Standing, crouching, perching amongst other hungry souls, gazes centred on a blistering hot plate, sizzling with all manner of goodness.
Weighing up a selection of vibrant salsas, at least one of which will sure enough make eye balls start to sweat, Mexico City must be the most exhilarating environment on earth to find something to that’ll hit your spot.
A culinary culture influenced by all four corners of the globe has incubated some of the most unabashedly gratifying mouthfuls you’re ever likely to be lucky enough to chew on, primarily centred around chilli, lime and that Central American staple, corn. And what better place to start, because as they say in these parts “sin maiz, no hay pais!”
The slightly sweet, nutritious hum of toasting corn seems to fill the air on most street corners of Mexico, but nowhere moreso than on the commotion-choked calles of its capital.
Tacos, tamales, gorditas, tostadas, the scale of this new glossary of gluttony can be a little overwhelming at first, but then coming from a country which has about 20 different names for a bread roll, who are we to call foul? At least each of these antojitos is actually different.
To get a head start we got some tips and a guided tour from Sofia Miranda, expert baker, passionate advocate for Mexican cookery and something like the London taxi driver of Mexico City’s markets.
A stroll through one of the oldest, Mercado Merced, is a great way to find your bearings, as well as your breakfast.
Tamales (steamed pockets of corn dough packed with tasty fillings) are probably the most popular start to the day, though here you can find them with a little twist than I’m perennially in favour of – they come deep fried – adding the sort of caramelised, crisp crust you might find on a baked cornbread but that bit more indulgent.
For the proper experience wash down with a few gulps of atole, a sweetened corn drink that comes in a variety of different flavours, such as cinnamon, chocolate or vanilla.
Whilst we’re talking refreshments, sampling agua frescas is unavoidable. There’s nothing as effective as ice cold jamaica (pronouced ha-my-ca), a fragrant deep red hibiscus drink, to rehydrate during a hot day pounding the streets.
Also give the fruit juices a try, the rainbow-coloured array of pineapple, mango, guava and plenty besides is mouthwatering – and it all just tastes so much better than what we can get back home.
Another must-sample is huitlacoche, you’ll find the bluish-grey, almost bud like bulbs of fermented corn kernels for sale on stands throughout the markets. It’s essentially a fungus-infected version of the cob, which is prized and infact purposefully cultivated, the best way to enjoy its mushroom-like fragrance is in a quesadilla.
Rather paradoxically however, despite including ‘quesa’ in the name, Mexico City’s version of the snack doesn’t include cheese unless you ask, so be sure to if you want some of that stringy cheese-pull action for you Instagram.
Also be sure to taste test some chocolately Mole Poblano sauce, you can choose your favourite from an assortment of complex flavours and take some away to cook up a traditional Mexican feast when you get home.
Out on the streets, if you’re looking for roads to roam with plenty of pitstops, the Roma district has everything required. Of course it’s always said to only eat at the busiest stands, the only problem you might find here is they’re pretty much all heaving.
Testament to the quality as well as the scale of the service carried out every day, there are a hell of a lot of mouths fed each 24 hours.
Also in that neighborhood, the Mercado Roma may be a sign of increasing gentrification, but if you want to eat some fantastic food and wash it down with artisanal mezcal it should get your vote – it certainly got mine.
When it comes to tacos – and it had to really – you might notice something somewhat familiar. The 1930s saw a sizeable immigration of Lebanese to these shores and the biggest imprint, food-wise at least, is the slowly spinning spits of shawarma which dominate roadsides up and down the country – tacos al pastor.
Pork packed high on to a pineapple has a bit of that particular pizza topping about it, but trust me – it works. For something more adventurous go for cabeza, I picked over a few body parts and the head is juiciest bit of the cow from my experience.
Locals arrive early to bag one of the highly-prized eyes but I’ll leave that contest up to you. Ordering them the proper way “con jardin y copia,” will get you a liberal shake of coriander and onion, plus two tortillas per taco – crucial to avoid spillage.
There are of course world class restaurants to explore too, perhaps bringing a more refined take on these fusion foods, you should try and visit at least one on your visit.
We caught up with local foodie and writer Genaro Quiroga at his favourite haunt, seafood specialists Campobaja, over oysters and burritos – possibly the first and last time I’ll see those two platters share a menu. I asked him why this city is such an unimitable place to eat.
“The gastronomic scene in Mexico City has been transformed in the last ten years. Places serving haute cuisine or using refined techniques are much more accessible, today it’s more affordable than ever before to eat well.”
“Young chefs and entrepreneurs are taking risks with innovative projects, ranging from the most refined restaurants such as Nobu, Momofuku or Pujol, through trendy offerings such as organic or vegan food, to the explosive and unique flavour of the markets and street stalls.”
Amazing eats are still more likely served up with a dose of drama rather than pretentiousness though. For a fun-filled day out, head south to Xochimilico, the ancient canal system that these days is home to bustling boats, spilling with food, drink and warbling Mariachi bands.
Jumping on a trajinera for the afternoon with a big bag of cans has to be one of the best ways to spend a day I can think of.
When it comes to the hard-stuff, Mexico City has, needless to say, got you covered. Once you’ve sampled enough tequila and mezcal, move on to pulque, the milky coloured pre-hispanic drink is having a bit of a resurgence of late.
Try it mixed with fruit for a delicious, refreshing and surprisingly potent tipple.
A welcoming home from home is a godsend after a day experiencing the mania of CDMX. Husband and wife team, Rosario and David, have brought a very British concept, the bed and breakfast, to Colonia Centro with their Chill-Out Flats.
Just a stones-throw from the main sights surrounding the Zocalo, you’ll find cosy but spacious rooms and, most importantly of course, the chance to wake up to one of the best breakfasts in town.
Preserves, pickles and chutneys are all homemade and produced from local citrus, tropical fruits and, of course, chillies. All served around a communal table, perfect to share stories and plans of assault on this tantalising metropolis.
Chill Out Flats Mexico City offer inviting rooms in an ideal central location right by the Zocalo, plus one of the best breakfasts in town. Click here to book.
Tim joined Eat Mexico for an expert guided tour of the Merced Market. Click here for more information and to book.