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In most of Latin America the news for vegetarians isn’t great, so Mexico comes as a pleasant surprise. It is a meat focused country and vegetarianism isn’t widespread, but luckily vegetarian ingredients like corn tortillas, beans, cheese, and vegetables feature in many dishes so there is almost always an option for tasty meat-free meals.
The best options for vegetarians in Mexico are antojitos, literally little whims or cravings. These quick, inexpensive snacks are found at street stalls or taquerias, served from breakfast until late at night depending on the stall. Most of these are based around corn tortillas and you can usually get vegetarian versions, even if it is just cheese, and then liven them up with common toppings like salsas (red and green, cooked and raw), chopped onion, cilantro (coriander), lettuce, cabbage, and crema (Mexican sour cream).
Veggie toppings to look out for include rajas (grilled poblano pepper strips, often mixed with crema and cheese), champiñones (mushrooms), frijoles (beans), queso (cheese), requesón (ricotta), flor de calabaza (squash blossom), nopales (cactus), papa (potato), and huitlacoche (corn smut, a fungus that grows on corn, similar to mushroom).
The main meal of the day in Mexico is between 2-5pm in the afternoon when restaurants serve comida corrida set meals consisting of soup, a main dish, dessert, and agua fresca (fruit water). Most of the main dishes are meat based so we never bothered with comida corrida, although it is possible to find a vegetarian option like chile relleno (stuffed pepper). For us antojitos were quicker, cheaper, and more vegetarian friendly.
One thing to bear in mind is that sometimes beans are cooked with lard (manteca de cerdo). You could ask about it or choose to turn a blind eye as we did, although we ate beans much more often at home because of this. Mexico is great for self-catering if you have access to a kitchen. A kilo of fresh warm corn tortillas is just 14 pesos ($1.10) from a tortilleria, fresh vegetables and fruit are inexpensive and good quality, and you can make big batches of refried beans from cheap bags of dried beans. Note that if you used canned refried beans some brands contain manteca de cerdo and some don’t so check the label.
Useful Spanish Phrases
As always speaking the local language helps to explain what you can and can’t eat. In some places in Mexico “soy vegetariano/a” (I’m a vegetarian) will be understood, but it’s always better to be more specific: “No como carne, ni pollo, ni jamón, ni pescado” (I don’t eat meat, chicken, ham or fish).
This usually worked fine and there was only one occasion in Mexico that we ended up with meat in our food. A taco stand in Mexico City said they could do us a potato and cactus taco but the potato obviously had bits of meat in it, so small that they didn’t think it counted. Checking before you bite is always a good idea.
Hearty breakfasts are popular in Mexico and most of these include eggs with beans, tortillas and salsa, many of them vegetarian. We aren’t egg fans, and although Simon had omelette a few times we never tried classics like huevos rancheros (fried egg on tortilla with salsa) or huevos a la Mexicana (scrambled egg with onion, chile and tomato). If you do like eggs then there are plenty of variations to choose from.
Non-egg breakfast options include hotcakes (pancakes), chilaquiles, and molletes.
Leftover tortillas are cut and fried to make totopos (tortilla chips) which are covered in salsa and sometimes toppings like crema, cheese, avocado, beans, eggs or chicken. They are a bit like a saucy nachos, are super filling, and can vary in tastiness—my favourites were at La Ceiba in Playa del Carmen.
Another great breakfast option and pure comfort food is molletes. This Mexican cheese on toast is a roll topped with refried beans and melted cheese, with salsa on the side.
The classic Mexican street food is sadly not very vegetarian friendly. Tacos are small soft corn tortillas with any kind of filling, but mostly the fillings are meat. Here are a few places we found with veggie tacos:
- Mexico City: Taquería El Guero (known as Hola) on Avenida Amsterdam 135 in Condesa has lots of vegetarian options including acelga (chard), beans and cheese, and coliflór (cauliflower). Beans, cheese and guacamole are available as extra toppings.
- Playa del Carmen: La Exquisita de la 38 on Calle 38 between 5th and 10th Avenues has an unusual pipian verde de setas taco: mushrooms mixed in a pesto like salsa made from toasted pumpkin seeds.
- San Pancho: Baja Taqueria on Ave Tercer Mundo (the main street) has a veggie taco with grilled vegetables sautéed in garlic with melted cheese.
Quesadillas are the most common vegetarian option as they are easy to find and can always be made vegetarian, even if it’s just cheese which you can liven up with toppings like salsa, onions etc. Fillings vary around Mexico and include rajas (roast poblano peppers), squash blossom, mushroom, and huitlacoche (corn smut). You often have to ask for cheese in addition to the other filling.
In Mexico City they love to deep-fry their quesadillas, making them more like empanadas. They aren’t very healthy but are tasty with potato and cheese making a particularly delicious combo. Our favourites were at Las Quekas outside San Cosme market in San Rafael.
We only had sincronizadas once. They are basically the same as quesadillas except they are made from flour not corn tortillas, and two tortillas sandwich the filling in the middle, rather than one tortilla being folded in half. We had ours at La Exquisita de la 38 in Playa del Carmen which has three veggie options—aubergine/eggplant, leek, and chaya (a local leafy green) and achiote (a spice), all with panela cheese.
Mexico City has by far the most choice of vegetarian street food, and our favourite was delicious tlacoyos which are usually meat-free. The ones we tried were made from blue corn and cooked over a simple comal on the street—they are always made by women. The oval shaped masa (corn dough) is stuffed with beans, cheese, or fava beans (habas). We went with fava beans and topped it with cactus, onion, cilantro and salsa.
Another yummy deep-fried option is flautas—tortillas are filled, rolled and deep-fried. Vegetarian fillings are potato or cheese, and they are usually topped with crema, salsa, lettuce and cheese.
Sopes are small disks of thick fried masa dough with pinched sides to keep the toppings on top. We’ve had them with cheese, beans, squash blossom, rajas, and at the upmarket Bistro Organico in San Pancho, jamaica (hibiscus flower) and panela.
These are bigger versions of sopes, with an oblong masa base with various toppings.
Crunchy tortillas with various toppings. We didn’t see vegetarian versions of tostadas very often so we usually made them ourselves at home with beans, guacamole and salsa.
A Mexican sandwich roll stuffed with many ingredients. Meat is the main filling but you can ask for it without and instead have beans, cheese, egg, avocado, tomato, and salsa.
We occasionally came across these stuffed pastries with fillings such as onion, cheese, spinach, rajas, corn, and potato.
In Mexico corn on the cob is served on a stick and smothered with crema, chile powder, lime, and cheese.
Tomato soup is poured over fried tortilla strips and garnished with an array of toppings: panela cheese, avocado, cilantro, fried chiles, onion, and crema.
Roasted poblano peppers usually stuffed with cheese, battered and fried, and served with salsa. It’s a good idea to check that it hasn’t been filled with meat.
These rolled tortillas are usually filled with meat and covered with salsa but we sometimes found them with vegetables or panela cheese.
These are like enchiladas but covered in a bean sauce.
Most restaurants and street stands serve agua fresca, a drink made from blended fresh fruit, water and sugar. The most common are jamaica (hibiscus flower, my favourite), tamarindo (tamarind), fruit like piña (pineapple) or sandia (watermelon), and horchata, made with rice and cinnamon making a milky sweet drink almost like melted ice-cream.
You can also find fresh juices or jugo, either freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit, or a blended mix. In bigger cities we found plenty of juice stalls who make set juice blends like antigripal (anti flu) with guava, orange, pineapple, lime, and honey. They seemed to have a blend for every ailment or you can request your own. You can also get licuados (milkshakes) with milk blended with the fruit.
Although I admit we’re rather bored of cheese quesadillas after six months in Mexico, it’s definitely the most vegetarian friendly country we’ve visited in Latin America and we loved having the opportunity to delve into Mexican cuisine. Vegetarian street food is more easily found in bigger cities like Mexico City but even in smaller towns you are never going to starve as Mexicans are happy to whip you up something without meat, and the wonderful array of ubiquitous salsas and toppings livens up even the simplest dish. We also enjoyed doing a cooking class, and taking advantage of the wonderful fresh produce in the markets to cook for ourselves at home.
We have also compiled a list of our favourite vegetarian friendly restaurants in Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast and in San Pancho near Sayulita/Puerto Vallarta.
If you are a travelling vegetarian don’t miss our vegetarian survival guides to Jordan, Burma, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.
What an amazing site – very helpful! My boyfriend is planning a solo trip to Mexico City this year and I’m helping him find some vegetarian options. This page gave me everything I needed. Thank you! :)
Mexico City has some great veggie options – I hope he has a great trip!
Brilliant post, put me to shame in my own city :P Mexican food is extremely veg-friendly even though a lot of the popular dishes are animal based. Quite a lot of vegan tacos stands are popping up all over the place lately too – definitely a vegetarian and vegan movement going in a positive direction in DF.
Any recommendations on where to get those Tlacoyos in Mexico City in the historic centre? Or are the stalls easy to find all over? :) Thanks!
We tried them on this food tour: http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/exploring-mexico-citys-street-food-and-markets/ They were near Mercado San Juan.
Great list – I realize it is a couple years old now, but this will definitely help during my solo trip to the DF. Keep in mind that mole and relleno sauce generally contains chicken stock. :( (In the past, I’ve ordered chile rellenos but asked for salsa verde or pico de gallo instead of the red sauce. Yummy
I thoroughly enjoyed your photos of Guanajuato and this detailed vegetarian cuisine post! Thank you for taking the time to put it all together.
What a great article! I have some more tips for strict vegetarians to keep in mind though.
– Tortilla soup and rice are often made with a chicken broth/base.
– Mole sauces may contain chicken or beef broth.
– Some breads and baked goods may be made with lard.
Learn how to ask if these things are in your dish and don’t assume anyone knows the definition of “vegetarian”. It’s been my experience that animal based broths, lard, chicken and seafood may be considered vegetarian and no one wants to spend their vacation in the restroom with an upset digestive system. Happy Eats!
Thank you for this post. Puts me at ease since I will be in mexico city in a couple of weeks. Good to know Mexico City has many options compared to other central/South American countries.
Did you know Waitrose in the UK sell mole sauce in a jar.
This chocolate & chilli sauce is absolutely delicious!
Hello travelers! My name is Samia and I am the proud founder/owner of Verde Vegan, a 100% Vegan & Vegetarian Restaurant and Juice Bar in Acapulco. We are listed on HappyCow, as well as Google Plus, Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, and Trip Advisor. I look forward to many international vegan and vegetarian visitors!
Thanks, very helpful !! i am traveling to Mexico next week. nice guide to what i can eat and where! :)
Hey, thanks for the pics, it looks great… I’m also vegetarian an I plane to go to mexico, i was wondering how is the typical reaction you get there when you say you’re vegetarian?
Most of the time people understood it and weren’t too bothered although it’s always a good idea to be clear on exactly what you can’t eat.
Great site. I just would like to point out that quite a few of the dishes you mention are maybe not actually vegetarian. I doubt they use vegetarian rennet to make cheese in Mexico. (Anyone know if they do?)Given that the cheese is unlikely to be veggie, this limits your options somewhat.
A lot people above are saying Mexican food is mainly veggie, That’s not strictly true. There may be a lot of veg dishes but I gather that a lot of these are cooked in lard or, if not, may still have been cooked in oil that has had meat cooked in it.
I’m a veggie and have travelled all over. It can be really tough if you are strict about it . I was a vegan for a long time, but that is almost impossible in a lot of countries. You have done well. Keep it up!
Good luck with your travels.
It is true that the cheese is unlikely to be vegetarian and some things may be cooked it lard. We’ve become less strict vegetarians on our travels and have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to hidden ingredients. It’s not ideal but it’s a decision we made so that we didn’t limit the local dishes we could try even further.
I’m glad you are displaying the wonderfully delicious vegetarian Mexican foods! Mexicans are definitely meat eaters but we also eat LOTS of veggie dishes, alot more than is accounted for. In our Mexican home, my mother would always prepare sauteed vegetable dishes and we always had sliced avocado next to all of our plates. My favorites were mushrooms, zucchini, corn and rajas in a taco, potato tacos, and black beans with sliced tomatoes, jalapenos, and avocado with some lime juice. Whenever vegetarians say that it is hard to find Mexican vegetarian food, I inform them that it is not true. They just haven’t been exposed to homestyle Mexican cooking beyond taco shop fast food fare. Other vegetarian items are nopalitos(cactus salad), sopa de fideo (vermicelli tomato soup), and tortitas de papa y coliflor (little potato & cauliflower patties in a tomato sauce).
It’s a shame we can’t all get access to home cooking -it sounds delicious.
most Mexicans are mostly vegetarian, but they don’t call themselves vegetarian because they probably don’t even know that people have created a word for people who don’t eat meat. Mostly tortillas and chili, then if you can afford it, you add beans, and on rare occasion, you eat some meat.
As non-meat eaters, we have found Mexico to be great for veggie options. There’s still the occasional “yes, without chicken too”, but alternatives abound – quesadillas with flor de calabaza have become our go-to meal when in a bind (or not!). Although Tony above is right when he says Mexican traditional cuisine is mostly vegetarian, “real” Mexican food (if by this he means what is eaten by Mexicans) seems more meat-orientated than ever. Again, there are plenty of veggie/fruit choices, but a dish without meat seems to be the exception, not the rule. Anyway, thank you for the rundown on all the colorful goodness Mexico has to offer. We’ll try to have a go at some of the recommended spots in Playa del Carmen. Safe travels!
Mmm, love flor de calabaza, and quesadillas were our full back option too. Enjoy Playa -La Cueva del Chango is a great option for veggie Mexican.
Great tips! Mexican food just rules. I really miss it, especially since I’m a bit of a Mexican food snob. And proud of it.
-If you’re at a taquería look for these: alambre de nopal (nopal is the leaf of the prickly pear plant. A type of Cactus, We have it here as a salad or as cooked vegetable, very healthy!) The “alambre” refers to it being prepared in a pan with onion, green pepper. Some times they add Tocino (bacon) but you can ask for a bacon free dish. -Anything to do with Nopales -Guacamole! -Molletes for breakfast! (loafs of bread cut in half, spread with refried beans, some cheese and pico de gallo sauce. Sometimes they add chorizo. Just be careful with that. -Chilaquiles, sin pollo! (tortillas cut in small squares prepared with green tomato or red sauce. Dressed with cheese and cream. Just ask the waiter to hold the chicken. And you could also look up vegetarian restaurants. There are several which should satisfy your culinary needs. And even if the restaurant you visit is not vegetarian, remember: “there’s always something”. Now a word: I know lard is used in the preparation of many dishes but I have no idea which ones. There’s no guarantee these are 100% lard free but is the best I could come up with. Good luck!
We just read this post and my husband immediately decided we are going out to dinner tonight in San Cristobal de las Casas. Everything looks mouthwatering!! Thank you for sharing :)
Hope you ate something tasty :)
This stuff looks AMAZING! We’ve included this post in our latest Web Wrap: http://www.frugalmonkey.com/travel-news/web-wrap-20-june-2013.html!
Thanks very much!
Oh these pictures are so good, especially the chile relleno….yummy. Mexico is so fully of quality vegetable resources. The ability to mix and match them in salad’s, soups or raw is incredible.
Great article but what on god’s green earth are you talking about when you say Mexico has little options for vegetarians? The ENTIRE foundation to Mexican cuisine IS vegetarian. Beans, squash, chocolate, corn, cactus, peanuts, chiles, chia, amaranth, spirulina, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc etc etc. Meat is eaten a lot in Mexico, but the foundation and the most traditional recipes have been vegetarian focused for thousands of years. In fact, it wasn’t until Europeans invaded, that Mexicans began incorporating more meat into their diets. For those who eat real Mexican food, it comes as no surprise that a vegetarian will have a field day with the cuisine. Most of these recipes that you posted are eaten a lot. It is rare to find an entire country or society that is strictly vegetarian, but Mexican cuisine is at the foundation of almost all cuisines to begin with.
Well I didn’t say it had few options for vegetarians as I posted a whole post with all the options! That said, go to a typical taco stand and there may not be any vegetarian options—meat (or fish on the coast) still dominates.
This is very true but, fault of the Spaniards (most likely) or not, most everything is now slathered in animal gunk. You can get vegetarian food, but you have to take great care. I’m still getting the stink-eye from the ladies selling ‘vegetarian’ tamales made with manteca. Check what the relleno is in your chile before you order.
That is pretty good guide, the Huaraches seems really delicious. Safe travel guys.
There are lots of delicious options. Happy travels to you too.
I am a vegetarian and I find all these dishes mouth watering and extremely delicious!
My wife is vegetarian and I’ve found that I have had to change my travel style a bit in a few places to find vegie options. Good to know that there are some options in Mexico.
Mexico should be good for you both.
You are right about all this. I live in San Pancho and a a pescaterian. I ate seafood about twice a year in the states, and am now feeling guilty, but it does make things easier. Do try the huevos Mexicanas, but be aware that they shove some jamon in there at some spots. it’s pretty disgusting that they call lard “butter of pig”. I try to ignore it, but a few places have sent me to the banos on the spot. The fixins make the meal. I won’t eat at a place that has nought but bottled salsa on tap. Because of that and tourist prices, I mostly cook at home, sometimes for a crowd. Potliucks with like-minded people are the most fun. What a wonderful country. Such lovely people and so many surprises.
Being a pescatarian on the coast would definitely make things easier. Glad you are enjoying it here!
These pictures are just obscene. The food looks so gorgeous, and the colours (*blue* corn?!); just wow! Nomnonom. Also, those are my kinds of breakfasts! I’ll take savory over sweet breakfast any day; so much more satisfying in the morning. And I love the name ‘corn smut’, and while it sounds kinda weird, I’ll have to try it just for the name!
Blue corn is very cool. Look out for it in Peru where it makes a purple non-alcoholic drink called chicha morada. Corn smut is considered a delicacy. We weren’t huge fans (but then we don’t like mushrooms too much) but it doesn’t have an offensive taste like you might think.
I mean it’s made from purple corn.
Oh god. After 10 months in Asia, this post is making me crazy. It has been so long since we have had even fake Mexican food, never mind the real deal! That picture of the chile relleno nearly brought me to tears…
We always crave what we can’t have. I’m looking forward to some Asian food when we get to San Francisco next month.
This is so useful. I am not a vegetarian but rarely eat meat and basically don’t eat meat at all when traveling. The photos are beautiful, especially with all those colorful toppings!
The toppings really make the dishes shine—we’re going to miss salsa with everything.
Wow, all of that looks so delicious! Good to know it is possible to find vegetarian options in Mexico.
Now I really want some Mexican food… too bad I’m currently in Hong Kong where that’s nearly impossible!
I love the pictures! There are some delicious looking dishes here that I’ve never heard of. Thanks for such a great post!
Thanks Thomas and glad you enjoyed it. Hope you can try some of the dishes for yourself.
This makes me so hungry, all of them look incredibly delicious!
Me too, I just had to go and whip up a batch of guacamole after finishing the post :)
Thanks so much. Saved our butts.