The safest way to eat on the street in Mexico City

A sweet, pineapple-flavored tamale from a street stand in Col. Roma

It’s a myth that eating any street food in Mexico City will make you sick.

But if you’re not used to eating on the street here, you shouldn’t just pick any stand. One of the most common questions I get through my Eat Mexico tours is: “How do you choose where to take us?”

Here are the guidelines I use when planning our Eat Mexico tour routes.

1. Pick a street food stand that looks crowded. This means several people standing up and eating in a cluster around the stand. If the stand is empty, and you don’t have a personal recommendation from someone else who’s eaten there, do not eat there.

2. Glance around and see if the stand looks clean. Are there stains everywhere? Dirty plates and napkins? If so, pass. I also pass on places where the food just sits in one big pile, as opposed to clean clay pots, or tupperware or stainless steel containers.

Plastic buckets are a common way to store various quesadilla or taco fillings in Mexico City. The ones above are quite large, which denotes high volume, which means the place most likely has great food.

3. Who takes the money? It’s a good sign if the person preparing the food and the person accepting payment are two different people. Smaller stands can’t afford this luxury, so make sure they place a piece of plastic over their hands when receiving cash or change.

4. The food must be freshly prepared. Some stands in Mexico City prepare a lot of food beforehand, and it just sits out. They don’t even necessarily warm it for you — it just goes from the container right into your tortilla. (My one exception here is tacos de canasta, which by definition sit out all day, steaming in a basket. They’re still really good.) These stands won’t automatically make you sick, but they just don’t taste as good. It’s a much tastier experience to watch the taquero make your taco right in front of you, or to watch the older woman pat the masa into a tlacoyo.

A woman prepares fresh quesadillas and tlacoyos at a street stand in Col. Roma

5. Feel free to make small talk while you eat, if you speak Spanish. Most stand-owners are nice and they’ll answer your questions, especially if you’re a foreigner. Ask, “Cuántos años llevan aquí, en este esquina?” which means, “How many years have you been here, at this corner?” Many stands have been on certain corners for decades. If you’ve found the tlacoyo stand with the little old woman with the gray braids who says, “I’ve been here 40 years,” you’ve struck gold.

6. Go during peak hours. This helps you get a better idea of which stands are the most crowded. In Mexico City, peak street food hours are generally 10 or 10:30 a.m., or 2:30 to about 4 p.m. (And then perhaps 8 p.m., when folks are getting off work.) Be aware that if you’re searching for street food at 6 or 7 p.m., some stands are closing up for the day, and you’re going to get the dregs of their daily product.

Do you have any tips you use when eating street food, either here or elsewhere? Feel free to share below.

Tacos de canasta with salsa verde, from a street stand in Condesa

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24 Responses to “The safest way to eat on the street in Mexico City”
  1. Don Cuevas

    I won’t eat raw food, such as carne apache, or seviche, or oysters on the half shell from street stands. In fact, I probably wouldn’t eat carne apache at all.
    Big, one day controversy over this on our local Yahoo Group.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    • Jose

      Raw food perhaps on the beach.

    • Lesley

      I’ll do ceviche, but only if I’ve gotten a recommendation from someone else. But not carne apache. I can’t pinpoint what made me sick in Patzcuaro the first time I visited, I’m pretty sure it was the tostada de carne apache.

  2. Jose

    Oh by the way. There are also some AMAZING legendary stands on mexico.

    I’ll give you a few names, perhaps one day you can go at those, try them for yourself.

    Tacos: On Conscripto avenue (north), there’s this known restaurant called “El Meson del Caballo Bayo”, that’s pretty good mexican food but, south of that place, on the weekends (safest bet saturday around 12pm), is this little place called “Mansion del Caballo Bello”. Best tacos ever, nothing tops that on my list and I’ve eaten tacos all over.

    Tacos de Carnitas: Near polanco, close to the brewery, the place is called “El Grano de Oro”. I don’t know the exact address, ask a taxista or a local, best tacos de carnitas in Mexico, palabra de honor. (Get there early, like 10am).

    And finaly, Tortas: On polanco, its a famous place, but it gets crowded a lot so get there before lunch time. Ask a taxista or a local to take you to “las tortugas”. You’ll thank me later.

    By the way, all these places are clean, licensed places, hence forth the “clean places to eat at mexico topic”.

    Good luck!

    • Lesley

      Thanks for the recommendations. On Mansión del Caballo Bello — what colonia, and what esquina? I’m not sure if anything can top the campechano c/ papa tacos at Taquería Gonzalez in the Centro Histórico, but I’m willing to try it out.

      So far I’ve got two carnitas recommendations for supposedly the best spots in the city… I need to try them both on the same day and blog about it. Will let you know!

  3. Cooking in Mexico

    I’ve learned to ask the vendor how the veggies are cleaned. The answer I want to hear is that they use microdyn (or a similar product)or cloro(chlorox). If I ask, “Do you use microdyn?”, the answer will often be yes (whether this is true or not) because of the cultural tendancy to answer in the affirmative. If I ask, “What product do you use?”, I am more assured of an honest answer. I don’t want to see veggies washed in tap water.

    Kathleen

  4. Stephen

    My tip is very specific: do not eat huaraches from the old lady in Coyoacan serving salsa out of old paint buckets. I got myself a hard to get rid of amoeba that way. But if someone is following your tips above, they probably won’t do that ;-)

    • Lesley

      Oh no! God, I hate learning the hard way. Sorry you had to go through that.

  5. Brendan

    Interesting recommendation about the microdyn. I always used that stuff at home, but almost everyone I talked to said it was complete overkill.

    • Lesley

      Yeah, I’m confused on the Microdyn thing too. (What exactly is it, is my main question. Iodine? An iodine solution? Isn’t too much of that bad for you?) My theory so far is to disinfect with Microdyn when I’m eating anything raw. All other produce I wash thoroughly in tap water and then cook. Haven’t gotten sick yet, to my knowledge.

      • zabeth

        Mycrodin is colloidal silver, not Iodine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_uses_of_silver. It is relatively safe. I agree with you: If you are gonna eat it raw, use it; otherwise, it’s overkill. I also use it to disinfect seafood if I’m gonna make ceviche.

        • Lesley

          Thanks Zabeth. I guess I shouldn’t worry then — unless I start taking it by the spoonful, in which case my skin might turn blue. I saw a guy on TV once who’d taken too much colloidal silver and his skin turned blue-metallic. It was a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” kind of thing.

  6. Don Cuevas

    Often, the food may be hot, but the cilantro is washed only in tap water and the salsas may be suspect. Ni modo. You only live once.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  7. Isabel

    I’ll share mine.. Open containers of help-yourself salsa or lime wedges?! I prefer that a place serve its salsas in re-purposed bottles to squirt or pour. Lime wedges should just be handed out.

  8. Michael Parker Stainback

    As a former New Yorker now in Mexico City I can say I got sick from food a lot more often there than here. Mexicans have been eating this way for centuries and they know what they’re doing. And as Lesley says, you really can’t miss at a crowded stand—it almost always means quality.

    The day I got sickest in Mexico City I had eaten on the street, at the Casino Español (a quite expensive and fancy restaurant downtown) and in my own kitchen. Who forgot to wash his hands? It’s anybody’s guess. My point: food poisoning is like a roulette wheel, anywhere in the world. You take reasonable precautions, but if your number comes up, you’ve just got to ride it out, baby.

    • Lesley

      Well said! And for those who don’t want to ride it out, Mexican doctors will very happily give you antibiotics.

  9. Alejandra

    I love the color of that tamale! So beautiful! This makes me want to take a trip to La D.F again…have you been to the Diego Rivera mueseum ? I did a blog post on it.. http://apearlintheworld.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/mira-mira/

    I’m so glad I found your blog…I love my culture, our culture :) I also got my chihuahua Chucho there :)

  10. Mad Moo

    The lettuce is deadly, that’s my problem. Got a bout of Salmonella from a not too clean salad at what I thought was a reputable establishment.
    Had some great flautas from a really busy stand in the downtown, and they were excellent and no food poisoning.

  11. Rick

    I was in Mexico City a few weeks ago and became deathly ill. I was told to stay away from Fishmart, although Rick Bayless recommended it. I also visited a large taco stand on Juarez, near the Hilton Hotel, which was packed. Unfortunately, the golden rule of a money handler/food preparer was violated as there was no money person here. I’m still alive after a visit to the hospital. I also suspect the air in Mexico City did not help.

    • Lesley

      Hi Rick: Yikes. I’m sorry to hear you got sick. I live near Fishmart and have a friend who got sick after eating there — I’ve only been once (I ate cooked seafood, absolutely nothing raw) and thought it was mediocre. Mexican restaurants can be inconsistent, so who knows. In any case, I hope you’re on the mend. A visit to the hospital sounds scary.

  12. Flaco

    I would add that anywhere you see Moms feeding their kids is probably okay… also are the customers from all walks of life, do you see a good cross section of society? Another good sign because everyone loves bueno y barato…

    • Lesley

      That’s a good point. I always think when I see only young people, it’s not necessarily a good sign, because they tend not to care as much about whether or not they’ll get sick. Cops are also great indicators.

  13. Rodrigo

    I have a couple recomendations about food safety and some places to eat:

    Watch your salsa! Any place that has a help yourself salsa system going on (which there are many of everywhere around the city) look closely at the salsa as it sits, sometimes you cansee tiny little bubbles on it and it will still taste good, stay away from that bucket then.

    As far as carnitas and seafood go, I have a couple suggestions that I think are the best:

    For seafook the Mercado de San Pedro de los Pinos located on the corner of calle 9 y Avenida 2 in San Pedro de los Pinos; there are several locales in the Mercado fo seafood the best is at the oposite corner of where the entrance is, a must try there are the filetes preparados, and the Vuelve a la vida.

    Carnitas are good mostly everywhere in mexico city although a rare find is at carnitas el kioskito right outside metrobus Hidalgo next to alameda central on Av. Balderas. Carnitas by the kilo, tacos, costilla, and such are very good, but the real specialty of this place are the gorditas. Delicious deep fried dollar sized gorditas filled with very meaty chicharron, served with minced onions a great molcajete salsa and a few drops of lime juice are definetly worth the trip downtown from the northern suburb I live in (a visit to your cardiologist might be recomended after eating a few too many of these, which you will).

  14. raquelita

    I always think about how much the food is handled. For example, in Guanajuato I regularly eat ceviche at popular outdoor stands that are part of a local chain. Always busy at busy hours and after all ceviche is fish that’s chemically cooked (with lemon). Corn on the cob, garbanzos in their shell, peanuts in the shell, you can’t go wrong nor with guayaba or chocolate atole (champarrado). Then there are ordinary tacos and tacos de vapor at well patronized stands… and tamales … no need to go hungry or thirsty.

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