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The complete guide to Mexico's street delights

Florence Nathania
Florence Nathania

Cultural traveler, information stylist with a specialization in Art and Hispanic Culture, currently lives in Mexico City.

Mexico City | Fri, September 15, 2017 | 03:35 pm
The complete guide to Mexico's street delights

A taco is any kind of tortilla, steamed or comal-cooked, topped with meat. (Shutterstock/File)

It’s almost three years that I've lived in this mariachi country -- long enough to wander around its streets and learn about its antojitos, or street snacks.

As we approach Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16, here is a gift from me to the country I now call my second home: a listicle of Mexican tapas. Warning: it may change your perception of nachos and burritos.

Tortilla and many more

A Mexican tortilla (pronounced tor-tee-ya) is basically a round thin flatbread of 15 cm in diameter, mostly made by ground corn, either yellow, white or blue, but in northern Mexico is made with flour. This Aztecan staple pancake is the foundation for the following street food in Mexico. 

1. Taco

Any kind of tortilla, steamed or comal-cooked, topped with meat, is a taco. It may have beef, chicken, pork or fish. You can garnish it with coriander, cheese, lettuce or tomato, and spread it with pico de gallo sauce made from chopped fresh tomato, onion and coriander; Mexican red or green sauce made from red or green tomato and chili; or my favorite - tamarind and chili sauce. The taco is the icon of Mexican hawker food, and can be found almost anywhere.

The Lebanese brought spit-grilled meat, such as the shawarma, to Mexico, this is where the famous taco al pastor came from. The meat, usually pork, and pineapple are placed in a rotisserie and grilled all day.

2. Quesadilla 

When a taco is folded into a half-moon shape, filled with melted cheese, and cooked on a griddle, we have a quesadilla (pronounced kay-sa-dee-ya). The filling may be as simple as cheese only and no meat. Other ingredients that are often put inside the quesadilla are mushrooms, corn smut or squash blossom, making this delight vegetarian-friendly. 

3. Enchilada

Beef enchiladas on a plate.Beef enchiladas on a plate. (Shutterstock/File)

The enchilada comprises three or four tacos filled with meat and refried beans, often with vegetables, potato or other ingredients, then each tortilla is rolled or folded and coated in sauce and scattered with cheese or shredded chicken.

4. Totopo

You may know this one by another name: nachos. While nachos are served with melted cheddar cheese, totopos are baked triangular corn tortillas served with guacamole, savory avocado dip or simply Mexican green or red sauce.  

5. Chilaquiles

The dish 'chilaquiles' is made from 'totopos' or nachos chips topped with cheese, sauce and other toppings.The dish 'chilaquiles' is made from 'totopos' or nachos chips topped with cheese, sauce and other toppings. (Shutterstock/File)

Now imagine totopo chips smeared with Mexican green or red sauce, fresh cream, melted cheese and sprinkled with shredded chicken; that is called chilaquiles (pronounced chi-la-kee-les). The Nahuatl (Aztec language) term was derived from chīl (chili), and aquīlli (immersed in something). Mexicans often have it for breakfast.

6. Tostada

Let’s recall our depiction of the taco, then replace the soft tortilla with a crisp toasted one. Now we have a tostada, as simple as that. The bigger version of the tostada is the tlayuda that may be up to 50 cm in diameter.

7. Flauta

Its name literally means 'flute' due to its shape. The Flauta is a rolled tortilla, filled with meat and cheese, and fried until golden and crispy. As a dish, these edible flutes are often complemented with lettuce, guacamole and fresh cream.

8. Sope

Instead of being pressed with a machine, tortilla dough is shaped by hand so that a sope is not as thin as a tortilla, and has a diameter of around 7 cm. This thick tortilla is topped with refried beans, meat, vegetables and cheese.  

9. Gordita

Different from other kinds of taco, the 'gordita' has its filling tucked inside.Different from other kinds of taco, the 'gordita' has its filling tucked inside. (Shutterstock/File)

While a sope has the ingredients on top, a gordita has the cooked ingredients tucked into the hole cut half-way round its edge. The dough is then closed and deep fried.

10. Tlacoyo

The round thick corn mass, spread with cheese curd and refried beans, is folded on its two edges so that it forms an oval shape as big as a palm. It is then fried on a comal, and served with cooked ingredients on top. The bigger version of the tlacoyo, reaching up to 30 cm long, is known as a huarache.

Basically, a burrito is a taco where the fillings are wrapped inside a large tortilla.Basically, a burrito is a taco where the fillings are wrapped inside a large tortilla. (Shutterstock/File)

What is a burrito then? Basically it is a taco, where the meat, vegetables, cheese and sauce are wrapped with a slightly bigger flour tortilla (around 20 cm in diameter). It is popular in the northern part of Mexico, also known as Tex-Mex food, but not very common in the center and south.

Other non-tacos

Some Mexican food doesn’t have a tortilla as the basic element, but most of them still use a lot of corn. 

- Atole

Along with the tamal, street vendors in the morning often sell a hot corn beverage called atole. It comes in different flavors like chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, peanut, rice or guava.

- Tamal

Tamal is a favorite Mexican street delight.Tamal is a favorite Mexican street delight. (Shutterstock/File)

This is starchy corn dough filled with pulled chicken and Mexican sauce, or chili and cheese, wrapped in banana, corn or Mexican pepper leaf (hoja de santa). This is my favorite Mexican street delight, which I often have for breakfast.

- Esquites

Named after the Nahuatl word ízquitl (toasted corn), this dish is made from toasted salted corn kernels cooked with chili and herbs, served in a cup. It may be served with cream, chili powder and lime juice on top. Ambulantes (street hawkers) that sell esquites normally sell the Mexican version of jagung bakar (grilled corn) too. This version of jagung bakar involves coating the corn-on-the-cob with mayonnaise, chili powder and lime.

- Pambazo

Pambazo, a very filling Mexican sandwich.Pambazo, a very filling Mexican sandwich. (Shutterstock/File)

I think this is the heaviest Mexican street food ever. Fried mashed potato with chorizo (minced pork) and refried beans are sandwiched with fried Mexican bread, then it is dipped into chili sauce until the bread turns red and spongy. (kes)


Florence Nathania is a communication study graduate who has been contributing to The Jakarta Post since 2011. The UK-certified musical theater performer actively promotes Indonesian culture abroad while immersing herself in the local culture. Visit her story at and follow her Instagram @flo.nathania.

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