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Aug 3, 2013 01:40 PM

Street food in Mexico

I am visiting Mexico City and Cuernavaca in a couple of weeks. I love to try local food but I have concerns about food safety. Do I need to be cautious when eating local/street food in Mexico?

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  1. Yes. I spend a lot of time in Mexico, and you need to be cautious eating anywhere. All vegetables without a peel or skin need to be soaked in an iodine solution so you don't get ill. Most street food vendors don't do this.

    Do I eat street food, sometimes, but you have to always be careful there--even in restaurants they don't often take ample precautions.

    17 Replies
    1. re: hankstramm

      Eaten it numerous times, and hope for numerous more. Hit up the busiest vendor. Do not miss the hot dogs or the corn. Cant help it, sheets to the wind.

      1. re: hankstramm

        So generally speaking, avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables without a peel? I guess salad is a no no?

        1. re: ziggystardust

          Most street food won't include fruits and vegetables, but there can be some risk (an acceptable risk in my experiences) with salsas and sauces.

        2. re: hankstramm

          Oh, for heaven's sake. Soaked in an iodine solution?! Even in the United States, the capital of freaking out over food, that doesn't happen.

          I have been eating street food in Mexico for years, and I have never once—never ONCE—fallen ill.

          The way you stay safe is not to ask awkward questions in a language you may not speak, but to do this: eat at places with big crowds. Street food vendors don't attract crowds by poisoning their customers.

          Sure, avoid raw foods. You won't find very many raw foods served at street carts; just garnishes, and you can avoid the radishes and cucumbers if you feel concerned about it. Everything else is hit with acid (vinegar or citrus) or is cooked. Even the vegetable carts that invade Guadalajara at 5 p.m. every day have everything piping hot.

          Finally, you do need to be able to judge your constitution; if you normally eat meat and potatoes at home, going to a place where garlic and chiles are used in abundance is going to make you ill regardless of how clean the environment is.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Yes, nearly every restaurant in Mexico soaks their vegetables in an iodine solution for about 10 mins. You obviously have never been in a Mexican kitchen or you'd know better.

            In nearly every home in Mexico (I've spent many years living there), every prudent cook disinfects every vegetable that isn't cooked.

            How about the cilantro Das that's served in nearly every cart. It's one of the most egregious carries of bacteria.

            1. re: hankstramm

              I live in Mexico and I disinfect nearly every piece of vegetable, fruit, or herb that I bring home, skin or not. I've food-poisoned myself enough times, thank you very much, and I don't roll the dice on others' health.

              The best place to find the disinfecting solution is in the supermarket produce section, curiously enough.

              (Granted, I may be over-cautious. Once bitten, twice shy.)

              1. re: Soul Vole

                I also live in Mexico and have for more than 30 years. Unlike Soul Vole, I rarely disinfect anything that we will *cook* and eat. If we're going to eat it raw--fresh tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro for salsa cruda, for example--then yes, I wash those ingredients and soak them in a solution of water and Microdyn, our disinfectant of choice and probably the most common one in the country.

                For all of those 30+ years, I have eaten on the street. I have rarely gotten sick, and on the one truly memorable occasion when I did get sick, it was from eating not at a street stand but at an upscale and fashionable restaurant, very popular with the foreigner set.

                Having said all that, my policy when we have guests to dine is ALWAYS to disinfect fruits and vegetables. We know our own tolerances for whatever bug might be lingering on a potato, but we don't know yours and we won't risk making you sick.

                Regarding fruits: you will be tempted to eat fresh fruits from the bazillion fresh fruit stands in Mexico City. A large cup of luscious mango, just peeled and served in chunks with chile, limón, and salt? A small bag of crunchy, sweet jícama? The reddest watermelon you ever saw, ready for you to slurp down? Currently-in-season figs? A pint of freshly squeezed orange juice? All of these things are heavenly and I, for one, wouldn't miss them for the world. You will have to decide for yourself, but IMHO, go for it! There's nothing like it back home.


                1. re: cristina

                  Nor do I disinfect anything that I know will be cooked. Giving potatoes a Microdyn bath would be a waste of time.

                  I may be overcautious in that I go ahead and give things like avocados and limes the bath while I'm at it. It's possible the exterior could be contaminated and when you drive the knife into it you could be contaminating the flesh. I imagine it's pretty low risk, but I err on the side of caution.

                  1. re: Soul Vole

                    Actually, the risk is higher than most people realize on items that can be contaminated via cutting. I don't care what side of the border one is on, field sanitation just isn't that good. The uneven surface of many fruits and vegetables provides a huge amount of surface area to which bacteria and germs can adhere to and hide.

                    Whether you live on the U.S. side or the Mexican side, it's a good idea to rinse, wash or soak your fruits (melons we're lookin' at you!) and vegetable before cutting them. And don't forget those bagged salad mixes and processed vegetable mixes. Even tho' they are packed almost without human hands touching them, they can be subject contamination.

                    1. re: DiningDiva

                      The contamination and illness from Mexican melons some years ago was from surface bacteria on the rind introduced into the flesh during cutting.
                      How often have I stared at a bowl of pico de gallo in Mexico, wondering nervously, and hoping for the best. But I have been pretty lucky there.

                      1. re: Veggo

                        There was also a notorious outbreak related to melons that were grown in the U.S. Then there was the Earthbound spinach contamination 2 or 3 years ago that turned out to be related to the cattle farm up the road a piece.

                        Most Americans make an assumption that their food supply is "safe" when the reality is that it is not. In part I think that is because a whole bunch of Americans (in the U.S.) are so utterly disconnected from their food source(s) that the idea there could be something wrong with it is a totally novel concept to them.

                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          I concur. Most people have no way of knowing. The farm to table process is so complex, few really know. Until it's too late and CDS in Atlanta is involved. This type of problem solving is daunting in the U.S. and all but impossible in Mexico.

                          1. re: Veggo

                            Given that so much Mexican produce is imported to the USA--and so much USA produce is imported to Mexico--it's a wonder we're not all contaminated by the global...well, never mind. But it's a wonder.


                            1. re: cristina

                              Produce for domestic consumption is subject to each country's respective regulations, and produce that crosses the border is subject to the other country's regulations. Growers and transporters intending to export into the U.S. have to meet different regulations than if they were to sell into the Mexican market. Since 9/11 and with the fear of bioterrorism the U.S. regulations have become quite onerous from what I've read.

                              I'm not sure what you're suggesting, but it's not a free-for-all.

              2. re: hankstramm

                I'm going to have to agree. My middle-class friends in Mexico (they are Mexican) use an iodine solution to clean their veggies. Working and lower class friends, not as much.

                Oddly enough, one of the two times that I got truly sick in Mexico (not the day to day baubles, but I mean food poisoning with fever, etc.), was a number of hours after I ate at a fancy Italian restaurante in Roma norte. I can't confirm that that's where I got it, but I never got that sick off of street food that I know of.

              3. re: Das Ubergeek

                I appreciate everyone's advice but this particular piece makes the most sense to me.

                1. re: ziggystardust

                  Good thing you find Das Ubergeek's makes the most sense. Hopefully you will have as good of luck as he does. As for nearly 50-60 million people in Mexico that disinfect their vegetable to avoid having to take extremely strong antibiotics to get rid of e coli and the likes, hopefully they don't take his advice. These parasites, bacteria and virus are coming to the US, don't shun the iodine, we might all be using it soon here too.

            2. There has been a lot of debate here about what level of care tourists should take when traveling to Mexico. Some people will tell you to eat it all and not worry while others will tell you to follow the utmost caution. Sure, I think following some basic rules is good (and yes, if you are there just a short time, I'd avoid raw veggies and unpeeled fruits [and even peeled fruits can be a problem if you don't know the conditions under which they are peeled]). But more importantly, you have to know yourself. I have a sensitive stomach, so I think the biggest part of my problem is the change in diet to foods that include a lot of spicy salsas, fried foods, etc. Alcohol doesn't help either.

              All of this to say, if you have a tough stomach, you'll likely be okay with minimal caution. If you have a sensitive one, it might not be the food safety that gets you, but rather the types of foods you eat.

              1. I eat street (and market) food and generally haven't ever had a problem. I do tend to have a cast-iron stomach and because I travel in Mexico several times a year I probably have some Mexican gut flora to begin with.

                I wouldn't say that street food was "generally safe". Some vendors are better at the sanitation piece than others. Here are some of my precautions

                1) About 2-3 weeks prior to leaving for Mexico I start taking a probiotic with live cultures to boost the activity level in the gut.

                2) I will sometimes make it a point to drink a bottle of Yakult for breakfast the first few days. It tastes like lemon yogurt/kefir.

                3) Drink a lot of fluid and don't overdo the alcohol. Most of Mexico, including Mexico City, is at altitude. It takes the body a few days to adjust.

                4) If considering a street vendor, how busy is the vendor? Are there a lot of people, a few, or none. The busier the vendor, the more quickly s/he will be turning their products. Also, remember, Mexicans don't have any more desire to get sick from street food than you do. They live whereever you are and are more likely to know which street vendors are more likely to be safer. This isn't true 100% of the time, but it is a relatively good rule of thumb.

                5) Watch the vendor and see how they have their cart, stand, whatever set up. Is the food in ice chests, on ice, or exposed to the air and sun? Is the same person handling money and food? Are they wearing plastic gloves (or sometimes simply plastic bags) and are the plates being put into plastic bags.

                6) Is the food you're considering hot or cold? If it's hot - like tacos for instance - and the food is going directly from the comal to service, while the risk stille exists, it is probably lower because the food has been heated to over 140*. The exception to this are elotes and esquites where the corn is boiled in water. You have no way of knowing if the water was pure or contaminated. And if contaminated, neither you nor the vendor have any way of knowing what the contaminates are and if they'd be killed by boiling, or if the water even came to a boil.

                7) Is the food you're considering something that is prone to causing problems...i.e. protein items (meats, fish/seafood, eggs, and so on). If so, how are they being handled.

                8) Make liberal use of the lime wedges provided by most vendors. The acid from the lime juice is not the friend of most food bacteria. It won't prevent a problem, but it can help reduce the risk.

                If it's a street stand with 30 people around it, I'd probably take a few minutes to watch how they do business and handle food and then go for it. If it's a street stand with only a couple of people and the food is exposed to the sun and air, I'd probably pass. I've eaten tacos, carnitas, quesadillas, atole de grano, atole, corundas, enchiladas, paletas, equites, nieves, pan dulces, cocadas, tamales, cacahuates, chile rellenos, watermelon, mangos and probably more that I've forgotten, from street vendors (or market stalls, or hole in the wall restos) and have not suffered any ill effects.

                Ultimately, it's up to you to figure out how strong your countenance and how much risk you're willing to take. Only you can figure out what your level of comfort (or not) is with street food. Not all of it is "amazing" or worth the risk. Some is very good and worth the risk, but it's your choice as to what you want to risk.

                1 Reply
                1. re: DiningDiva

                  Wow! Thanks for that. Actually I lived and travelled in East/South East Asia for a decade and ate street food in China, Taiwan, Thailand and other places and I've had no big problems. I have strong guts so I guess the best precaution is common sense and choosing the busiest places.

                  I'll ignore the warnings about over consuming alcohol at my own risk.

                2. The tacos al pastor at El Huequito were the best I have ever had in my life. We often get misty just talking about them.
                  We had other stuff there besides tacos and everything was really good.
                  The location we went to was a small restaurant with outdoor seating on one of the pedestrian streets in Centro Historico. There are three locations in that area. We only went to this one on Ghent. From the web site it looks like there is a larger one somewhere.

                  Because it is a full restaurant with running water and employees in hair nets it is all of the lusciousness of street tacos with none of the fear. Seriously go on your first day in DF in case you want to go a few more times. I plan on going every day when we go back to DF in October.


                  1. Different people have different digestive systems. My husband and I have gone to Oaxaca many times. We eat the same things and he never gets sick and I do (fortunately, never seriously, and I'm always over it in a half day to a day or so). So I think that may explain the difference in the answers you are getting.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: PAO

                      I travel with the attitude that this may be my one and only chance to try the local foods from this part of the world. To avoid them seems tragic. I avoid street food that seems really sketchy, but have eaten tamales in San Cristobal de las Casas in a market that were just sitting in baskets with a towel on top to keep them hot. Were they at the safe temperature for hot food? Who knows? They were steaming hot, though, and fantastic. I gravitate toward vendors that appear to take great pride in what they are serving and preparing. These same vendors keep their work stations clean, help you dispose of your garbage and offer napkins. They have a vested interest in return business and will make the effort to offer clean food.