Street Food | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Street Food

When I was in high school, my friends would drive their '41 Fords to Tijuana to install rolled and tucked Naugahide upholstery in tasteful turquoise and white. Or to get their '53 Chevys chopped and channeled, their tail lights frenched. For Candy Apple Red paint jobs. And to get sleazy but inexpensive introductions to the mysteries of sex. When they came home, they'd joke about the dangers of eating street food. About the "mystery meat" in burritos. About the conspicuous absence of dogs and cats in the streets.

These tales stayed with us into adulthood. As new arrivals in Mexico, we scrupulously avoided taco stands, opting instead for sit-down restaurants where hygiene standards presumably were better. On our first trip to Playa del Carmen we sat at a sidewalk table of a safe-looking restaurant (because it had signs in English). A note at the bottom of the menu, intended to be reassuring, read:

ORDER WITH CONFIDENCE!
ALL OF OUR VEGETABLES HAVE BEEN PROPERLY DISINFECTED


Hmmm. They serve vegetables that need disinfecting. I guess it's better than improperly disinfected vegetables.

After we moved to San Miguel, we remained reluctant to sample food from street vendors, although it often looked looked tempting: sliced fruit, jicama and cucumbers with lime and powdered chiles, carnitas tacos, strawberries and sour cream, churros, handmade tamales, tortas.

Around the Jardin, the central plaza, many vendors sell sweet corn, either on the cob or as freshly sliced kernels in a plastic cup.

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What you get is an ear of corn with a squeeze of lime juice, some mayonnaise smeared on, and grated cheese and powdered chiles sprinkled on top. It's whole new corn eating experience, and can be very, very good—if you can get an ear of corn that's picked young. Most "sweet corn" served here is feed corn: starchy and chewy, but one develops a taste for it.

Some foods on offer are iffy. When we lived in California, we saw taquerias in Mexican neighborhoods that include tacos de lengua—tongue tacos. John D. calls them "the tacos that taste back." Rosario once made a nice plate o' lengua for comida. Tasted OK, but it was a little hard to get past our Norteamericano queasiness while eating it. We discouraged Rosario from serving it again.

Three years ago, I was walking down a street in Morelia. I was flabbergasted to see the following:

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Yup. Tacos de Cabeza. Translates as "Head tacos." Can that be right?

What the hell are tacos de cabeza? OK. They're obviously made from heads. Probably cows' heads. But what parts of the heads? Maybe neck meat? Cheeks? Brains? Lips? Eyeballs?

Yuck!

Up north, I avoided buying chorizo—Mexican sausage—because often the first item on the ingredient list is "beef salivary glands." Do tacos de cabeza contain beef salivary glands?

Now, I can understand people eating cows' heads if they're desperately hungry. I'm sure it's better than eating grubs. But this here is a restaurant that specializes in head tacos.

"What do you feel like tonight, Honey? Chinese?"

"Naw. I'm sick of Chinese. Y'know, we haven't had head tacos in a while. Whyn't you run down to El Guero for some takeout?"


Kind of hard to get your mind around, ain't it?

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On the corner of Calle Nuevo where it joins the Ancha de San Antonio, there's a couple of taco stands. I've walked by them countless times, tempted by the mouth-watering smells they emit. People crowd around, munching tortillas filled with various meats and vegetables. Cars park illegally, causing traffic snarls as people buy their lunches or dinners. These stands are big-time popular. People have been eating at them for years. If the food was in any way suspect, they wouldn't: These places rely on repeat business.

Mindful of this, I was getting up the nerve to eat there until one day, early in the morning, I walked by while the proprietor was setting up for the day's business. Sitting there on the counter was a huge, toothy cow's head! The cook was prying off slivers of roasted flesh with a screwdriver.

That did it! No way was I going to eat there. New rule: Never eat food prepared with hand tools.

Last winter, we spent a couple of weeks in the beach town of Rincon de Guayabitos. There we ate at a taco stand that had an extensive menu posted on the wall, including tacos de lengua, cabeza and pulpo (tongue, head and octopus). Also offered were tacos de pollo and res (chicken and beef). The latter were delicious. I can't attest to the former—yet.

As to health problems, I've had traveler's diarrhea any number of times, both up north and here in Mexico Usually happens just after arriving in either place, as the Mexican and U. S. intestinal flora battle it out for supremacy. I've also had food poisoning in both countries, and I've contracted amoebic dysentery and various bacterial infections while living here. Mexico has real problems with sanitation, and I've probably sampled more fecal matter in my food than I like to think about. It's a part of living in less-developed countries, and we all learn to cope.

The cumulative experience of me and my friends has established that there are restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that are bad bets. One in particular appears to employ Typhoid Mary's granddaughter. It's a pricey, sleek looking place, located in a prime location on the Jardin. It attracts few regular customers, catering almost exclusively to tourists. Several of us are convinced that we've gotten sick from eating there. They've probably contributed prolifically to the reputation Mexico has with American travelers for food-related illnesses.

On the other hand, I have never had any kind of stomach problems from eating street food.

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