San Miguel de Allende’s restaurant scene reached critical mass and global acclaim when celebrity chef Enrique Olvera opened Moxi in 2012, which followed hot on the heels of the five-star Rosewood resort, which debuted just around the corner. Olvera is Mexico’s most famous chef. (His flagship in Mexico City is called Pujol.)
His arrival in San Miguel cemented the colonial town’s reputation as having one of the best farm-to-table restaurant scenes in all of Mexico. And that’s great. I’ve been renting a house in San Miguel just about every other year for the past 15 years, and I’ve enjoyed watching the restaurant scene blossom.
But one of the main reasons I come to San Miguel is for the street food. This is one of the safest places in Mexico to enjoy clean, delicious street food: tacos, corn, tortas, birria, hand-churned ice cream and churros.
So, you could (and probably should) visit Olvera’s Moxi or Rosewood’s 1886, but you definitely don’t want to miss the local street food, which will never cost more than a few bucks for an entire meal or a few pesos for a quick snack. Here are some of my favorite old haunts in and around the historic core known as Centro Historico.
Carnitas, chicken and coffee
The first thing I do whenever I get to town is stock the fridge and pantry, which always involves a pile of carnitas, a couple of chickens and a kilo of coffee. Go to Carnitas Hernandez on the corner of Puente Guanajuato and Umaran. Get there early to nab the best pork. While you’re there, pick up some chicharrónes (fried pig skin). Just across the river from here, on Guadalupe Street, is Pollo Feliz, the busiest mesquite-grilled chicken stand in San Miguel. Be prepared to wait extra-long on Wednesdays, when they give you an extra half chicken with every whole bird.
Next stop is La Ventana for coffee. Their beans come directly from Chiapas and are roasted locally. Look for the walk-up window on Diez de Sollano, half a block from the central Jardin (the downtown square; they call it jardin, not zocolo here).
Tacos al pastor
The vendor in El Centro with the best tacos al pastor has forever set up shop at the corner of Mesones and Pepe Llanos, directly behind the huge Church of Jesus of Nazareth. Like clockwork, as soon as the sun goes down, this place pops up. Spicy marinated pork is skewered onto a large vertical rotisserie, then sliced to order from the spit and served with pineapple and grilled onions. In years past, they used to have a few stools, but the stools encouraged people to linger too long, so now it’s standing-room only in the middle of the street. And as good as these tacos are, they are not technically the town’s best.
Those can be found on Taco Highway, or Calzada de la Estacion, which is the road to the bus station and the way towards Leon. It’s almost a mile from Centro, but it’s a breeze if you’ve rented a car or ATV. From the jardin in Centro, take Calle de Canal down the hill and across the river and keep going. Calle de Canal becomes Calzada de la Estacion, where you’ll soon see a quarter-mile stretch that is filled with taquerias, all peddling pretty much the same thing. One spot is always slightly busier than the others: It’s called Taqueria Gonzalez, and it is located a couple doors down from the bus station, adjacent to a mechanics garage. These are hands-down the best tacos al pastor in San Miguel. They actually offer table service inside the bare cinderblock garage and under a makeshift canvas tent.
Tacos de carne asada
The corner of Ancha de San Antonio (the old highway that runs through Centro) and Nemesio Diez (also called Paseo del Parque, the street that leads from the highway to Benito Juarez Park) has long been known to locals as Taco Corner. Various vendors park their mobile kitchens here throughout the day. In the mornings, the corner also welcomes flower vendors selling freshly cut lilies, daffodils, sunflowers and carnations. Food sellers come and go throughout the day, and in the heat of afternoon the corner often goes quiet. But come nightfall, a taco vendor known as El Deudas almost always shows up. You can smell the sizzling carne asada and beef tongue from a block away.
Hand-churned ice cream
It hasn’t always been the case, but these days there’s an ice cream vendor on every corner. Many of them are good, but my favorite, and one of the oldest, is located on Calle Insurgentes, where Insurgentes becomes Pepe Llanos, one block northwest of the big Jesus of Nazareth Church. The ice cream is hand-churned every day. Except for the most basic flavors like vanilla, chocolate or strawberry, the selection changes constantly to include surprises like tuna (the sweet red fruit of prickly pear cactus), tamarind, goat-milk caramel, or even tequila.
Charcoal grilled corn
You’ll see corn venders everywhere. Around the jardin, they sell the typical boiled corn that’s dusted with cheese and chili powder. Skip that. Walk a few blocks southwest to the corner of Pila de Seca (also known as Cuadrante) and Zacateros (also known as Ancha de San Antonio). Here you will always find the same old woman sitting on the curb, fanning a charcoal grill, which is always loaded with corn, which slowly morphs from yellow to black it cooks. It doesn’t need cheese or chili powder. It’s perfect just the way it is.
Ignacio Ramirez Mercado
In the northeastern fringe of Centro, adjacent to the arts and crafts fair, is the city’s oldest greenmarket, Ignacio Ramirez Mercado, where locals come to buy produce from local farmers, meat from local butchers, and freshly pressed tortillas. Deep inside this bazar, toward the back, you’ll find a collection of food stalls, each with only a handful of seats. Two in particular stand out: Los Farolitos, which makes wonderful milanese tortas, and Fonda Doña Reyes (which encompasses the adjacent Birriaria 71) where Mrs. Reyes serves incredible roasted goat and chicken soup. Ask her to show you her secret salsas. On your way out, notice the churros vendors on the sidewalk. These churros cost pennies apiece, and they’re almost as good as the $2 churros served at the famed San Augustin cafe down the street.
Even more tortas
One block from the mercado, across the street from Jesus of Nazareth, is a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop called Tortitlan. They run a couple of other locations but this is the newest branch. They make three dozen different Mexican sandwiches, and it’s difficult to discern the differences among many of them. I prefer the cemitas poblano with fried beef and string cheese.
If, after all that, you still have time for a fancy restaurant, consider Enrique Olvera’s Moxi. You’ll feel like you’re a million miles away from the streets.
San Miguel de Allende is located in the mountainous Bajio region of Guanajuato state, north of Mexico City. Direct flights from LAX to Leon start around $350. Flights from John Wayne connect through Mexico City to either Leon or Querétaro for roughly the same price. From either of those airports, the drive is about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Many people prefer to fly to Mexico City and catch the new first-class ETN bus, which is nicer than most planes and leaves every couple of hours for San Miguel directly from the airport; the bus ride takes about 3 1/2 hours, with onboard wifi and personal entertainment systems at each seat; ETN costs about $60 roundtrip, reservations highly recommended.
A great local driver and expert guide is Martin Juarez. For airport transfers, he charges $80 USD for a sedan, or $125 for SUV, each way. Email him directly at email@example.com. Otherwise, anywhere within the city limits of San Miguel, local taxis are a flat rate of 35 pesos.
Brad A. Johnson’s street-food guide to San Miguel de Allende
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.