(Editor's note: We recently rediscovered the text below in Rick’s first cookbook, Authentic Mexican. If you love tortas, tacos and tamales as much as we do, you’ll savor Rick’s rich, mouthwatering descriptions of the wonderful finds among Mexico’s market stalls and street food stands.)
Tacos, Tortas and Other Street Food
Late in the evening, after the midday dinner is far in the past, nourishment comes from a new round of public edibles. To some, it may seem surprising that after a late-afternoon dinner there would be any reason to approach the table again, but more than simple bodily sustenance seems to lead the Mexican in that direction. Where tradition and family sanctity are a focus of the comida, friends and fun play a role at supper.
The coffee shops will serve a new round of simple eggs and enchiladas, pancakes and sandwiches. Folks will go for walks or sit with people they know, over coffee or hot chocolate or beer. Honest fast-food spots fire up their griddles, steamers and charcoal, and street vendors sprout up everywhere.
Taquerias are the definitive snack sellers, and they have certainly come to typify “Mexican Food” to many outside Mexico. Most are little more than sidewalk taco hawkers made permanent, with a marginally expanded menu and some places for customers to sit. But that dissuades few people for they serve that kind of attractively spicy, questionably healthy fare that everyone loves and a mother will rarely make at home.
At one, a vertical skewer of thin-sliced, marinated pork is roasted and charred in front of an open fire, readying it for a young man to slice off in little bits, make into soft tacos al pastor, and splash with a strident red-chile sauce, chopped onion and fresh coriander. Another has a steaming table of well-seasoned shreds of pork or tender, gamy goat or lamb to roll into soft tortillas and serve with chunky salsa Mexicana. At a different type of taquería — one that has recently caught the country’s attention — meat is grilled for the Northern-inspired tacos al carbon: Everything from beef to sausage and little clay dishes of bubbling cheese come off the broiler. The crowds seem to love the relaxed, frontier flavor and they wash down plates of tacos and bowls of cowboy beans with fruit-flavored aguas frescas, soda pop and beer.
Out on the street, a butane-fired griddle lit up with a string of Christmas lights might be searing beef, chorizo sausage and potatoes, or strips of chile and onion to offer with a spoonful of picante green sauce, some grilled knobby green onions, plus lime to squeeze over it all. A young man just a few steps away could be roasting field corn over a tub of coals or slicing fruit into paper cones. A woman could be fanning the charcoal-fired brazier that warms her steamer of tamales or heats her griddle for baking masa turnovers. There might be a boy with a little glass case of gelatines, flans and rice puddings...perhaps a basket of crisp-fried pork rinds or a tray of nuts and candy. Still, all this variety only scratches the surface of what’s found in the cubbyhole eateries and street-food stalls throughout Mexico.
Not all taquerías and street-food stalls are nocturnal or festal either. Around schools and bus stations and along busy streets, they often come out with the daylight to supply nourishment for the late-morning almuerzo. Some have come to think enough of themselves to add a little breadth to their offerings and change their name to loncheria (“lunch counter”), but most feature a distinct brand of soft tacos: tacos de cazuelas. They’re put together from a variety of shredded meats and diced vegetables that are simmered in casseroles with homey, full-flavored sauces.
There is a final major strain of snack purveyors with a national profile and a product that is as tasty (and certainly as satisfying) as most anything in the snack repertory. Tortas are like Mexican-spirited hoagies or submarine sandwiches, and in no way should they be overlooked. At their best, they combine a crusty roll with fried beans, meat or eggs, hot sauce and pickled chiles, keeping pace with the most delicious quick meal.
Excerpted from Authentic Mexican, Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico by Rick Bayless with Dean Groen Bayless (William Morrow, 2007)