Vegetarian Survival Guide to Mexico

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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).

Mexican salsas

Mexican salsas

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.

Egg Breakfasts

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.

Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles

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.

Molletes

Molletes

Molletes

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.

Tacos

Chard taco topped with cactus, cheese, and green salsa

Chard taco topped with cactus, cheese, and green salsa

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.
Veggie taco at Baja Taqueria, San Pancho

Veggie taco at Baja Taqueria, San Pancho

Quesadillas

Mexican vegetarian quesadillas

Vegetarian quesadillas: Deep-fried with cheese and potato; rajas; mushroom and cheese; blue corn with huitlacoche

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.

Sincronizadas

Sinchronizadas

Sinchronizadas

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.

Tlacoyos

 

Blue corn tlacoyo with fava beans

Blue corn tlacoyo with fava beans, topped with salsa, cactus, cilantro and onion

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.

Flautas

Potato flautas

Potato flautas

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

Hibiscus and panela sopes at Bistro Organico, San Pancho

Hibiscus and panela sopes at Bistro Organico, San Pancho

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.

Huaraches

Cheese and bean huaraches

Cheese and bean huaraches

These are bigger versions of sopes, with an oblong masa base with various toppings.

Tostadas

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.

Tortas

Avocado and Chipotle torta

We skipped the turkey at a torta stand in Mexico City and had a simple but delicious avocado and chipotle salsa torta

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.

Empanadas

Rajas empanadas

Rajas empanadas

We occasionally came across these stuffed pastries with fillings such as onion, cheese, spinach, rajas, corn, and potato.

Elote

In Mexico corn on the cob is served on a stick and smothered with crema, chile powder, lime, and cheese.

Tortilla soup

Tortilla soup

Tortilla soup, made at CoCos cooking class, Playa del Carmen

Tomato soup is poured over fried tortilla strips and garnished with an array of toppings: panela cheese, avocado, cilantro, fried chiles, onion, and crema.

Chile Relleno

Chile relleno

Chile relleno

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.

Enchiladas

Panela enchiladas with mole sauce

Panela enchiladas with mole sauce at La Cueva del Chango, Playa del Carmen

These rolled tortillas are usually filled with meat and covered with salsa but we sometimes found them with vegetables or panela cheese.

Enfrijoladas

Enfrijoladas

Enfrijoladas

These are like enchiladas but covered in a bean sauce.

Drinks

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.

Fruit stall at Mercado San Juan

Fruit stall at Mercado San Juan, Mexico City

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 JordanBurmaChiang Mai, ThailandJapanHong KongArgentinaBrazilParaguayBolivia, and Peru.

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52 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. 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.

    Reply

  2. 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!

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  3. -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!

    Reply

  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

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