Pupusas with Cheese and Beans at Pupusas y Tamales Mama Lula
In a sea of Mexican stands, this El Salvadorian one is definitely worth the stop. The griddled pupusas ($4 for two) are thick and puffy, but only really come to life when stuffed with a filling. I loved how the beans and cheese added to the creamy texture. To balance things out, don't forget the vinegary cabbage, which lends a crunchy texture to each bite. Watch out for the hot sauce—it's fierce.
Chicken Tamales with Salsa Rojo at Tamales Oaxaqueños
These I already knew about. Instead of rolled up in corn husks, the hefty Oaxacan-style tamales come wrapped up in banana leaves. I included the spicier green sauce filled version in my tamale roundup, but I'm also smitten with the chicken tamale with salsa rojo ($3.00), which doesn't smack you over the head with spice, and instead lures you in with a gentle heat. Thanks to the tender chicken, this is straight up comfort food.
Flor de Calabaza Quesadilla at Taqueria la Flor de Mexico
Most of the tortillas at the market are made from scratch, and the big, fluffy ones at Taqueria la Flor de Mexico are no exception. They taste great on their own, but add some nice, gooey cheese, and the quesadilla ($3.50) is already off to a great start. But I was really won over by the flor de calabaza filling. The squash blossoms are served in a mild chile sauce, which adds some complexity, but doesn't get in the way of the freshness of the vegetable.
Huitlacoche Quesadilla at Rubi's
Huitlacoche is nothing more than a fungus that grows on corn, but if treated carefully, it can be coaxed into a pleasingly funky filling. Rubi's should teach classes on how to do this right, because the huitlacoche is salty and pungent, making it the perfect filling to stand up to the cheese in the stand's quesadilla ($3.50).
Enchiladas Verdes (Con Carne) at Manolo's
It seems like a crime to visit Manolo's and not get some al pastor (cooked on a charcoal-fired spit!) but numerous other items are worth your attention. At first glance, the enchiladas verdes (con carne) ($6.00) look like a sloppy pile of nachos, but the base is actually made of four fluffy handmade tortillas that have been rolled up and dipped into a green chile sauce. Piled on top is lettuce, tomato, crema, cheese, and a nice handful of carne asada, which is extra caramelized and crunchy. Not exactly the easiest thing to eat, but it rewards getting your hands dirty.
Barbacoa Huarache at Arroyos Tacos
There are all kinds of appealing fillings at Arroyo's, but I'm having a hard time imagining any of them could be better than the barbacoa. The steamed meat is rich, laced with a chili liquid, and yet the beef flavor still is paramount. Chipotle dreams it served a version this good. Honestly, I'd be happy if someone just gave me a fork and heaped some of the meat on a plate, but it goes especially well on top of a huarache ($3.50). I tried to think of something really profound when I first tasted this, but all that came out was "hell yeah." That about sums it up.
Elote at Birrieria Calvillo
When you order elote ($2.00) at Birrieria Calvillo, a steaming ear of corn is brought out, ready for whatever you desire. Want it impaled on a stick, slathered in mayonnaise, and sprinkled with cheese? That can be done. Personally, I'm a fan of what is called esquite (though they call all the preparations elote), where the kernels are cut off and tossed in a cup along with mayonnaise, cheese, hot sauce, and lime. Take a fork and then mix it all up for the perfect bite.
Consome de Birria at Tacos D.F.
Though a steaming cup of goat broth doesn't immediately sound like a great thing on a blisteringly hot day, the consome de birria ($2.50) at Tacos D.F. is too good to pass up. Served in a big styrofoam cup, the broth is thick, unctuous, and extra salty—almost too salty. Lurking below are shards of tender shredded goat and maybe a vegetable or two. Each sip has surprising roasted and spicy base, beguiling you to keep tasting to figure it out.
Pambazo with Chorizo and Potatoes at The Green House
On its menu, The Green House claims to have torta ahogadas, but when I asked for one, I was told instead that I could only get a Pambazo ($5.00). Luckily, the process is still the same: bread is soaked to its core in a red chile sauce, before being split open and stuffed with whatever you'd like. I didn't try all the fillings, but I did love the chorizo and potato, which featured a mild version of the sausage with skin-on spuds. Topped with all manner of things, the sandwich is an absolute mess, so be sure to gather up as many napkins as you can find.
Churros at Xoco-Churro
Unlike that other place with Xoco in its name, the churros from Xoco-Churro are thick and long (though not quite as epic as the ones you'll occasionally find at Mexican grocery stores). Luckily, they are the same where it counts the most: each has a crisp exterior, which shatters as you bite in. The chocolate churro ($1.25) is fine, but the plain ($1.25) version is better.
Mango Nieve at Nieves Bange's
As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed a bunch of adults walking around with what looked like cups of ice cream with red hot sauce drizzled on top. Turns out, I wasn't far off. At Nieves Bange's you can get "nieve," a Oaxacan specialty that is sort of like sorbet. The mango nieve ($1.50 for a small) has a refreshing mango base, with a texture that is a little too grainy at first, but as it warms—and it undoubtedly will if you go on a 90 degree day—it develops a smoother profile. It's fine, but everyone in line takes a ahold of the large bottle of hot sauce a drizzles some on top. This perks up all the flavors, making for a treat that is cold and spicy, sweet and aggressive. It's not a bad way to end any visit to the Maxwell Street Market.