21 . 06 . 16
A Backpacker’s Food Directory: A Mexican Food Safari
Crazy grains, a feast of cochinita pibil, a tortilleria, an agave mound to make Mezcal and a market stall selling grasshoppers. Writing and images by Julia Georgallis.
I am disappointed in Julia of the Past. I am disappointed in her because she had very little faith in Mexican food. I was all for the occasional burrito, but I always associated it with those Old El Paso fajita ready mix boxes I used to buy in order not to starve to death when I first left home at 18. How very wrong I was. As was the theme for my entire time in Latin America, I stayed for far longer than expected in Mexico. A 10-day stop over turned into a 5 week Odyssey. Part of this reason was the fun-factor, the second was that I could eat delicious food for very little money. Food varies from region to region – I explored mainly the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico City, Chiapas and Oaxaca and all of them introduced me to new ways of eating (and drinking). From cactuses to hibiscus tea, here are my 8 favourite foodie experiences and a restaurant guide (non of these have websites, some don’t even have addresses so I’ve attached either the Trip Advisor page or Google Maps for addresses)…
This post was written in 2016, so please let me know if any of these restaurants need updating!
Champulines are fried grasshoppers coated in chilli. They are vinegary, crunchy and filling. One particular night, we gorged on these with beers, Mezcal and potato salad. Delish. You can buy them by the kilo in the markets, particularly the Mercado de Benito Juarez, Oaxaca City (If grasshoppers don’t float your boat, you can pick up other specialities at this amazing market like Oaxaca cheese and courgette flowers).
2. Cochinita Pibil
Marinated, soft pulled-pork, served with tortillas and often eaten with spicy, fermented wonderfulness like chilli and red onion pickles. The first time I tried this was in La Popular, Oaxaca. This restaurant also serves other brilliant Mexican specialities like tlyayudas. I also had a fantastic Yucatan-style cochinita meal at Manjar Blanco, Merida.
3. Spicy Street Fruit
In most parts of Mexico, you can pick up packs of fruit coated in chilli and doused in lime from street vendors. My two favourite chilli vs fruit combos were mango and a white yam called jicama.
If you find yourself on the coast, I highly recommend you find a local fisherman who will take you out on his boat to catch some fish. If this is not for you however, stuff your face full of ceviche instead – raw, lime coated fish. I particularly enjoyed El Camello Jr, Tulum and El Costenito Cevicheria, Puerto Escondido – both of these restaurants also serve tasty grilled fish options.
5. Drinking in Mexico
I fell in love with drinking mezcal, tequilla’s tougher cousin, with my beer in the evenings. I particularly enjoyed going on a mezcal tour in Oaxaca – there are lots and I don’t think it matters which one you do, just make sure you go on one of them. There are millions of mezcalerias in Oaxaca, the birthplace of mezcal, but I also loved Merida’s La Negrita Cantina, When I wasn’t drinking mezcal and beers coated in chilli or tequila (called a michelada – a bit like a Bloody Mary, but made with beer instead), however, I looked for non alcoholic ways to quench my thirst, either with horchata (which can be found all over Latin America) – a rice-milk with cinnamon drink. or jamaica, a cold brewed Hibiscus tea with sugar. Occasionally, I was also sent to sleep like a child with raw hot chocolate, which, again you can buy at the markets. All of these had fewer consequences than their alcoholic relatives.
Cacti are magical things. They can kill you, send you on a trip or satisfy your hunger. I ate a copious amount of the nopal variety, mainly as a bar snack but, most excellently, in burrito form. I had very few burritos during my trip but Burrito Amor, Tulum made me crazy – It was so good I walked for 40 minutes in the baking sun to make sure that this was my last meal in Mexico.
The most loveable street vendor I encountered was a middle aged man in a shirt who walked up and down La Punta beach in Puerto Escondido selling tarts. These tarts are in fact the best form of baked good ever invented – usually filled with pineapple custard, cheese custard or coconut custard with a shortcrust pastry. On several occasions they saved my life after long walks to various beaches, invariable walks of shame and as a post 18-hour bus journey snack.
8. Puerto Escondido & Mazunte
I left this one until last as it’s pretty hefty – I got utterly stuck in the surfer vortexes that are the Oaxacan beaches. There are certain meals that I ate on this coast that will quite literally haunt me forever:
La Olita, Zicatela – Hands down the best tacos in Puerto Escondido. Cosy vibes, Frida Kahlo on the wall, delicious food. Stellar job.
Black Velvet Fish Tacos, Zicatela – Known locally just as ‘fish tacos’ and serves interesting versions of Mexican classics. I had a delicious (but slightly pricier) “rice ball.”
Congo – This has nothing to do with food but it is the funnest salsa club ever, open every Wednesday. Lols will ensue and you will dance your little socks off.
Palma Negra – This micro brand sells homemade palitas (Mexican ice lollies) with naughty AND healthy options. They have their own shop on Zicatela beach and also stock their ice creams in Moringa, La Punta beach.
Moringa, La Punta – A health shop selling homemade treats, fresh produce and skin care to all the yogis, backpackers and hippies that saunter through the door. (Located next to Frutas y Verduras in La Punta.)
So there you have it – that’s my list. I would invite you to enjoy the places that I discovered on my trip, but also look forward to hearing about all the holes in the walls, street vendors and new food adventures you manage to stumble across!