As he hands a client a freshly made torta de chilaquiles (a bread roll stuffed with salsa-coated fried tortilla chips), Giovanni Aguilar says, affably: “The fact that Mexican food can be bad for you because it’s so greasy is nothing new, but the way it tastes, you just have to have it.” This is the food vendor’s response to a ranking published by the gastronomic website Taste Atlas, which placed three Mexican street foods among the worst in the world.
Tripe (ranked 17th) and torta cubana (a bread roll stuffed with many kinds of meat and seasonings, ranked 14th) achieved a more favorable position than the torta de tamal (a tamal inside a roll, ranked 13th), but the three dishes share the same score: 3.5 out of five stars. Nonetheless, they still remain almost one point above that which Taste Atlas considers to be the absolute worst: kuzu kelle, a Turkish dish prepared with baked sheep’s head.
In Mexico City, the ranking doesn’t appear to have affected business. Aguilar’s stand is small and located on Reforma Avenue. According to his calculations, he can sell up to 100 tortas de tamal a day, on top of all the bare tamales and the other kinds of tortas that he sells. “It’s quite a convenient dish; one is enough to keep you going all day long,” he says.
🇲🇽 #Chalupas are small corn tortillas fried in lard, and topped with a wide array of savory ingredients - red or green salsa, shredded pork, chicken or beef, chopped onion and sometimes even fresh cheese.https://t.co/DqRtsPe4VD— TasteAtlas (@TasteAtlas) September 13, 2022
‘One is enough to keep you going all day’
Aguilar pays no attention to these kinds of rankings and claims that those who criticize these popular dishes don’t know what it is like to live in Mexico. “Habit has a lot to do with it; there are differences even among Mexicans from the south and those from the north, where the food is not as spicy. In the south, it’s nothing but pozole [a traditional soup made with corn and pork meat]. The advantage of Mexico City is that you can find it all.”
The stand is surrounded by customers and more keep arriving to place their orders. Aside from the tortas, other dishes like chilaquiles, fried tortillas covered in spicy salsa that can be complemented with a number of toppings like cream, cheese, chopped onion and meat, are proving popular. Aguilar says that people’s eating habits have changed a lot. “Nowadays, they order more sandwiches, more chilaquiles and less tortas de tamal, but when the cold season arrives... what you crave is a tamal.”
The tamal that Aguilar makes consists of corn flour, vegetable shortening and, depending on the type of tamal, either salt or sugar. It is a simple dish, which he considers to be a sort of steamed bread. Customers choose their own toppings: “Some want cream or salsa; everyone has their own preferences. You want beans? Go ahead, eat it all, don’t waste it, bro.”
The vendor serves a cup of coffee from an orange container as he reflects that, in the modern world, basically all food is unhealthy. “Long ago everything was better, everything was homemade. Nothing beats what you get at the farm, but it comes at a price,” he concludes as he hands a customer her change.