Occasionally if I feel I have earned a special treat (rarely) or if my self discipline is lacking (often), I am drawn to the food carts located right at 5th and Juarez for a special breakfast treat. My charming bride, Mrs. Ima Princess, does not consider tacos and tortas as civilized breakfast offerings and therefore refuses to eat them and I know a few others who object for the same reason but, there are lots and lots of people here in Playa who love to start their day at the food carts. You’ll find everyone from the mayor to the street sweeper eating at the carts in the morning. It’s a stand up affair, with no seating provided and don’t be bashful because you’re definitely going to rub elbows with your neighbors.
For a long time, I was too intimidated to step up and order something from the carts because I couldn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t know what I was looking at anyway. I got over that years ago although there are still a few items remaining that are a mystery to me. It’s not that I’m embarrassed to ask, I just don’t really want to know. If I have to squint my eyes and look at the item really up close and still don’t have any idea what it is after about 10 seconds, I won’t usually order it. Some of the stuff is just a little too far out in left field for me even though I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater.
The carts start getting set up around 7am daily and they remain until they sell out which is usually some time around noon. This is a hands on operation and if your squeamish about watching someone handle your food with their fingers either just order and don’t watch or go stand in front of the church while someone else orders for you. Be comforted to know that the person who prepares your food is not the same person that takes your money…….usually.
Now……… if you’re new to this dining experience and you want to give it a try, here’s how I suggest you break the ice (not that you'll find any). Start with something simple. Cochinita pibil is simple and it’s still my favorite. Cochinita pibil is big pieces of pork rubbed with achiote paste then mixed with sour orange juice and other seasonings then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for a long time until it is super tender and can be easily shredded by hand. It is delicious. It is also pretty easy to identify because it is usually in a really big pan full of meat and juice and it is usually hand pulled to order by the “staff”. If you’re not sure, just listen and watch for a minute or two and you’ll hear somebody order “cochinita”. Then you can see what it looks like before you order. Or you can just walk up and say “Cochinita, por favor”. The reply will be “taco o torta?” You reply “Dos tacos, por favor” unless you want a sandwich in which case you would say “una torta, por favor”. I suggest you stick with tacos until you get the hang of things although the tortas are just as delicious. Remember, Rome was not built in a day. You can always come back tomorrow and get something else. Today we are doing tacos. It only takes a few seconds to put a taco together and in that few seconds you will probably be asked “Cebollas?” to which you reply “Si, por favor”. Cebollas are the marinated purple onions which are a must. Make sure you get some.
Now this is where things get a little different. You will next be handed your two tacos on a little Styrofoam plate but there will be no mention of money. You take your tacos from the attendant with a simple “Gracias!” and find a spot nearby to stand and eat. If you want to add some zip to your tacos you will find a container of salsa on the front of the cart that looks similar to the marinated purple onions on your taco. It is similar but they’ve added enough habanero chiles to it to curl your toenails if you’re not careful. Try a little on one taco first.
Once you have enjoyed your two tacos, it’s time to decide if you want some more which you probably will. So, work your way back to the front or side of the cart with your little Styrofoam tray, hand it to the attendant and ask for two more. You know the routine now. When you have enjoyed two more tacos you will probably have had enough for your initial visit. Now it’s time to pay and excuse yourself so someone else can squeeze in to eat. Someone will be collecting money. Walk over to them and when it’s your turn say “cuatro tacos” or hold up 4 fingers and say “tacos” or whatever. This is the honor system. Don’t try to cheat. They will rattle off a number in Spanish. If you understand Spanish numbers give them what is due. If you don’t understand Spanish numbers the going rate for a taco is eight pesos. I have never been overcharged, at least as far as I know, and I have never been charged a different amount because I’m a gringo. Still, it’s probably a good idea to just have a few 20 peso notes and some coins in your pocket so you’re not changing out big bills. Also make sure you are paying the person at the cart where you got your food. These guys are independent contractors. Don’t pay the wrong one.
You have now completed your first course in food cart dining. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back again and again day after day to try different items. It’s really a lot of fun, it’s affordable and it’s really Mexican. I have never become ill and I think it’s some of the freshest food in Playa because they sell out each day and start fresh the next morning.
Other things to try from the carts are the shrimp tacos “tacos de camaron” and the cheese stuffed chile tacos “tacos rellenos”. Both the shrimp and the rellenos come topped with Mexican rice and purple onions. Don't forget the hot sauce out front. There are plenty of other items to try as well. I have included a picture of one of the items available that most will consider rather unusual. In English it is known as “corn fungus”, “smut” and “devils corn”. And that is just what it is, a fungus that grows on corn. In the US, farmers consider it a crop disease and go to great lengths to keep it from infesting their corn crops. In Mexico it was named huitlacoche by the Aztec which translates to English as “raven’s excrement”. Yummers! As it was in the day of the Aztec, it is still considered to be a delicacy throughout Mexico. I’ve squinted at it quite a few times while I’m eating my morning tacos and I’ve seen it on several restaurant menus but everytime I decide to give it a try I suddenly feel full and not hungry anymore. You look at the picture I’ve included and send me an email if you’re still hungry after looking at it. If you have any doubts about what this stuff really looks like, just click on the picture for a real closeup shot. Be careful. It's not for the faint of heart.
If you need something to drink while you are eating, you can get a variety of different bottled sodas from any of the carts or you can buy a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice from the lady right on the corner next to the church.
If you have any room for dessert, just walk down the street towards the beach and look to your right. Here you will find big colorful cups of freshly sliced tropical fruits of all varieties for 18 pesos each. If you have a few minutes to spare, watch the women who peel and cut these fresh fruits and then go home and try it yourself. Good luck! Mango, papaya, coconut, watermelon, cantaloupe, mandarine oranges, tangerines and honeydew melon plus more are all available.