The Art of the Changarro

It’s hard for me to imagine what México, D.F. would be like without the ubiquitous street vendors.  Throughout the city, on corners, plazas, empty lots, and in front of popular “permanent” businesses, vendors set up shop selling everything from gum, to tchotchkes, to home repair kits, to food like tlacoyos, tacos(!), and tortas.  Some stalls are nothing more than a tray set of a small stand, while others involve a couple of plastic chairs set around a charcoal grill.  And, of course, other stalls are so fixed to the spot that they become as permanent as the more “official” buildings.

The term changarro refers to a single “unofficial” business, one of these small stands or a stand-alone box, while tianguis, which means “market” in nahuatl, signifies a group of stalls.  These local marketplaces aren’t just convenient businesses, but they can become de facto centers of culture and cuisine, whereby local residents, students, and employees descend on a tianguis during meal hours to peruse the cornucopia of dishes and socialize.  These changarro stalls, in one sense are a perfect example of economic and culinary “survival of the fittest,” where the best cooks and the cheapest meals are the ones that survive the competition.  If you know where to go, you can find tacos so heavenly they defy gravity, giant tortas (Mexican sandwiches) with steak, beans, and avocado, and even fresh ceviche (though choose wisely with the last one!).

Tacos Don Memo is one of many changarros in this tianguis that is popular as an eating and socializing hangout with students from nearby Tec. de Monterrey.

Tacos Don Memo, a changarro near Tec. de Monterrey in Mexico City, seems quite popular with students.

Another, less publicized element of these street businesses is the “changarro mafia” that organizes many of the streetside tianguis.  It’s sometimes possible to identify such groups because they all have the same-colored awnings.  Typically, the stalls in a mafia tianguis are run independently, and the shop owners pay a small fee which might range from 20-100 pesos per day, depending on location and size of the stall, to the local mafia representative.  In turn, the mafia provides protection not just from vandals and crime, but also pays off the police — street vendors are, technically, illegal — and ensures that there are no other vendors selling the same product in the tianguis.  If you try to set up your own illegal business too close to a tianguis, just be careful or you might find yourself (hypothetically speaking, of course) at the wrong end of the Mexican version of a baseball bat!


México, D.F.


The Rules of Thumb for Mexican Salsa

¿Son picosas?” I asked, pointing to three bowls of salsa at a street-side taquería near Torre Mural. One was a big bowl of proper guacamole, with large chucks of avocado and a green, velvety texture; the second, also green and full of onions and cilantro and other herbs; and the third, a standard smoked & roasted pepper condiment that could be more aptly described as taco-sauce than salsa. “Las verdes más que la roja, que no es picosa” the woman said, informing me that the two green salsas were hotter than the mild red. But I couldn’t stay my curiosity; the red is common, almost pedantic, but these two green ones looked different… forbidden… enticing. I had to try them…. Well. It’s almost an hour later, and the fire in my mouth is still raging.

Salsas are a ubiquitous part of daily cuisine in Mexico City and a specialty of many taquerías. Although the colors are often standard, red, yellow, and green, the varieties are nearly endless. Perhaps later, I’ll have tried enough to accurately categorize them; however, in the mean time, it seems prudent that I place a reminder here for myself about how not to obliterate my sense of taste. It’s not that every salsa is spicy, but, on occasion, those harmless looking bowls of uber-sabor can belie a monster.

The Rules of Thumb for Mexican Salsa

  1. Unlike back home, green and yellow salsas are much hotter than red
  2. The more interesting it looks, the hotter it’s likely to be
  3. Cooks, waiters, and customers will gladly give you their honest opinion…
  4. …but are likely to underrate a salsa’s bite
  5. Salsas with big chunks of pepper aren’t always hot; those without aren’t always mild
  6. Salsas off the street tend to be more interesting, and seem to be much hotter, than those at restaurants

Thus, it’s a good idea to always ask, always expert something hotter than described, and if it’s green and looks really interesting, have a fire extinguisher ready.


México, D.F.