Guide to Street Food: Latin America

by Robert Q Travel -

Bienvenidos! 

We wanted to share an article with you that explores the delicious and sometimes perilous street food we come across during travel. 

We're going to talk about Latin America. We have all the info you need to feast your way through the Spanish food cart world. 

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Go Where The People Are 
This is a good general rule of thumb for all eateries in all countries. If you’re in an area with a lot of food carts, don’t go to the one that has no customers.

If you see other people - especially locals - gathered around, that’s your social proof that the cart is good, clean and safe.

Also, places that are less busy are more likely to have old ingredients that the cooks are unwilling to throw out.

Know When To Go 
As pointed out by Mexconnect’s Guide to Mexican Street Tacos, “tacos are either a morning treat or a nighttime snack, pretty much disappearing between the hours of noon and six p.m. This is because the main meal in Mexico is eaten in the afternoon.”

Gringos looking for a taco lunch might therefore be SOL. Ask around and figure out when the big meal times are for the day and when the taquerias are back in business.

Check out the Mexconnect post for more about taco history, basics, and variations in Mexico. They also recommend that you …

Speciality Stands 
Go for carts that have one main speciality dish or ingredient. It means they’ll also have limited preparation equipment to clean, less risk of cross-contamination, and a controlled inventory of ingredients to keep fresh.

Plus instead of choosing from a bunch of random foods piled onto one cart, you’ll get to try the recipe that cook has perfected.

Watch What You Meat 
Joseph LaMonte from the Living in Peru blog points out certain “high risk” street food plates to avoid - “liquid and non-liquid based goods that don’t require boiling, or contain meats or sauces that are raw or difficult to detect when spoiled.”

He recommends staying away from meats that have been sitting outside in the sun, as well as dishes like arroz con mariscos (rice w/ shellfish) and many chifa (Peruvian-Asian cuisine) plates that are more at risk for spoiling.

I must however, make the case for ceviche, which during my time in Peru was a godsend from the onslaught of heavy meat and potato meals. Described by Off Track Planet as “a cold fish comprised of raw fish marinated in lime juice, red pepper, onion, cilantro, and sometimes fruit like mango, ceviche kicks sushi’s ass all the way back to Asia.”

I had my fair share of ceviche in Peru, and have tried variations in other coastal areas, like in Santa Marta, Colombia, where you can buy a cup full of shrimp and lime mix to spread on saltines. Raw fish on the street might sound, well, fishy, but my sensitive gringa stomach never once got sick.

One important tip: sometimes in more rural or impoverished areas, with food like empanadas that have been stuffed with meat, there are often bones mixed in with the stuffing. Ask the cook if the meat was deboned (¿Ha sido la carne deshuesada?), and chew slowly and carefully.

Satisfy Your Sweet-Tooth 
The only thing better than salty, savory, deep-fried Spanish food, are the sweet Spanish treats you can have as dessert (or if you’re me, breakfast or dinner).

For me, the guava (or other fruit-filled) pastelito is the threshold of a country’s sweets. I get my fill in Miami but they’re different everywhere I’ve tried them, and pretty much always amazing. I also love plantanos maduros, which are ripe plantains fried up and caramelized into juicy, sweet wonderful street snacks.

Another dessert style option you can find on the street is La Horchata, a milky drink served warm that gives the milkshakes back home a run for their money. Popular in Central America, Venezuela and Ecuador, some recipes are made with milk while other options are from rice, sesame, morro or jicaro seeds (perfect if you’re lactose-intolerant), and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla, nuts, and sugar.

And then of course is the infamous Churro. Classically served with chocolate sauce, churros have become, as Off Track Planet calls them, “the funnel cake of Latin America, found on the street and at carnivals just about everywhere.” The concept is simple: fry up some pastry dough, cover it in sugar, and if you’re feeling extra crazy, stuff it with dulce de leche, chocolate or fruit. Post-stomachache included (worth it).

Off Track Planet also has a great Guide to Street Food: Latin America that’s worth checking out.

Have it Made for You 
One advantage to eating at food stands (besides the amazing prices) is that you get to watch it being prepared. This goes especially for meat but for all foods you try, it’s your insurance that what you’re eating hasn’t been sitting out all day.

Even if the cook has pre-made food on the cart, insist that he or she make it for you fresh. See how clean the cook’s hands are, the cooking utensils being used, and the cart itself.

This requires you to use …

Common Sense 
When you walk up to the food cart, ask yourself these questions: Does it look clean? Smell weird? Have a crowd? Does the cook give off good vibes? If there’s a fryer, does the oil look like it’s been changed recently?

About 99% of the time you can rely on your instincts and avoid any gastric mishaps. Be adventurous, but do so within your own comfort level.

I tried anticuchos in Peru (skewered cow heart, actually very good) but couldn’t bring myself to try the cuy (guinea pigs cooked whole, faces, paws and all, so you know it’s not a rat) - no regrets.

 

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