IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Taste your way through Mexico City

A soft flour tortilla stuffed with melted Chihuahua cheese and fresh squash blossoms. Chili- and chocolate-laden mole draped over succulent chicken breasts. Spit-roasted-pork tacos topped with pineapple, onion and cilantro.
For a real taste of Mexico, try Canamelar Style Baked Pork. Serve with rice, guacamole and tortillas.
For a real taste of Mexico, try Canamelar Style Baked Pork. Serve with rice, guacamole and tortillas. Larry Crowe / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A soft flour tortilla stuffed with melted Chihuahua cheese and fresh squash blossoms. Chili- and chocolate-laden mole draped over succulent chicken breasts. Spit-roasted-pork tacos topped with pineapple, onion and cilantro.

Whether you crave quesadillas, tamales and tortillas, cheese-filled chilies and black beans or dried beef and broiled goat, a tasting tour through Mexico City's rich variety of traditional and often-surprisingly contemporary flavors will leave you sated.

Though Mexican food differs widely by region, samples of nearly all of the country's cuisines can be found in this chaotic capital of 8 million people where two-hour weekday lunches and hours-long weekend family dinners remain the norm.

But first, be sure to leave behind your Tex-Mex and Taco Bell notions of what constitutes "Mexican food."

You won't find hard-shell tacos, stuffed-to-bursting burritos or anything remotely resembling a chimichanga here. These modifications of northern Mexican food are a far culinary cry from what most Mexicans eat.

What you will find are soft corn-tortilla tacos; steamed pork in banana leaves; fresh fish soaked in smoky achiote sauce; chicken stuffed with corn truffle; enchiladas with cream, cheese and a mild green or red salsa; corn- and bean-based soups and — for those with a desire to tap into what thrilled the taste buds of the prehispanic Indians — seared maguey worms and fried grasshoppers.

Mexico's drool-inducing, two-bite tacos are made of a warm, soft (and often homemade) corn tortilla covered with American-friendly chicken, beef and pork, as well as the more exotic Mexican favorites: eye, snout, feet, head, bone marrow, cheek and tongue. Another favorite is tacos "de barbacoa," sheep that has been steamed for several hours in underground stone ovens.

Taco stands can be found on virtually every corner of this buzzing metropolis. Among the best known chains is Tizoncito, which claims to be the inventor of the taco "al pastor" — a Middle Eastern-influenced dish of pork marinated in a number of "secret" spices that leave the meat orange-red, pungent and tender.

The meat is sliced off one taco at a time as it slowly roasts on a vertical spit similar to those used to make Greek gyros, then combined with onion, cilantro and chunks of fresh pineapple.

Part of the fun of eating tacos in Mexico City is watching a server, decked out in white apron and burger-flipping cap, as he slices the meat and pineapple from the spit, hurls them in the air with a long, ominous-looking knife and then catches them in the tortilla with his other hand.

One tip: If you don't want to stand out like a sore "gringo," you must learn the proper taco-holding technique. After folding the small flat tortilla and its ingredients into a tube, place one hand over the taco, grasp it between your thumb and three middle fingers, and bite off the end closest to your mouth — always keeping the "pinky" finger free, as the joke goes, to flick off any stray flies that might land on the other side. Whatever you do, don't eat it like a hot dog.

Mexico is believed to be the birthplace of corn and its inhabitants remain dedicated to the thousands-year-old grain. Stroll along the streets surrounding Mexico City's historic central district and you will see various vendors serving up steaming cups of loose kernels cooked on a griddle, and corn on the cob stuck on a stick for easier eating and drenched with hot, red chili piquin powder.

You'll also find tamales, made with the same masa, or corn-based dough, used for tortillas but mixed with lard to provide a mealy substance that is steam-cooked in either corn husks or banana leaves and flavored with meats, red or green salsas, and chocolate and chili-based mole; and numerous variations of sopes, smaller, sometimes thicker tortilla disks eaten unfolded and flat. The masa of some sopes is filled with beans and cottage cheese; others are topped with different meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs and salsa.

Corn fans also should check out pozole, a stew teeming with corn kernels, pork, onion, diced lettuce, radishes, red sauce and lime.

If you want to return home claiming to have eaten one of Mexico's most traditional dishes, then you have to try mole, a rich, creamy, complex sauce made from a variety of spices and ground nuts, several types of chilies and in some cases cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate. Depending on its origin and additional ingredients, mole can be black, red, yellow or green, and usually is served over pork, chicken or turkey. Both the central state of Puebla and the southern state of Oaxaca are famous for their moles, which can be found in any number of traditional Mexican restaurants scattered throughout the city.

Two other classics are mixiote, a Central-Mexican dish of chicken or pork steamed in cactus or banana leaves and topped with chili-infused sauce; and pibil, an entree from the southern state of Yucatan comprising pit-roasted pork or chicken that often has been flavored with achiote before it is roasted in banana leaves.

Since before the Spanish conquest, Mexican housewives and chefs alike have cooked with squash blossoms (flor de calabaza in Spanish), the flat-leafed nopal cactus and cuitlacoche, or corn fungus, all of which appear frequently in soups, tacos, crepes and as side dishes. Those who prefer something more edible-sounding may call cuitlacoche corn "truffle" instead of "fungus." Whatever you call it, the fungus is a delicacy in Mexico, and has an earthy, mushroom-like taste.

If you've always wanted to appear on "Fear Factor" or simply are a history buff, you may want to sample Mexican prehispanic specialties including ant eggs, known in Spanish as escamoles, maguey worms, or fried grasshoppers, known as "chapulines".

Escamoles have their own unique taste, and vary according to how they are prepared, but some have likened their flavor to corn, barley and even shrimp. They look much like white corn kernels when served. Chapulines are crunchy, with a consistency similar to fried onions, though the taste is mostly of the chili in which they usually are soaked. Though these foods are hundreds of years old, they remain delicacies for the modern Mexican palate.

Also worth knowing is the increasingly popular contemporary cuisine, which employs traditional ingredients to make unique versions of Mexican classics.

At Izote, a restaurant owned by famed Mexican chef Patricia Quintana in the swanky central Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, diners can feast on large chilies stuffed not with the traditional beef and rice, but with salmon ceviche; enchiladas filled with French Brie, not Mexican Oaxacan cheese; mole made of jamaica, the hibiscus plant whose flower is most commonly used to make flavored water or tea; and a red snapper fillet with cuitlacoche and saffron cream sauce instead of the traditional chilies, garlic and butter.

Where to go to find your favorite Mexican flavors? Literally hundreds of outdoor markets and stalls peddle everything from tacos and tamales to traditional fish and meat dishes — if you don't mind taking a chance on contracting Moctezuma's revenge (read: intestinal distress).

A safer tactic is to look, listen and smell — but don't eat — as you wander through the markets filled with their bright colors, intense aromas and crowing vendors. Then head to one of the thousands of restaurants where hygiene is a bigger priority. Staying healthy will allow that many more days of pure binging pleasure.

Buen Provecho!