The army of street cooks who feed Mexico City, the fourth most-populated city in the world experience a seemingly endless daily cycle. Some of them buy their supplies and ingredients at La Merced, while others choose the Central de Abasto, the largest food market in the world, which with its 27 kilometres of aisles is big enough to feed an immense metropolis. This center the distribution point for most of the food eaten daily in a city which never sleeps and is always hungry.
An Infinite Restaurant
Mexico City’s pavements often resemble an obstacle course: local residents weave with ease around potholes, hurdles, and street food stalls selling an endless array of goods, including many vendors of pirate copies and knock off items. One side effect of a decades-old economic crisis in Mexico is a high unemployment rate that has led the government authorities to turn a blind eye to this informal trade. This has allowed street vendors to thrive throughout the city, and food stalls are no exception, although this has created unfair competition for formally established restaurants and eateries, which are required to comply with strict regulations. Mexico City is an enormous open-air restaurant. The array of street food available exceeds that of similar-sized cities such as Bangkok or Sao Paulo. These streets also offer a cacophony of competing sounds, with the cries of vendors hawking their wares alongside the natural frenzied rhythms of a city of this size. The everyday soundtrack of this rhythm includes popular sonidero or cumbia dance music with electronic overtones. The Aztec capital is a city of intense, piercing fragrances; it smells of lard, maize, and smoke.
A Thousand-Headed Monster
Street food in Mexico is robust, with homegrown flavours that overshadow the bland, standardized fare of fast-food restaurants. Furthermore, food chains are at a disadvantage in Mexico, not only because of the speed and ubiquity of street food, but also because it is very difficult to compete with the prices of these informal vendors, which attract huge numbers of customers looking for an inexpensive meal. Average office workers are estimated to spend no more than 50 pesos on their daily meals, and some people must get by on even less. With 20 million residents, and large amounts of people traveling to their jobs every day, Mexico City is constantly throbbing with the energy of a race against time. Another key to the success of street food is the fact that local residents are always in a hurry; when could they possibly cook? When can they go grocery shopping?, especially considering that these city-dwellers spend a substantial part of their day stuck in traffic, to the extent that hawkers take to the busiest streets during rush hour, selling snacks and soft drinks to hungry and thirsty drivers stuck in traffic jams. Street food stalls are an integral part of the social and economic fabric: they thrive along work routes, where they have become a necessity, and they are manned by a workforce that usually commutes from the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. These vendors often work 12-hour days or longer, at least six days a week. This industry is a thousand-headed monster that provides daily food and sustenance to a large part of the population, to people who cannot afford the commonplace luxury of a restaurant, nor can they consider traveling across the city to eat at home.
Mise en Place
Although street food has sometimes been described as “improvised cuisine,” in Mexico City it requires order and precise logistics. This is especially true of those who must set up their wares daily and who lack the advantage of a fixed stall, which offers some storage space. Customers are usually unaware of the amount of time and effort that these guerrilla street cooks must spend every day before and after selling their wares. A taco stall on a tricycle? A seafood vendor operating out of a supermarket trolley? Mexican inventiveness knows no bounds. An attractive mise en place is laid out before the customer: limes, chopped onion, cilantro, chili sauces, and a range of dishes on colourful plates. Many of these mini diners even offer tables and chairs, and the close-knit ties of the Mexican family are often on display. Within the structure of this business, each member plays a specific role: the parents usually mans the stove or the chopping knife, skilfully seasoning and chopping away, while his sons and nephews act as waiters and dishwashers, or collect payments, helping them to develop commercial skills from an early age. These are trades and small businesses that are handed down from one generation to the next!
Little Mexican Whims
Within this wide range of different options and competitors, shrewd street cooks know that quality and flavour are the keys to attracting faithful and constant customers. The "Montezuma's Revenge", the local version of an upset stomach, is more often the result of indigestion that of unclean or poorly prepared food. There are relatively few of those cases. Street cooks therefore strive to offer succulent dishes that let off fragrant aromas, which will invite people passing by to at least take a closer look. Common sense, the number of customers, and the smell of the dishes being prepared are the best references to try a food stall. Eating is such a natural pleasure in Mexico that this range of street foods is known as “little whims,” rich in flavour and cultural significance. Many of these types of food have become universally known, such as tacos, quesadillas, and tamales, although they exist in a seemingly infinite variety of different forms. The most characteristic dishes of street stalls have often inspired the culinary proposals of the best restaurants in town. Lard confit pulled pork tacos? Of course, but sous-vide or dry-aged! There is an inevitable bond in which both types of cuisine nourish one another, and the array of food available on the streets of Mexico City has expanded to include pizza, crepes, and sushi.