Tamales are a favorite for breakfast and as a late-night snack. Hearty and filling, many tamales feature ingredients other than meat, such as Mexico’s corn fungus huitlacoche, which is salty and earthy in flavor. All sweet tamales are made without meat and a few places, such as Doña Emi’s in Colonia Roma, have beyond-the-norm combinations, including fig and goat cheese. At most streetside stands, you will find strawberry, pineapple and guayaba flavors. Atole is the common combo item—a thick corn-based porridge that is drunk, not eaten with a spoon. With exceptions, tamales are made with lard, so ask in advance if that is a concern for you as a vegetarian.
Tamales Doña Emi’s, Jalapa 278, Roma Sur, Mexico City, Mexico, +52 01 55 5264 5316
When you see the small football-shaped corn patties sitting on the edge of a piping hot comal, you will know that you are looking at a tlacoyo; it’s mainly women who are running these small street stands, and if you are lucky, they are using traditional blue kernel corn dough. The filling inside your tlacoyo will either be refried beans, mashed fava beans or requesón cheese, which is a little like ricotta in texture. On top, you’ll find slippery nopal cactus, chopped raw onion, cilantro and queso fresco, which is crumbly and without much of a distinctive taste. The dish is a vegetarian’s dream.
Most popular in the morning and up until lunchtime, tacos de guisado are basically tacos with a “filling”; this could run the gamut from pork skin in a green sauce to a chipotle pepper, but there are always at least a few vegetarian options. Also, these are the only tacos in central Mexico served with rice on top. Scrambled egg in pasilla sauce is delicious; rajas con crema are a spicy delight, and chiles rellenos are stuffed with piping hot cheese on the inside and a delicious red sauce on the outside. Most of these stands are small and mobile, serving the mid-morning cravings of office workers.
Of course, the traditional quesadilla is always available for vegetarians, even though most people cook them on the same surface as meat, causing them to have a slightly meaty flavor. In Mexico City, however, quesadillas don’t necessarily have any cheese at all (in the rest of the country, a quesadilla generally means a tortilla with cheese). In the nation’s capital, you can get your “quesadilla” with squash blossoms on the inside or a mushroom and onion filling, salty huitlacoche or potatoes and chile poblano. If you want cheese with any of those filings, all you have to do is ask.
Hailing from the culinary landscape of Oaxaca, tlayudas generally always have meat on top, but you are welcome to ask at any stand or restaurant for a “versión vegetariana” (a vegetarian version) that will just include the refried beans base, melted cheese, and salsa. A few warnings again about lard—these massive crispy tortillas usually have a thin layer of lard, and the refried beans might have it in them as well. If you can get over the animal fat possibility, this regional dish will most definitely please your taste buds.
It’s great to know that as a vegetarian you can partake in some of Mexico’s most iconic dishes. Chiles rellenos are generally made with poblano peppers that are stuffed with quesillo (also called Oaxacan cheese). The sauce that covers them varies, but some, such as the common red tomato-based sauce, are meat-free. Mole may contain chicken broth, so always check. There are no set rules with chiles rellenos; you can eat one that’s super mild one day and an almost sweet or burn-your-mouth pepper the next day from the same kitchen. Don’t even bother asking; the waiters and chefs don’t know either, as it’s all about the pepper.
As veganism hasn’t exactly caught on in the entire country, you will most likely only find vegan tacos in Mexico City. Por Siempre Vegana has been around for a few years now, and it continues to be a crowd-pleaser for anyone who wants to avoid all meat products. Their menu includes soysage, wheat al pastor, and other meat substitutes that taste incredibly close to the real thing. They also have black beans and rice toppings and some unusual salsas and fresh, fruit-flavored aguas.