Ask any serious chef or foodie and they will probably list Mexico as one of the world’s food capitals. From spicy sauces and a range of flavors unlike anything else in the world of food, Mexico is a culinary heavyweight. At the core of its food scene are its beloved street vendors.
Every day, millions of everyday people including, blue-collar workers, office workers, professors, and even famous actors line up to eat street food. In Mexico, it doesn’t matter how you earn your living. You’re probably going to be eating something from a cart or a truck at some point during the day.
Street vendors are like heroes for many busy people. They offer a convenient way to eat and many specialize in dishes that could easily wind up on a fine-dining menu. From sweets to savory sandwiches and tacos, customers can find anything to satisfy their cravings. As always, homemade salsas and other condiments are within arm’s reach. As if the flavors of the dishes themselves aren’t enough, most people decorate their food with a spicy combination of goodness.
Street vendors are important to the Mexican economy too. The exact numbers of street vendors in Mexico are hard to figure out. However, many experts suggest there are likely over 1.5 million people in the profession.
You can’t travel to Mexico without seeing a colorful cart, market stall, or truck with a line in front of it. Street vendors can be found selling their flavorful treasures in every corner of the country. The states with the highest number of street vendors are the populated states of Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Guerrero.
History of Street Vendors in Mexico
Street vendors have a long and rich history in Mexico that goes back to before the arrival of the Europeans. Even the modern word tianguis has its origins in ancient Nahuatl, from the term tianquiztli, meaning marketplace.
Some of the first known markets in the Aztec world were called Teotihuacan and Tlatelolco, after the major cities of the time. They functioned more like bazaars and were massive, even by today’s standards.
They sold everything from fruits, vegetables, insects, and meat to animal skins and art. Luxury goods like turquoise jewelry and cacao were also sold alongside imports from the far reaches of the empire and beyond.
Since the Spanish occupation of Mexico in the 16th century, the tianguis changed into what it is today. Slowly, European influences and market practices mixed in. Nothing represents this fusion more than in the street food that evolved.
With the industrialization of Mexico in the 19th and early 20th centuries, street vendors became crucial for providing quick and dependable meals to workers. The very first time the word taco was ever recorded was by mine workers in the 19th century who referenced the popular on-the-go “tacos de minero” or miner’s tacos.
When Mexico entered the modern age, these traditions of buying quick and dependable classics from vendors became ingrained into daily life.
Because street vendors are so common, many rules and regulations are in place to ensure their customer’s safety. Most vendors need special permits to run their businesses legally.
Within these permits are food safety guidelines and hygiene protocols for handling food. Many follow best practices, like designating one person to handle food and another to handle money. Since the pandemic, glove and even mask use has become fairly common.
Famous Mexican Street Food Markets
Mexican street food has become so famous that several markets have become internationally recognized. One famous market is Mexico City’s Mercado de San Juan.
Commonly known as “the chef’s market,” Mercado de San Juan overloads your senses with goods such as exotic fruits, spices, meats, insects, and produce. The market spreads through two huge buildings.
In one, are the vendors selling everything under the sun, and in the other, are the food stalls. Here, you can find every Mexican street food specialty under the sun, including tamales, sopas, birria, flautas, and more.
In Oaxaca City, you can find the ultimate food market in the state, Mercado Benito Juárez. Here, endless stands serve Oaxacan classics like thin and crispy tlayudas, soft and savory memelas, and the delicious fried grasshoppers known as chapulines.
Right when you walk into the gigantic market, you’re greeted by wafts of sizzling grilled meat and an array of aromas. If you are feeling hungry, chances are you’ll stay all day.
Street Vendors in Mexico
Mexican Spanish is rich in unique terms, especially in the world of food. The popular street vendors in Mexico have their own terms as well.
Mexicans call them “tianguis” or “mercados sobre ruedas,” literally meaning market above wheels. Hungry people of all ages say these terms of endearment excitedly throughout the day.
People use the term tianguis to describe not only the vendors but the open-air markets where they sell their products. You can find them in many neighborhoods, often in certain times of day or designated days of the week.
Tianguis often set up colorful cloth roofs above their carts early in the morning. As customers come in, they quickly roll out their food. Some of the most popular tianguis handle long lines of dedicated customers who expect the same portions and flavor profile every time.
Sometimes, tianguis sell more than food. You can sometimes find clothing, fruit and vegetables, and other market staples at a tianguis, however quick food is at the heart of what a tanguis specializes in.
Mexicans use the term “baratillo” to describe a market that specializes in second-hand and discounted items.
“Mercados sobre ruedas” are the mobile street carts where vendors move their products from street corner to street corner. Throughout Mexico, mercados sobre ruedas sell everything from street corn to tamales.
Vendors let their customers know they’re approaching by sounding a small air horn or playing music.
Both tianguis and mercados sobre ruedas are vital to Mexican food culture. Eating at one of these establishments and experiencing firsthand the sounds, smells, and tastes quickly become an essential part of your day in Mexico.
Is Street Food in Mexico Safe?
Street food in Mexico, like anywhere in the world, has the potential to be risky. Foodborne illnesses, poor hygiene, and other concerns are often on people’s minds when they first walk up to vendors.
However, with a few common-sense precautions and rules, you can eat safely at Mexico’s street vendors.
First, use your senses and look at the vendor.
Are they cooking with clean utensils? Is the same person handling money handling your food? Are they wearing gloves?
Does the meat look bad? These are all great first steps to determining if a place is safe to eat at.
Next, are there locals eating there? A good rule of thumb is if it’s popular with local people, it’s probably safe and delicious.
Nobody wants to make their dependable customer base sick. By only eating at places well-regarded by locals, you’re ensuring that you’re getting fresh, clean, and dependable food.
Statistics have shown, it’s often your own hygiene that gets you sick. Mexican street food is usually finger food.
That means you should make sure you have clean hands before eating. It helps to use hand sanitizer too, especially after handling any money.
Amazing Street Food to Try in Mexico
Street food comes in all forms in Mexico, from sweet to savory. What makes it so diverse is Mexico’s bounty of native ingredients, diverse cooking techniques, and food traditions that go back thousands of years.
Below is a list of 15 must-try street food dishes that are sure to make you come back for more.
Tacos al Pastor
A Mexico City staple, these incredible tacos are intensely flavored and found all around the city and beyond. To make them, vendors slice pieces of grilled marinated pork and pineapple and place them on a tortilla.
Customers can then douse them with the salsa and condiments of their choice.
There are few dishes so beloved as tamales. From the Yucatan to the Sonoran Desert, tamales are served by street vendors all around the country, especially around Christmas time.
Tamales are soft corn cakes stuffed with meat, vegetables, or cheese, wrapped in a banana leaf, and steamed. Rajas con queso (chili with cheese) is a popular choice all over the country, while you will also note a lot of regional differences in the types of tamales you will find from one part of Mexico to another.
(For example, in Mexico City and Puebla, pollo con mole (chicken with a spicy, chocolatey mole sauce) tamales are popular. In the Yucatan, you will find a lot of tamales stuffed with pork.
If you’re in Oaxaca, you have to try a crispy tlayuda. They are large tortillas topped with creamy black beans, avocado, tomatoes, meat, and Oaxacan cheese.
Tlayudas are like Oaxacan pizzas and are often cooked on a traditional stone over a wood fire. Yum!
This hearty soup is famous around the country but likely comes from the central valley around Mexico City. The word pozole originated with the Nahuatl term for a stew of corn kernels, or “pozolli.”
Pozole is a national staple, which often features large meaty corn kernels, pork or chicken, and a garnish of shredded lettuce, radishes, onions, and lime juice. This is the ultimate comfort food and something nobody should leave Mexico without trying.
Nothing says Baja, California, and Tijuana like fish tacos. These warm, battered, and fried bites of goodness are one of Mexico’s greatest contributions to street food culture around the world.
They usually consist of deep-fried white fish placed in a soft taco shell and topped with shredded cabbage and creamy salsa with a squeeze of lime on top.
The southern state of Yucatán is famous for the delicious slow-roasted pork known as cochinita pibil. This ancient Mayan dish is made by marinating pork in achiote paste, citrus juice, and spices, covering it with a banana leaf and slowly cooking it over hot coals.
These thick and tasty treats are from the north of Mexico and are made from cornmeal stuffed with shredded meat, beans, cheese, and salsa. They are either fried or grilled.
Another central Mexican staple, barbacoa is simple slow-cooked lamb or beef. The seasoning varies depending on the region, but usually, it’s cooked in spices in an underground pit.
Barbacoa is usually served in tacos from street vendors throughout the country.
There is nothing more commonly served by street vendors in Mexico than elotes. These steamed or grilled ears of corn are doused in seasonings such as mayonnaise, butter, Tajin, salsa, and crumbled cheese.
Elotes are always messy, always flavorful, and highlight the most important ingredient in Mexican cooking: corn.
This dish is the ultimate Mexican breakfast food served all over the country. Chilaquiles consist of fried tortilla chips covered in spicy tomato or green chili sauce.
On top are usually layers of cheese, avocado, shredded meat or chicken, refried beans, and a fried egg.
In the central Mexican state of Puebla, few street food staples are as special as the chalupa. To make them, vendors fry a thick dough of cornmeal and top it with shredded meat, cheese, and salsa.
Mexican cuisine is a fusion of European and indigenous cooking. Nothing expresses this more than the torta. Found all over Mexico, the torta combines Mexican-style shredded meat with all the fixings of a perfect sandwich, pressed between a perfect toasted roll.
People know Jalisco for Mariachi music and tequila, but nothing screams Guadalajara and the rolling countryside of Jalisco state more than birria. Vendors usually serve this lamb stew with fresh tortillas.
Fanatics of birria will dunk their tacos in the birria broth. Messy and unbelievably delicious, this is a one-of-a-kind meal for hungry people.
Churros come from Spain, yet they’ve become a Mexican staple. Late-night stalls often serve them piping hot for customers.
Look out for the dark chocolate-filled churros. They are divine.
Street vendors sell these deep-fried pork skins all over Mexico. These treats are popular at festivals, outside schools, and at special events.
Make sure to douse them in hot sauce to get the full finger-licking experience.
Final thoughts on street vendors in Mexico
Mexico is a food lovers’ paradise and nobody preserves this legacy more than the street vendor. No matter how long you spend in Mexico and how many vendors you visit, you’ll still only scratch the surface.
Home recipes and regional styles make each dish different. That’s what makes Mexican street food such a source of national pride for Mexicans.
If you visit Mexico, make sure to take part in this amazing eating experience for yourself.
Do you have any further questions or concerns about trying food from street vendors in Mexico or planning your first trip to Mexico in general? I have been living in Merida in the Yucatan for the last two years and I am happy to help out if you need anything.
Have a safe trip and enjoy Mexico! Buen Viaje! Melissa xo