The crescent-shaped Bandera Bay holds captive with its shimmering blue water dropped against lush green mountains. But wander away from the beach and into the steep and narrow cobblestone streets and you’ll be rewarded with treasures of old squares and cute little restaurants to ‘bookmark’ for later. Browse around the colorful heaps of spices and herbs at a local food market, watch tortillas roll off the conveyor belt at an old tortilla factory, or rub shoulders with locals at a street food stall.
In the early morning shade, down the street from Puerto Vallarta’s microbrewery Los Muertos Brewing, the birria taco stand is a hive of activity where different hands are working nonstop to push out one crispy fried taco after another, each one accompanied with a cup of steaming hot broth and cilantro, hot sauce and fresh lime to taste.
Birria is meat (beef, goat or in Acapulco, apparently, even iguana) simmered in a broth rich with chilies and spices until it falls apart. Served in a taco with some of the broth in a bowl on the side, birria is a regional food authentic to the state of Jalisco, and a popular breakfast food.
The food stall next to it is relatively quiet — definitely by comparison. The stall keeper beckons us to try some of his meat. He serves carnitas and has the slow-cooked pork shredded and kept warm in a glass box. But we are set and salivating over the birria tacos that we watch being made to order.
Entertaining scenes in and around the food stall make the wait easy: the guys working in unison as they prepare a steady stream of tacos; the old man sitting on the curbside oblivious of anything and anyone around him as he savors his hot taco; the child trying to pull down his dad’s plate, hungry for a taste; the big-eyed crowd in front watching every move as if watching a game, from the meat fished out of the pan to the folded tacos crisping on the hot griddle; heads turning in unison to the lucky receiver of the finished taco.
In his book Street Food of Mexico by Hugo Ortega (see below), the chef writes: “Mexican street food is actually “slow food,” prepared in someone’s home with little to no shortcuts from family recipes handed down through the ages. The food is cooked all through the night […] and brought into city and town centers each morning.”
Part of a street food tour, our Vallarta Food Tours guide imparted some street food smartness as the group roamed Puerto Vallarta’s old town in search of little food gems.
Street vendors typically don’t have access to running water. It makes it imperative to watch for hygienic details like how the food is stored, handled and prepared. Local regulations stipulate that street food vendors either wrap plates in disposable plastic, or use disposable plates.
“The hands that prepare the food should NOT be the hands that handle the money,” was one of the pointers given by our Vallarta Food Tour guide. Trust the locals: ask what is good, watch where they order.
Street food is for the adventurous but not just because it requires street-food savvy. It is for the adventurous because it offers an insider look into another food culture. Street food is the ultimate global cuisine. It is everywhere in the world, yet different wherever you find it. But wherever you try street food, it comes with an open invitation to learn a little about local culture in the process. And by the sheer virtue of interactions with the person who made it and those around us wanting the same thing, for a moment we are part of that culture. Until we move on again.
Street Food of Mexico
If you fancy bringing those Mexican street food flavors into your home kitchen, or need it to prepare for your next trip to Mexico, this is your go-to: Street Food of Mexico by Hugo Ortega. The Houston-based won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest 2017.
Mexico: The Cookbook
Over 650 pages of recipes, my favorite cookbook publisher Phaidon brought us Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte. The recipes were collected from all over Mexico, and regions of origin are included in the recipe. It makes the book a culinary journey of Mexico as much as a cooking adventure to try your hand at just about anything, from nopales to grasshoppers and of course Mexico’s chiles galore.