when the grinning merchant answered, "Mezcal."
Aha! I'd heard there was a candy made from the same stuff, the heart of the maguey plant, that is used to make a tequila-like liquor also named mezcal.
"Un pedacito, por favor? " I said, asking for a taste. It was sweet and fibrous, rather like chewing on a piece of rope soaked in syrup. Perhaps I'd stick with the liquid variety.
Finally, I went for the little green nut-like things everybody seemed to be eating. I learned they were fresh garbanzo beans (who'd have thought?).
I bought a bag (60 cents), watched the seller sprinkle them with salt and chili powder and wandered off down the street trying to get the hang of sucking off the spices and working the bean out of its husk with my tongue. I could see how they might become addictive.
By then I'd eaten all I could manage, yet I had barely scratched the surface of what the city's streets had to offer. I could have munched on pomegranate seeds and sugar cane, crunched on chicharrones (pigskins), sampled the crumbly cookies known as polvorones , eaten a hotcake with any of various fruit toppings or nibbled on the ridged, fried piece of dough called a churro .
I could have had ice cream ( helado ) or the similar nieve , made from flavored water. And that's without even wandering into Morelia's famous Mercado de Dulces, candy market.
Would I eat food on the street in Mexico again? Any time I had the chance. Did the experience give me any digestive difficulties? Not a one. But just ask if I'd eat that hot dog at the Houston airport on the way back home next time.